January 2020

The Moral Economy of Suffering: Citizen Photography as Political Dissent

By positioning themselves as moral actors, these citizen photographers challenge existing power relations.

by Amy Colbert

Images of political protests represent a dramatic, sometimes violent struggle over the right of citizens to occupy the public sphere—an encounter in which protesters put their own bodies in danger to fight for what they believe in.[i] Cell phone images have become increasingly popular in the 21st century as a means of advocating for the marginalized,[ii] whether in instances of racist police violence, ecological activism, feminist solidarity, or numerous other examples. The technology of citizen photography provides emancipative potential and a valuable addition to other actions of resistance, contesting official narratives and stimulating social change.[iii] Though images, and the right to see and be seen, are often a signifier of power and control in our constantly surveilled society,[iv] the use of images by citizen photographers reverses this power relationship: photographs of protests demonstrate that by intentionally becoming the subject of viewing, protestors can claim power for themselves, and thus make persuasive calls for social and political gains.[v]

Lebanese protestor being restrained.
Image from Lebanon Protests.

In this essay I argue that the citizen photographer is a moral actor, who by regulating the visibility of their community’s struggles, produces what Ori Schwartz describes as ‘subjectual visibility.’[vi] Subjectual visibility proposes that: “[the] gaze controls subjects, but is also controlled by them, exerts power on those watched… confers them with power.”[vii] When citizen photographers document protests they inhabit a site of social conflict and drama, and can make a direct impact on local and national power relations of visibility and representation. Schwartz goes on to explain that these relations are “always ‘a performance of the bestowal, exercise and revocation of social power.’”[viii] The citizen photographer is therefore a vital actor who can claim social power for those generally deemed politically marginalized. Below I explore a variety of functions of what Media and Communications Professor Kari Andén-Papadopoulos describes as “citizen camera-witnessing”—“the ritualized employment of the mobile camera as a personal witnessing device to provide a public record of embodied actions of political dissent for the purpose of persuasion.”[ix] Citizen camera witnessing allows for “entirely new performative rituals of bearing witness,”[x] embodied political dissent,[xi] and political solidarity[xii] through the photography of political protests.

In the use of citizen photography to struggle for a moral economy, activists create dramatic images to document, preserve, inspire, attest, and provide evidence of violence and discrimination. An early and potent example of these functions occurred during the American Civil Rights Movement, but advances in social media supporting the rapid and public dissemination of these images have increased the power of marginalized subjects to fight for recognition and assert their subjectivity. Work by the Activestills photography collective, for example, has become vital in documenting the struggle against Israeli occupation and everyday life in extraordinary situations. Their emphasis, like many examples of citizen camera witnessing, is on the enactment of political agency and the demand for rights—to mobility, livelihood, and protection from violence.    

Lebanon anti-government protests 2019. Photo by Ali Hashisho.
Image from Redfish.

I draw examples from the 2019 economic protests in Lebanon and Chile to illustrate the impact of activist photography. In Lebanon, the protests originally triggered by increased taxes on tobacco, fuel, and the messaging application WhatsApp and have grown to include many other social and economic issues. In Chile, increases to metro fares and cost of living sparked the protests and fare evasion tactics. In both these cases, civilian photography was used to document protests and provide proof of the demonstrators’ non-violence, ensure transparency for law enforcement, as well as to elicit positive narratives for change on social media. In the landscape of global protests in 2019, these protests specifically call for the creation of a moral economy, or economic activity that includes moral concepts of equity and justice. A moral economy posits a consensus that all members of a given population hold certain rights, and should have access to certain facilities, such as—in the case of the Chile protests an affordable metro system—that have been swept away by contemporary market forces.[xiii] While citizen photography exists alongside many different kinds of protest, I am specifically interested in how it functions to redefine and oppose economic norms and values.[xiv] As Jacques Rancière would describe, the protestors in Lebanon and Chile are using citizen photography to insist that their needs and opinions, their everyday experiences, count within their own societies.[xv]

The most vital function of citizen photography is, as Paul Frosh explains is as “a performance of the exercise of social power through visibility.”[xvi] Marginalized populations, and the economically disenfranchised, have historically used protests to enter and push their grievances into the public sphere when that sphere is closed to their contributions.[xvii] While those in economic and political power may not attend protests live, documentary photographs place those protests into durational circulation, and make protestors visible to the subjects of their appeal. The citizen photographer attempts, through the act of image making, to assert themselves in order to take back power and make their plight visible to the world. The images produced assist them to enact a form of moral subjectivity—insisting on protestors’ moral rights to be seen and counted and demanding that image viewers recognize economic and social disparity as moral issues and take a stance on the same.

Lebanese Armed Forces among protestors.
Image from Lebanon Protests.

By taking part in citizen photography, protestors avail themselves of the informal power of the visibility economy, in addition to more direct political channels. By framing their demands for a moral economy through the tools of the visibility economy, they can circulate the objects of their desires, solicit empathy from a broader population who recognize those objects as desirable, and thus gain solidarity and support for a moral economy. Citizen photographs, then, also function as a portable visual commodity that marginalized populations can use to break into public discourse and present their testimony.[xviii] When photographs from protests in Lebanon and Chile were circulated on social media, they were accompanied by testimonies of injustice provided in the image comments, comments that were then shared and made visible around the world. Protest-specific Facebook pages, such as Hong Kong Protests, and ProtestForLibya, or the social medial platform Redfish are just a few examples of sources for this kind of visual discourse creation. Through a (mostly) unrestricted international broadcast on social media, specific groups can share their subjective experiences as a crisis situation worthy of global attention, rather than a small-scale local movement that can be swept aside in the broader scheme of national and transnational politics.

