Statement of originality

This thesis is my own work. All sources used, quoted, summarized and otherwise referred to within are fully credited and cited. 

Aleksandra Artamonovskaja


Social Change:

The Power of Photography in International Relations


The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph by Aleksandra Artamonovskaja

The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph by Aleksandra Artamonovskaja



Modernity chases magic from the world. It is a project of disenchantment or demythification which rigorously reduces the world to its appearance, its visible surface; it reduces both the knowable and the existent world to the observable properties ... we can only know what we can see
— D. Slater, Photography and Modern Vision,1995, p.220

           As cultures and peoples progress – driven by media proliferation, globalization, and urbanization – they abandon the oral histories and myths of their ancestors.  These societal trappings are replaced with modernity and its corresponding emphasis on the empirical, observable and measurable. The path to modernity requires materialistic evidence, an expectation of the factual that determines our reality. And the birth of Photography in mid-nineteenth century has been attributed as one of the core modern tools of representing reality – and accelerating modernity. Photography offers a more realistic, unambiguous visualization of environment than possible before, and in Slater’s view, is the “epitome of positivist representation” and should take its place “within a project of total disenchantment” (Slater 1995, p. 223). In this statement, Slater is arguing that any traces of bias are eliminated and proposes that the process of photographing is a neutral practice. Further, Slater suggests that the image produced will disillusion the viewer by eliminated any additional meaning or interpretation from the image. This meaning and interpretation, while present in other artistic mediums, has been stripped from the realistic photographic image. Slater’s view is incomplete: he does not fully express the nature of photographic practice.

In the increasingly dynamic and interconnected world, visual image has gained greater prominence, importance and ubiquity.  The centrality of the photographic image in modern consciousness has been driven through an intersection of technologies including the rapid and effective distribution of information, found in online media, press and advertising. This heightened capacity and prominence for visual medium, whether objective or misleading, also enables a form of social conditioning. The high level of exposure corresponds with increased power and influence.

Sociologists, psychologies and political sciences – those thinkers who consider the impacts of interconnection and inner-reflection – during the last century have been advancing theories and questions on the meaning and impact of photography – at a personal, societal and cultural level. The level of power each photograph carries would vary on the environment and psychological connection of the audience, as Sontag puts it “Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one – and can help build a nascent one.”(2005; p.13). This statement implies that part of an image’s ability to make a strong impact would be contextual.  The impact would depend on the degree to which and the manner in which the situation or object aligns with the current issue.  In this situated view, an object is perceived in its context – rather than simply based on the object’s content.  If the viewer – or greater public - is not prepared for the information or not informed of the situation, the photograph might seem irrelevant or misinterpreted (Sontag, 2005:). Consequently, the interpretation – and thus power - of the photograph depends on the context, environment and audience to determine its meaning and message


Premise: International Relations Theories Can Inform the Study of Photography

           In this thesis, the linkages between photography and study of international relations will be explored through the perspectives of the different forms power can take. In the latter discipline, theorists have developed and discussed a variety and range of power practices that influence and shape people and societies at various levels.  These power practices can be used as a tool of Politics (Bialasiewicz, 2007; Lazzarato, 2006) either implicitly or explicitly depending on one’s acquaintance with their nature. Some influential ideas on the practice of power by Robert Dahl, Bachrach and Baratz have been based on a relationship of one party compelling or forbidding the other to do certain things (Digeser 1992). The idea of Social Conditioning, where many factors interact and intertwine in order to perform power techniques, is relevant to this discussion as well.  The later evolutions of power theories, made by Steven Lukes and Michel Foucault, opened space for a more thorough sociological debate on the workings and consequences of ‘power’ (Digeser 1992). Throughout this work, thorough application of power practices in the International Relations field will be applied to the understanding of photography’s power.  The core of this paper will be to argue that in photography, a wide range of factors can affect the power an image would carry. Taking into account Sontag’s notions of relevant context, other literature also informs of the importance of presentation (Mitchell 1996; Becker 1998), and how various framing and representations of the object are used to deliver specific type of messages (Butler 2007; Harper 2002).  Foucault, elucidates the nature of Power as being ‘omnipresent’, stating, that “Power is everywhere” and “comes from everywhere” (Foucault 1998; p.63). In order to focus this paper’s analysis, the emphasis will be on how the traditional understandings of power, developed in the study of politics and international relations can be used to better understand the socio-political significance of photography.

