Occupy The Image

Liam Devlin

With lies they tried to make us lie. As if they did not know that the mouth was made to say… the eyes see… (Nicaraguan Peasant, 1975)

The popular protest of the now global Occupy movements are seeking to recreate open, egalitarian spaces to practice a more accessible democratic debate. Photographic images are playing an integral role in the challenge to traditional political discourses: from professional and amateur practices to their resultant materials, whether they are considered art, ephemera or memento.

Can an assumed equality of intelligence, applied across all the various forms of photography provide a more productive framework to consider how images are used and reused? It is argued that by assuming this a priori logic, we can move the debate beyond questions that are concerned with the originality of an image or its status as document and allows for a reconsideration of its use as a catalyst for debate. Acknowledging the photograph's ontological ambiguity, this essay explores a social agency for the photograph in the address of hegemony which creates space for political mobilization.

Photographic technologies of capture, manipulation and dissemination have become increasingly ubiquitous, operating within and across a plethora of different discourses, from eye witnessing events to the construction of identity. Photographic images circulate around the globe at an unquantifiable pace and quantity and regardless of the insightful and timely critiques of representation that have dominated a particular photographic discourse since the 1970’s, the majority of these images circulate as visual documents. While structuralist critiques have upset the myth of photographic objectivity, photography still has an evidential currency in the social order.

The social order is a set of implicit rules and conventions, which determine the distribution of roles in a given community and the forms of exclusion that operate within it. This order is founded on what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls the 'distribution of the sensible'. Here he is referring to the way in which roles and modes of participation in a common social world are determined by establishing possible modes of perception. Thus the distribution of the sensible sets the divisions between what is visible and invisible, sayable and un-sayable, audible and inaudible. By default, representation, and therefore aesthetics, are central to politics.

The notion of a visual and aesthetic aspect to political debate is a founding rationale for the role of documentary or concerned photographic practice, relying initially on the images supposed veracity. However, there is now a much greater opportunity for photographic images to be used in the explicit and reflexive articulation of an idea, a point of view, rather than to claim to represent reality.  What is called for is a formulation of a photographic discourse that uses the documentary nature of photographic images, that seeks to set these images up as residue (whether physical or virtual) of the relationships between people. This new discourse frames the photograph as a vehicle for debate, as a discursive document.

I am not seeking, as Roland Barthes did in Camera Lucida, the ontology of photography. Nor am I seeking to redefine genres of photographic practice as either art or documentary. As I believe, the search for rigid definitions for a photographic discourse is politically unwise and philosophically doomed to failure. The history of photography is old enough to have gone through a multitude of transformations both technically and culturally that illustrate its endless mutability and utility.

This paper is a tentative statement of belief in the photograph’s potential to engender debate, not as to ‘how things are’ but to ‘what is possible’. I am not seeking to understand what photography is, but to construct a theoretical position on how photographs can be more effectively used. This may at first sight seem crazily optimistic or even damned by the label ‘utopian’, in a cynical, alienated society characterised by self interest. Yet, to hold onto a belief in the possibility of a more egalitarian society is not about building a rigid belief system. On the contrary, it is about creating space to effectively challenge dogmatic thinking and established power relations.

Photography has undergone multiple critiques, promotions, denunciations and shifts in understanding and usage. Even a single photograph may be used to announce a movement towards emancipation or become embroiled in the ‘instrumental realism’ of the coercive state apparatuses. This can be best illustrated by modern protest, where both the coercive and ideological state apparatuses (the police and the media) use cameras to ‘see’ the protest, from as many angles as possible, while being confronted by protestors explicitly looking back with their own cameras. Through this, we can see that the photographic image is inherently contingent and is therefore malleable enough to be pushed into how we want it to operate. As Fred Ritchin writes in After Photography (2009):

Like all media, photography is a reflection of the societies that have spawned and embraced it. It can also be a powerful instigator, in both obvious and highly subtle ways, for societal and personal change. The process is dialectical, evolutionary, and largely unconscious, opening new possibilities while others are defused. [2]

There has been an almost spontaneous and collective moment that links the politics of aesthetics and the politics of the street, and is providing a powerful challenge to the hegemony of accelerated capitalism and the apparatuses that support it. This eclectic collection of mass mobilisations that is occurring globally has become collectively known as the Occupy Movement. This term has become used to the point of over use, to become diffuse. Interestingly, what has characterised this movement is its lack of demands, its lack of a clear or identifiable political position. The movement is not aligned to any of the established political positions although it welcomes activist organisations.