Back at the site of a protest, citizen photography serves another function—facilitating protests themselves. As Andén-Papadopoulos summarizes, citizen photographers have “turned their mobile phones into apparatuses of dissent and mobilization: in opposition to state violence,[xix] and in addition to creating solidarity across borders, photographs are also used in real time for recruitment, organization, and documentation of protests as they happen. Advancements in digital and cellular technology have allowed protests across the world to evolve at “disorienting speeds” and photographs can facilitate public participation in protests as they occur, as well as allowing those protests to live beyond their immediate moment. Communications researchers Rich Ling and Birgitte Yttri describe this phenomenon of mobile phone use as “hyper-coordination.” Hyper-coordination can be explained simply as the performance of “social relationships through…group text and mobile photo sharing.”[xx] At the same time, by recording images of oppression and disseminating them through social media, citizen photographers ensure a degree of protection from further oppression, including an immediate, violent suppressive response.

Chilean protestors at the Giuseppe Garibaldi monument in Plaza Italia. Photo by Susana Hidalgo via Redfish

The lower socio-economic barriers to authorship and public speech provided by social media therefore help protestors establish “boundaries of inclusion and exclusion,”[xxi] to communicate these boundaries, and thus “facilitate capital accumulation and/or social coherence”. By creating these new norms and relationships, in contrast to those proposed by the state apparatus, protestors unite in their demands for a moral economy in both the local and the global political spheres.

As the use of cell phone images by the general public increases, citizen photography will continue to provide emancipative potential and work together with other forms of resistance.

By positioning themselves as moral actors, these citizen photographers challenge existing power relations to call for change within the social, political, and economic spheres. By exposing their and their community’s marginality and struggles with governmental policy, the vital acts of these citizens will continue to attain power for the marginalized in their communities and beyond.

Amy Colbert is a graduate student at York University, Toronto. Her research interests lie in political philosophy, visuality, photography and spectatorship, power and violence, languages, as well as theories of morality.

Further Reading

[i] Zarzycka, Marta. 6 Feb 2017. “Joy Trumps Fear?: How Photographs Perpetuate Feelings in Political Dissent.” Los Angeles Review of Books. Accessed 28 November 2019. http://www.blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/joy-trumps-fear-photographs-perpetuate-feelings-political-dissent/. (Zarzycka 2017). Banner image: Lebanese protestor holding a sign that translates to “What do you say?” Image from Lebanon Protests.

[ii] New media offers ‘new political opportunities for protest organizations, activists and their supporters to communicate independently of mainstream news media.’ Greer, Chris and Eugene McLaughlin. 2010. “We Predict a Riot? Public Order Policing, New Media Environments and the Rise of the Citizen Journalist.” British Journal of Criminology 50: 1041-1059.

[iii] Bakardjieva, M. (2005). Internet society. The Internet in everyday life. London, UK: Sage. Bakardjieva, M. (2012). Mundane citizenship: New media and civil society in Bulgaria. Europe-

Asia Studies, 64(8), 1356–1374.

[iv] Similar to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.

[v] (Schwartz 2011, 2)

[vi] (Schwartz 2001, 24)

[vii] (Schwartz 2001, 24)

[viii] (Schwartz 2011, 9-10)

[ix] (Andén-Papadopoulos 2014, 756)

[x] Andén-Papadopoulos, Kari. 2014. “Citizen Camera-witnessing: Embodied Political Dissent in the Age of ‘Mediated Mass Self-Communication’.” New Media & Society 16, no. 5: 753–769. (Andén-Papadopoulos 2014, 753)

[xi] to provide with a body; incarnate; make corporeal.

[xii] Cell phones allow for frequency and flexibility of “communication, producing rituals of constant contact that effect “bounded solidarity” within…groups,” Marler, Will. 2018. “Mobile phones and inequality: Findings, trends, and future directions.” New Media & Society 20, no. 9: 3498-3520. (Marler 3505)

[xiii] Götz, Norbert. 2015. “‘Moral economy’: its conceptual history and analytical prospects.” Journal of Global Ethics 11, no.2 :147-162.

[xiv] Fassin, Didier. 2011. “A Contribution to the Critique of Moral Reason.” Anthropological Theory 11, no. 4: 481–491. (Fassin 2011, 486)

[xv] Rancière. Jacques. 2004. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  (Ranciere 2004, 27).

[xvi] Frosh, Paul. 2001. “The Public Eye and the Citizen-voyeur: Photography as a Performance of Power.” Social Semiotics 11, no.1: 43-59. (Frosh 2001, 50)

[xvii] Thompson, E.P. 1971. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past & Present No. 50: 76-136. (Thompson 1971, 4)

[xviii] (Andén-Papadopoulos 2014, 759)

[xix] (Andén-Papadopoulos 2014, 763)

[xx] Ling, R. and Yttri, B. 2002. Hyper-coordination via mobile phones in Norway.” In Katz, J. and Aakhus, M. (eds.) Perpetual contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[xxi] Etling, Bruce, Robert Faris and John Palfrey. 2010. “Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing.” SAIS Review of International Affairs 30, no. 2: 37-49. (Etling et al 2010, 42)

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