            The field of international relations holds the notion of power being exercised by some individuals on others and the action undertaken by one party on action of other (Digeser 1992). However, taking into account that photography has also its nature of carrying power, I would make observation on the relationship between the disciplines to observe how power is performed and ways of delivering it. The intention of photographer as well as the actions of the beholder of the photograph may change the way image finds its purpose. Once the beholder has the photographs, various factors come to play to influence the impact of the images and whether the photographer’s intent is actually achieved. Research indicates that relatively minor factors may be consequential: even the arrangement of photographs can alter the impact (Becker 1998). Since images visual power is also constrained by its ability to fit into the political context (Butler 2007; Sontag 2005), an examination on the interdependence between politics and photography is a significant part of this work. The vital question to explore: in what ways can we introduce a connection among theories of power in International Relations into analysis of photography to bring an insight to the images ability of delivering meaning and evoking reaction among its audience?

            In order to address the posed, I will present some of the dominant theoretical frameworks that find their relevance in the context of the research. This will additionally provide space for determining the role of photographs in politics, as well as ways in which the authority comes to being and is challenged or contested. Once these elements are discussed, an investigation into the case of selected photographs from the Vietnam War will examine the manner in which the images are received and perceived. The photographs are well-known images that have been much discussed in terms of their impact and ‘power’. However, they often seem to be discussed in simplistic terms of power that have been superseded in the study of politics and international relations; Therefore I would seek to apply more sophisticated understandings to power to analysis of photography and look at how this may change or deepen understandings of the photographs. In light of this, a discussion upon representation of victims and framing of the images will also become possible, allowing for different interpretations upon the continuity images project; especially the continuity of violence – whether photographs prevent or promote violence in a given example. In total, this examination is seeking to provide grounds for better understanding of the growing importance and purpose that the photographic field is exhibiting, as well as the role of morality and ethics in constituting a political message.


Theoretical Framework: Photographic Power 

           The recent ideas on the development of power relations have been modified from the traditional views. The common belief concerning the ability for one party to force another party in following certain order or restricting the other party from performing certain activity has been contested and evolved. Namely, Digesers article illustrates how Foucault’s new concepts of power relations can be applied (Digeser 1992;). While the earlier theories focused on the outcome of exercising power, the ‘fourth face’, as he names it (Digeser 1992), traces the so-called sources and means through which the practice of power has been introduced into our everyday lives. . From discussion in ‘Meshes of Power (Foucault 1976), Digeser provides Foucauldian concept of Disciplinary power. This form of power is a collection of techniques and mechanisms that allow for imposing a concept of normality, which is being determined by the ones exercising the power (Digeser 1992). The techniques that the Disciplinary power establishes have nature of being totaling as well as individualizing; they take form in various forms including range of institutions such as schools, the military and prisons (Foucault 1976). Similarly Foucault also includes Biopower as a knowledge production machine that imposes norms upon the society; it monitors the society, divides people by the set standards of normality and establishes adequate sexual practices and life expectancies (Digeser 1992).

In Foucault’s exploration, power relations are analyzed through antagonism of strategies. An example of such a strategy can be found in defining the term ‘sanity’: in Foucault’s view, to explore the meaning of ‘sanity,’ we should investigate what ‘insanity’ might mean (Foucault 1982; p.3).Similarly, Digeser sheds light on the theme of knowledge and its relationship with power, exploring further the concepts advanced by Foucault "there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations" (Digeser 1992, p. 986). Elaborating on this, several points can be made; Firstly, for both elements – power and knowledge - to be practiced, each must be present. It is evident in the statement that one cannot exist without the other. Also, Knowledge attainment can lead to the practice of power, as well as its corollary: attainment of power furthers the construction of knowledge. The latter would resemble social conditioning’s effect of imparting of values on an individual. Digeser’s statement speaks to the importance of a relevant context And that by considering the corollary to the statement, one may interpret it as power being present with corresponding set of knowledge, and that the knowledge relation assumes a prior existence of power relations and at same time constitutes them.

However, we cannot presume that those upon which power is exercised will remain passive. In The Subject and Power (1982), Foucault explores notion of resistance: he considers resistance an essential aspect of the practice of power, elaborating that whenever power is exhibited some manner of resistance takes place. He outlines various forms of power practices that elicit opposition, including “privileges of knowledge” and “secrecy, deformation, and mystifying representations imposed on people” (Foucault 1982; p.330). These oppositional struggles align with the three main power categories: domination, exploitation and submission to objectification (Foucault 1982; p.331). Moreover, the resistance can take form of “transversal struggle”(Foucault 1982; p.329) that is multinational and directed against cross-border issues. Commonly referenced examples would be the gay-rights movements or female rights activists. Foucault’s theorem continues that individuals do not require an object of power to resist, but rather a form of power.  As cited in the earlier example, this form of power can be present across layers of society. By tracing the various forms of opposition, one can determine which practice of power is present. The range may vary from minor protests to large-scale revolution, from an artistic expression or other manner of opposition. The resistance to submission, “the struggle against forms of subjection” (Foucault 1982; p. 782), is a form of individual struggle against one’s own identity. Foucault points out that this last form of struggle has become more important and prevalent in recent years; it is directed against the “individualization” made of the people. (Foucault 1982; p. 785). This imposition of values takes its forms in multiple scenarios. To address the visual topic analyzed in this work, we can take into account a paper on imaginative geographies (Bialasiewicz 2007), where an observation is made upon the political strategies focused on reestablishing a traditional worldview. It informs of the “production of ways of seeing the world, which percolate through media” and “popular imaginations” (Bialasiewicz 2007).

