A Process of Documentation

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism

Verso, 656pp, £30.00, ISBN 9781788735711

reviewed by Louis Rogers

Towards the end of JM Coetzee’s novel Age of Iron (1990), Mrs Curren, an elderly white South African professor, becomes newly aware of the stacks of old photographs filling her home. Studying a family photo taken in the garden, she wonders:

‘Who are the ghosts and who are the presences? Who, outside the picture, leaning on their rakes, leaning on their spades, waiting to get back to work, lean also against the edge of the rectangle, bursting it in?’

Photographs are used in everyday and legal contexts to prove positive veracities – these people were once here in this garden – but Mrs Curren finds the picture’s significance is unreliable, if not entirely volatile. A photo that’s been ‘of’ her family for 60 years becomes a photo ‘of’ a garden rife with thorny moral and political questions, even a photo ‘of’ the people whom it implicitly excludes.

I thought of Mrs Curren as I read cultural theorist Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s new tome Potential History, at the centre of which is similarly destabilising experience of photography. Like Coetzee, Azoulay is an uncompromising critic of imperialism, preoccupied by its physical and documentary manifestations. If Coetzee’s novels imply documentation’s crucial role in imperialism, Azoulay brings this relationship into the open, subjecting it to the forensic illumination of an archivist’s lightbox. This new book builds on her previous work, The Civil Contract of Photography (2008), and offers revitalising approaches to imperialism and to photography as a cultural phenomenon, grounded in the re-cognition of the figures ‘leaning against the edge’ of photographs.

Azoulay demonstrates that neither imperialism nor photography are comprehensible without the other. Their simultaneous proliferations in the 19th century were profoundly intertwined: authorities photographed people to record them as natives, compliant or rebellious, while places were photographed to usher them under the jurisdiction of imperial power. As a result, imperialism – whose wide-ranging examples here include European colonialism, Israel’s establishment in Palestine, and the Marshall Plan’s postwar consensus – is distinguished as a profusely documented phenomenon, in fact as above all a process of documentation. Azoulay describes how imperialism’s categorisations function by assuming the status of self-evident truth (and also create the precarious category of the ‘undocumented’ person). Images, maps, and spreadsheets affirm imperialism’s ground in material realism; so too do plundered ‘native’ items reconfigured in museum spaces as craft or folk art. Azoulay calls this documentary operation an imperial ‘shutter’, using the camera shutter as a synecdoche for the instantaneous act of consecrating one narrative and implicitly making all others untenable.

In spite of this, Azoulay uncovers an insurgent potential in documents. She urges us to consider their accidental details and implicit, essential absences, like those discovered by Mrs Curren. In one passage, Azoulay scrutinises an unspectacular image of a destroyed house in postwar Berlin with reference to testimonies of the widespread rape of German women by allied forces. She perceives an image of the type of house in which women would have hidden, using basements and upper floors to evade drunken soldiers; it becomes an image ‘of’ what is conventionally referred to as an ‘undocumented’ occurrence. Azoulay is particularly good at these close-reading interpretations, which directly enact her contentions about documents’ potential, dependent on the materiality of photographs – their physical existence. Images are analysed as things taken, developed, circulated, written on, cut and folded, archived or suppressed. Azoulay refutes simplistic and manipulative perspectives employed by imperial powers ‘that reduce photography to its products, its products to their visuality’. Instead, she submits that ‘photographs should be studied in connection to what the shutter sought to keep disconnected from what we are invited to see.’ John Berger articulated a photograph’s message as ‘The degree to which I believe this is worth looking at can be judged by all that I am willingly not showing because it is contained within’; Azoulay’s injunction could read as a variation on Berger’s, sharpened by its particular political focus.

Because an imperial photograph registers the operation of the ‘shutter’, it fossilises in a kind of ambivalent amber the world preceding the shutter. If ‘photography . . . proves the constructed nature of imperial politics’, it follows that, as in the images of postwar Berlin, photography also permits their deconstruction: the conditions, intentions, and infrastructures of an image’s taking are made available for investigation. This is what the book theorises as ‘potentializing’: using the encoded facts of an image’s production to access and revive the non-imperial world it aimed to foreclose.

Potential History’s argument is built from multiple vantage points – theoretical, contextual, experimental-anecdotal – over 600 pages. There is room for detailed consideration of examples across time, space, and media. Zine-like mini-chapters ‘imagine’ archivists, photographers, and citizens going on strike to withdraw from their ‘expected work of re-inscribing differential governance’. The book’s formal diversity is in the cause of substantiating its repeated injunction to ‘imagine’ histories and futures unconfined by imperialism. This is proposed not as a mere thought experiment but as a way of re-conceiving the world and citizenship away from imperialism’s inevitability. In this respect, Azoulay’s argument recalls Mark Fisher’s notion of ‘capitalist realism’: she is at pains to describe both the difficulty and necessity of imagining something else. The book’s subtitle, Unlearning Imperialism, is indicative of its counteractive propositions: deconstructing imperialism’s ‘conceptual origins’ by revisiting and reinterpreting extant archives, and going on strike as an archivist or photographer. These acts of withdrawal intend to refuse the expansive, so-called ‘progressive’ ideals that fuel imperialism. As a result, Azoulay’s calls to ‘imagine’ and ‘potentialise’ remain, for the most part, deliberately unfleshed-out.

This makes the question of practice the book’s most intriguing and, ultimately, open-ended aspect. Within its broadly revisionist project, the regularly invoked notion of ‘homo faber’ – ‘the idea that humans establish their world through the activity of making’ – asserts a dissonant presence. Azoulay has given us an exciting vision of the power – the potential – of documents, as expansive rather than reductive tools for thinking, creating, and cultivating citizenship. Aside from withdrawing from documentary activity, as the strike sections propose, Potential History leaves open the question of what an ethical documentary practice, informed by its own lucid arguments, might look like. After all, documentation takes place at the vernacular as well as the dominant level; photography, for a start, is increasingly exercised in countless localised iterations, accountable not to power but to individuals, families, and communities. Appropriately enough, Potential History’s lasting impression is of resonating possibility beyond its own compendious achievements: a galvanising call to make the world rather than withdraw from it.


Louis Rogers is a writer based in London, working on and with photography.