The Gradual Contemporary: Conversations on Contemporary Art

The Imperial Origins of Photography



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Imagine that the origin of photography goes back to 1492. What could this mean? In this lecture, Ariella Azoulay will depart from the common theories and histories that present photography as a sui-generis practice and locate its moment of emergence in the midst 19th century around technological development and male inventors. Instead she would rather propose to locate the origins of photography in the “new world,” at the earlier phases of European colonialism and study photographs alongside early accounts of imperial expeditions. Obviously there are no photos from the mass destruction of the late 15th century, but viewing later images of destruction in the context of early expeditions, unravel the premises of what is called documentary and its role in minimizing the scale of the enterprise of destruction. Photography was institutionalized as a visual and communicative practice in a world that had already been colonized and enabled the reproduction of imperial divisions and imperial rights. It nailed down in images what Azoulay conceives as the right to destroy, to accumulate, to appropriate, to differentiate, to record what has been destroyed or appropriated, to study, rescue, salvage, and exhibit it. Interpreting these imperial rights as constitutive of the practice of the documentary, is key in understanding the power accumulated in the hands of image banks and corporations such as Getty or FB.

Ariella Azoulay is Professor of Comparative Literature and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University and author of Aïm Deüelle Lüski and Horizontal Photography (Leuven University Press and Cornell University Press, 2013), From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950 (Pluto Press, 2011), Civil Imagination: The Political Ontology of Photography (Verso, 2012) and The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008), co-authored with Adi Ophir, The One State Condition: Occupation and Democracy between the Sea and the River (Stanford University Press, 2012).


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Rhode Island School of Design




Art and Design | Contemporary Art

The Imperial Origins of Photography