Imaginative Geographies: Shaping Our Contexts and Interpretations          

           These imaginative geographies are trying to achieve a creation of crisis and threats in the areas that would be of interest for the United States (US) infiltration and securitization. The paper on imaginative geographies explores similar notions of power to Foucauldian “mystifying representations imposed on people” (Foucault 1982; p.330) or in other words distorted knowledge, in a more real life applied example. Part of the strategy would be to ‘‘designate a world and ‘fill’ it with certain dramas, subjects, histories and dilemmas’’(Bialasiewicz 2007; p. 410). Practices were held by various organizations, including one of the most popular - Project for a New American Century (PNAC), operating since 1997 with goal to “promote American global leadership” (Bialasiewicz 2007; p. 410).By portraying these selected regions with negative associations, US military strategies claim the need to secure peace and establish democracy, which is often also established through armed conflict, for example the war on terror (Bialasiewicz 2007). Terms as ‘War on terror’ and ‘axis of evil”, along with Bush’s claim ‘‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’’ (Bialasiewicz 2007; p.415) can be analyzed as a practice of power through social manipulation. Rather than framing actions as ‘freedom fighters, in this view of the world, they are ‘terrorists.’ And terrorist actions are associated with primarily negative connotations and imagery.

Photographs of violence, victims and suffering are utilized to create image of the evil, whilst ones fighting this evil – even when using destructive weapons and tactics are framed as “peacemakers”. Therefore, the categorizations exclude other options and implement an idea of right and wrong, good and evil. These categorizations divide people and establish borders, “For all disciples, borders determine the nature of group belonging…the way in which the processes of inclusion and exclusion are institutionalized"(Newman; 2006; p.147). Annick Wibben relates this aspect of power to identity, claiming that it “limits who we can become” (Wibben 2009; p. 89). It is important to observe how political power practices can affect many layers of the society where they are being practiced.  Power practices result in separation, knowledge formulation, exclusion, inclusion as well as the setting limits on identity.

Photography, as an element of these practices can be categorized as a tool for making the statements more clear and act as a type of visual aid to make the statement. Taken as a whole, Digeser refers to the strategies that the government uses as means of achieving a desired result.  In these strategies, the government demonstrates “performative infrastructure through which certain ontological effects are established, and through which certain performances are made possible and can be understood” (Bialasiewicz 2007; p.415). In other words, it could be understood that organizations establish a framework in which a values are constructed that determine what comes to be considered as righteous or threatening. In Foucault words, “the production and circulation of elements of meaning can have as their objective or as their consequence certain results in the realm of power” (Foucault 1982; p.217), in this case the set of values are the elements of meaning, and the performance as a whole falls under the realm of power.

Image Context Shapes Meaning  

           Consider visual images as a means for achieving strategic aims and for eliciting general affects and effects, I would like to discuss and elaborate on theory already introduced that explores the nature of photographic practice and image association. This requires a working definition of the discipline: “The photographs are a means of making "real" (or "more real") matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore” (Sontag; 2003; p. 9). Thus, in the portrayal of ‘terrorists’ as a horrifying enemy, or with other scenarios whereby the ‘merely safe’ might have their consciousness affected by reminding them about the reality of the issue. As mentioned earlier, photographs intended to elicit a certain response require an existence of the correct environment, “What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness” (Sontag 2005; p.14). This variable would affect the level of response among the public towards a certain image. The environment can be set out following a framework used earlier (Bialasiewicz 2007); through series of relevant images that would impose a certain type of association with a specific area. If, for example, US has established a political strategy to utilize its troops in the Middle East for security purposes, it might establish the pretext for such actions through political debate by framing the area as a ‘danger zone’. In this example, a photograph of a Muslim with a weapon would come relevant in this context. The image could inform American public of the fact that Middle Eastern people are armed, dangerous and threaten US security and interests. This would quite likely ignite patriotic calls to support foreign intervention and even war.           


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