Citizenship has emerged as a key analytical tool in photography theory over the last five years as a way to assert the critical and political potential of images, allowing scholars to examine how subjects and spectators use images as tools of civic engagement and political action. Theorists such as Ariella Azoulay, Maurice Berger, Thomas Keenan, and Sharon Sliwinski imagine citizenship as a set of cultural practices that extend beyond legal categories and national identities, framing it as a profoundly social and relational category of belonging that requires not only the production and dissemination of images, but the work of spectators in recognizing the subjects of these images as citizens.

This shift to thinking about what Azoulay has termed “the civil language of photography” is refreshingly optimistic in its assumptions about the capacities of the spectator, and has managed to disentangle photography from some of the totalizing theories that characterized Anglo-American photography criticism of the 1970s and ’80s, where images were always already instruments of state control and governmentality. By taking the citizen as one of its objects of study, this theoretical shift has also allowed the noncitizens created by state power to come into focus, drawing our attention to representations of immigrants, refugees, internally displaced peoples, and the “stateless,” as well as the ways that “weak” citizens—women, children, queer and trans-identified subjects, indigenous peoples, the disabled—are pictured and elided in the national and global imaginary.

But what does it mean to claim photographic practices as practices of citizenship in a postcolonial moment? How do we reconcile the powerful role that photography has played in the consolidation and visualization of race with its civic potential? This program aims to elaborate the complex histories of subjectification and desubjectification that photography and filmmaking have participated in, engaging recent debates about spectatorship, race, and citizenship but grounding these terms in their historical conjunction with colonialism. Echoing Lisa Lowe’s call to examine the “intimacies of four continents” produced by modern colonialism, the speakers in this program trace the circulation of images, texts, and bodies across national borders that has (sometimes forcibly) shaped diasporic communities, but also consider how the witnessing of these movements has made possible contemporary ideas of humanism, transnational citizenship, and freedom. In doing so, they also attend to those moments when spectators and bystanders have deployed the languages of photography and citizenship to perform alliances with state power and whiteness, in ways that underscore the tenuous and double-edged promises of these modes of belonging. My aim in bringing these discussions together is not to disqualify or dismantle the liberatory promises of visual citizenship, but to point to the ways that specific images—and bodies—enter and destabilize the social scene of citizenship: an effect, the poet Claudia Rankine notes, that the black body in particular enacts.

The program opens with a short interview with Azoulay, in which she offers a definition of visual citizenship as a profoundly spectatorial practice that calls on the viewer to reckon with the suffering subject of the image: a call not founded in a humanist appeal to sympathy, but in an ethical duty to refuse to be a perpetrator and a political obligation to change the logic of a regime that separates citizen from noncitizen, and that rules spectator, subject, and photographer alike. In the videos that follow, speakers including Homi K. Bhabha and Claudia Rankine, Sukanya Banerjee, Tina Campt, Richard Mosse, Joshua Oppenheimer, and David Levine meditate on how visual representations, from the vernacular to the cinematic, offer opportunities for ethical encounters with would-be citizens, and consider the roles that intimacy, (over)identification, and failure play in engendering these exchanges. What emerges from these various attempts at imaging citizenship through and against racial difference is a reminder of the limits of visual representation in securing political recognition, alongside a fervent desire for images to open up a space for what Fred Moten describes (rearticulated here through the work of Tina Campt) as a refusal to be subject to a law that refuses to recognize you.

Gabrielle Moser

Gabrielle Moser is a writer, educator and independent curator based in Toronto. Her writing appears in venues including, Canadian Art, Journal of Visual Culture, Photography & Culture, and Prefix Photo, and she has curated exhibitions for Access Gallery, The Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery at the University of British Columbia, and Oakville Galleries. She holds a PhD from the art history and visual culture program at York University in Toronto, Canada and is an Assistant Professor in art history at OCAD University.


Preview image: Deanna Bowen, The Promised Land, 2019. 16mm transferred to video, black and white, 28 minutes. Originally from The Promised Land from Heritage, CBC Broadcasting Corporation, 1962.

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