Read the article ‘On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography’ by David Green (The Camera Works Essays , 2015 , pp.119-31) . Core resources: OnFoucault.pdf

Summarise the key points made by the author.

David Green’s essay summarises the fundamental elements of French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault’s work and their relevance to photography.

Green identifies two “interconnecting themes” in Foucault’s theories (OnFoulcault p.g 1)

1.The establishment of certain forms of logic which ” posit ‘man’ as both the subject and object of knowledge” ( OnFoulcault p.g 2 )

2.The complex relations that bond power and knowledge.
“Power must also be recognised in its positive forms when it enables the production of knowledge” (OnFoucault p.g 2)

The growth of new and innovative technology, of which photography was one, led to the ’emergence of new institutions and new practices of of observation and record keeping” ( Tagg , p.g 5) . It was no longer necessary to gain power through arbitrary violence , it could be obtained by more premeditated and sophisticated methods . Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon , a circular prison developed in 1786 , had cells arranged so prisoners could be observed at all times. It was structurally designed so an observer can see the occupants without being observed himself , however “with the development of photography , his utopian structure was to become redundant.” ( Tagg , p.g 87)

Surveillance itself is a form of power. Institutions , prisons , hospitals , schools , factories etc all normalise power. Using photography the body can be observed and classified and Foucault states “the body is directly involved in a political field” ( OnFoucault p.g 4 ) i.e through the use of torture . But ” the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjugated body” (OnFoucault p.g 4 ), hence “whenever the photographer prepared an exposure , in police cell , prison, consultation room , asylum , Home or school. Foucault’s metaphor for the new social order which was inscribed in these smallest exchanges is that of the Panopticon” (Tagg , p.g 85) . Photography was perceived as being objective but ” clearly involved here was not the discovery of pre-existing truths which the camera so meticulously revealed but the construction of new kinds of knowledge about the individual in terms of visible physiological features by which it is possible to measure and compare each individual to another” (OnFoucault p.g 6)

Foucault’s theory established a link between knowledge and power, with man as both subject and object. Due to the technological advances of the 20th and 21st century we live in an age where we are constantly surveyed and gazed upon , but also gaze and survey back too. New knowledge has led to the emergence of CCTV , GPS , Google Earth / Maps , mobile camera phones , more sophisticated photography techniques and equipment . Whilst this new knowledge and the resulting power gained might be considered to be beneficial it is not always so. The power of photography can be used to evoke both a positive or negative reaction , ethically the role of the documentary photographer is to avoid exploiting their subject.

References / Bibliography

Tagg , J. ( 1988) The Burden of Representation Essays on Photographies and Histories. Macmillan Press Ltd , Great Britain.

‘On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography’ by David Green (The Camera Works Essays , 2015 , pp.119-31) . Core resources: OnFoucault.pdf


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