Citizens of Photography

Royal Anthropological Institute, 50 Fitzroy St., London W1T 5BT June – October 2022


Photography exhibition at the Royal Anthropological Institute, 50 Fitzroy Street, London W1T 5BT

‘Citizens of Photography’ engages photographs as political actors and complex agents of change. It approaches images not just as records of what has already happened but as symptoms of what might be yet to come. Researchers funded by an ERC Advanced Grant undertook fieldwork in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Greece, India, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Focusing on the relationship between the camera and the political imagination the research illuminates questions relating to the epidemiology of images, their ‘demotic’ rather than ‘vernacular’ identity, their role in instituting revolutionary newness (and conversely in inscribing the repetition of established archetypes), and, finally, the nature of the ‘photographic event’ and the rather different temporal shape of the ‘event of photography’. ‘Citizens of Photography’ asks what it is that is normally unseen, yet see-able in photography? It also aspires to encourage further ethnographic investigations of what remains the central means through which humans represent their aspirations to themselves and to others.

‘Citizens of Photography’ has been provoked by recent work by photographic theorists, including Ariella Azoulay (Azoulay 2008). She has argued that photography makes possible a new form of ‘civil imagination’ and offers a subjunctive form of citizenship, because of its inclusiveness and contingency. Azoulay develops her argument in the context of historical images and also in relation to contemporary photojournalism. ‘Citizens of Photography’ starts with her insights and seeks to explore them at a local level in relation to ‘vernacular’ or ‘demotic’ photography. One central aim of the project concerns the relationship between ‘representation’ through everyday images and ‘representation’ through politics.

The images presented here reveal that the camera is largely un-colonized by the state. The Foucauldian/Taggian perspective, which claimed that it was, and has weighed so heavily on the theory of photography, fails to explain the diversity of photography in actually existing practices (Tagg 1988). However, whereas the standard anthropological reflex anticipates an endless diversity of appropriation, driven by the creativity of human subjects, this collection highlights a set of recurring tropes and architectures that point to photography’s ambivalently determining presence. Difference does not necessarily fragment a practice: it may indeed reveal a complex and constraining ‘tensility’. Hence, across regional practices, we can see echoes and commonalities: the recurrent concern with the contingency of the photographic event, the camera’s predisposition to imagine futures rather than simply memorialize the past (Strassler 2010:108), and the fusion of performance and the real; in short, the complex dance of opposites that testifies to the ‘disturbance’ (Barthes 1981:12) that photography brings to human life.

Mahakali Digital Photo Studio

A family of pilgrims pose in the Mahakali Digital Photo Studio at Dakshinkali, Nepal (Video screenshot by Christopher Pinney, 2018).

Presented here are images arising from research by Vindhya Buthpitiya in northern Sri Lanka, Naluwembe Binaisa in Nigeria, Konstantinos Kalantzis in Greece, Christopher Pinney, in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, Ileana L. Selejan in Nicaragua, Danial Shah in Pakistan, and Sokphea Young in Cambodia.

The research was made possible by the European Research Council Advanced Grant no. 695283.

A PDF of the exhibition brochure can be downloaded here.

Viewing of the exhibition is by appointment only. Please contact us on to book.