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Lecture | The 8th Adriaan Gerbrands Lecture

Imperial Rights and the Origins of Photography

  • Prof. dr. Ariella Azoulay
Thursday 22 November 2018
Adriaan Gerbrands Lectures
Nationaal Museum of Ethnology
Steenstraat 1
2300 AE Leiden

Imperial Rights and the Origins of Photography

magine 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 mid 19th century around technological development and male inventors. Instead she proposes to locate the origins of photography in the “new world,” at the earlier phases of European colonial enterprise and study photographs alongside early accounts of imperial expeditions. Obviously there are no photos from the mass destruction of the late 15 th  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 Images or Facebook.


Ariella Azoulay, Professor of Modern Culture and Media and the Department of Comparative Literature, Brown University, film essayist and independent curator of archives and exhibitions Azoulay’s research and forthcoming book (Verso, 2019) focus on potential history of key political concepts-institutions: archive, sovereignty, art and human rights. Potential history, a concept and an approach that she has developed over the last decade, has far-reaching implications for the fields of political theory, archival formations and photography studies. 

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