Exercise: On Foucault


Read the article ‘On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography’ by David Green (The Camera Work Essays, 2005, pp.119–31).

Summarise the key points made by the author in your learning log.


Green attempts, not entirely successfully, to summarise Foucault’s main theories of disciplinary power and photography. Foucault’s writing is famously difficult to comprehend and Green’s paraphrasing won’t win any Plain English awards either.

I was a little disappointed to see how little of it was related to photography, and how little these ideas were developed – at least in the Green summary even if not in the Foucault original works.

Main points

  • Knowledge = power
  • Power isn’t inherently a negative force in society since it produces knowledge
  • Discipline is a key feature of societal power…
  • … and surveillance is a key feature of disciplinary power (per Bentham’s Panopticon)
    • “The specific techniques of surveillance, documentation and administration of individuals which are constitutive of the forms of disciplinary power are the product of those new ‘rationalities’, those new kinds of knowledge about ‘man’, the human and social sciences” (Green 2005: 124)
  • What Foucault calls the “carceral network” – schools, factories, hospitals, prisons etc – support the “normalising power” in modern society
  • “This power is realised only by the subjection of the body as the object of knowledge, and the function of this power lies in its ability to extract knowledge, not pain, from the body” (ibid: 126)
    • Meaning (I think) that gaining knowledge of a person’s body is a form of subjugation
  • Enter photography: its importance in this power/knowledge/body relationship is its reputation as “a form of empirical truth or evidence of the real” (ibid: 128)
    • Its ability to enable close examination and comparison in a uni-directional gaze becomes part of the “mechanisms of surveillance”, especially in fields such as criminology, medicine, anthropology and eugenics
  • A major criticism of Foucault’s work is the implication that this mode of power is irresistible
    • Green posits that “it is necessary to develop alternative ways of working with photography, and to develop different photographic forms and devices suitable to the varied contexts in which the photograph is placed and used” (ibid: 129)
    • … but provides no suggestions on how this can be done

My thoughts

I found this quite hard to follow. I understood the individual points made, but failed to discern a coherent greater meaning of the essay as a whole. Some of Foucault’s theories can be applied to some kinds of documentary photography (i.e. that which is predicated on unapproved surveillance), but I’m struggling to find broad application of many of the concepts raised here.

But it did provoke further thought…

One interesting aspect that does have broad application (and that the course notes highlights) is the point that the ‘gaze’ is uni-directional; the power structure inherent in photography is that while one person is gazing upon another in the moment of capture, multiple viewers can subsequently gaze upon the subject in isolation, with no right to reply or return the gaze by the subject. There’s a kind of a parallel with the notion that some primitive tribes allegedly believe that the camera steals one’s soul; it may not steal your soul, but it does confer a power advantage on the viewer once the photo has been taken.

14264173_10154547159768799_5509763190230511897_nSurveillance is an interesting subject in modern society: on the one hand, there are more CCTV cameras than ever before and unapproved surveillance is decried as a threat to privacy – on the other hand, there’s a widespread culture of voluntary ‘self-surveillance’ with the internet and social media. I recently read George Orwell’s 1984 and it only predicted the first half of this phenomena. Or, as Keith Lowell Jensen put it:

“What Orwell failed to predict is that we’d buy the cameras ourselves, and that our biggest fear would be that nobody is watching”

Is this crowd-approved mass surveillance an example of the “different photographic forms and devices” that Green proposed? Maybe.

Another tangental thought inspired by the essay but not overtly mentioned, this time in relation to the politics of the body in disciplinary power: in today’s highly consumerist society (… of the Spectacle, per Debord) there are innumerable instances of people voluntarily conforming to norms of the body promoted not by a legitimate authority knowingly wielding disciplinary power, but rather by media imagery combined with peer pressure: “Are you beach body ready?”

And there’s a celebrity variation of this unwritten body-disciplining, when we the public simultaneously revere famous people for being paragons of physical perfection, and enjoy the schadenfreude of seeing them looking imperfect in unapproved paparazzi shots. The power of the photographer can be harnessed for either the promotion or the demolition of a public figure. This loops back to the power of the uni-directional gaze.

My final thought on this is that it doesn’t talk much about the intent of the photographer, beyond suggesting which kinds of photography are most likely to exert the disciplinary power being discussed (criminology, medicine, anthropology and eugenics).

Is taking photographs of other people inherently unethical and or an exertion of power? Doesn’t it depend on why you are taking the photographs? There’s a kind of documentary photography that is actually intended to give or return power to the subjects, to give them a voice. This doesn’t fit so well with Foucault’s theories.


On Foucault https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/onfoucault.pdf (accessed 19/09/2016)


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