Any further means to ‘describe’ or define this historical moment would be pointless, inaccurate and counter-productive. It is the very indeterminacy of the movement that makes it so important. There has been a rescuing and resuscitation of a genuinely open public space for discussion and debate. This is reminiscent the encounters theorised by Jürgen Habermas that take place in the context of what he defined as a ‘public sphere’. Habermas describes his theoretical public sphere as a place where participants must adhere to certain performative rules, to 'insulate this discursive space from the coercion and inequality that constrain human communication in normal daily life' [3]. This, according to Habermas, affords an equitable position for each participant from which to speak, to voice their opinions, state their objections, creating in the process a heightened sense of solidarity.’ [4]

In New York, an interesting phenomenon has emerged from this movement as a consequence of trying to silence it. The New York offices of the mayor and the police department could not be seen to immediately deny free speech, a hallowed if not completely hollowed tenet of the American constitution. However, an order was placed on the protesters banning the use of amplification, under the guise of consideration for the residents of the locale. As a response, the Occupy Movement created what has became known as the ‘people’s mic’. Using this method, the (unamplified) speaker would speak a sentence, pause to give time for everyone to repeat what was said, and then continue in this fashion until the speech was complete. [5] Within these regular discussions, the crowd who are listening can immediately express agreement, ambivalence or disagreement with silent hand gestures, that allows for an exceptional ability to ‘block’ what the speaker has said.

While the ‘peoples mic’ is used to enable all participants to hear the speech, it had another effect of making the spectator also the speaker, making the audience consider the words and their possible connotations more carefully. Through a denial of established hierarchical positions of speaker and spectator, the occupy movement can be seen as a space of indeterminacy, that does not generate a reductive or rigidly defined set of goals that can limit its political position. Instead the creation of an indeterminate but equitable public sphere, it creates space for the inaudible to become audible, the invisible to be seen. It is a space that allows each individual to alter the distribution of his or her sensible world.

Rancière's conception of the aesthetic regime describes a similar a discursive framework for art. The aesthetic regime is understood to support art practices that seek to break the links between language and meaning, and to disrupt the relationship between articulation and reception. The ideal artwork, within the aesthetic regime creates what he calls ‘heterologies’:

The notion of ‘heterology’ refers to the way in which the meaningful fabric of the sensible is disturbed…  The dream of a suitable political work of art is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle.” [6]

The function of the artwork within this regime is to offer a different perspective by challenging assumed positions or hierarchical positions, to disrupt or rupture the distribution of the sensible. The most important aspect of artworks within the aesthetic regime is that the effect of such ruptures can never be pre-determined: 'art cannot work in the simple form of a meaningful spectacle that would lead to an ‘awareness’ of the state of the world.' Within Rancière’s aesthetic regime, successful artworks operate within a paradox that 'is always the object of a negotiation between opposites, between the readability of the message that threatens to destroy the sensible form of art and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning.' [7] [8]

The relationship between aesthetics and politics is maintained, but there is an essential indeterminacy to the political orientation or outcome for the encounter between the artwork and its audience. This indeterminacy created by the disruption of the sensible is the invitation or challenge for the viewer of the artwork to redistribute the sensible from the ruptured fragments. This affords the viewer or spectator an essentially active, indeed creative role within this encounter, providing a much more nuanced and practical relationship with art and its potential for social agency.

The reclamation of a genuinely open public sphere by the Occupy movement is analogous to Rancière’s aesthetic regime, in that both seek to disrupt the distribution of the sensible, without establishing a pre-determined outcome. The term ‘occupy’ of course describes the movements reclamation of physical public spaces, but it also describes the re-occupation’ of the public sphere, creating a vital force in a democratic society. As Ernasto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe state: “A fully functioning democratic society is not one in which all antagonisms have disappeared, but one in which new political frontiers are constantly being drawn and brought into debate.” [9]

A particular feature of the various occupy movements has been their appropriation and use of imagery, primarily used to speak against the institutions that support global capitalism, from banks to governments, to make visible a dissensus with the dominant ideology. [10] This tactic is of course not a new phenomenon and has practiced by various movements such as the Dadaists, exemplified by the photomontages of John Heartfield, and continued to the present day by artists such as Peter Kennard. An important development within these new movements has been the democratisation of the means to create and disseminate such images. This has been facilitated by a convergence of a number of factors, including increased availability of digital imaging devices, especially smart phones, the accessibility of computers and image manipulation software, the rise of social networking sites and the increased speed of data transmission that has come to be known as Web 2.0.

The convergence of these developments has had the function of transforming our understanding and use of photographic images from objects that could be described as factual statements, into flows of data, becoming ephemeral gestures more equivalent to speech. This is an important distinction as the ability to state facts relies on creating and maintaining a position of authority, of creating rigid hierarchical positions. The enactment of speech, however, implies a conversation that is fundamentally predicated on the assumption that the participants can communicate with each other. In other words, on an assumption of a level of equality.

A particular moment that exemplifies the importance of images for making dissensus visible within the Occupy movement occurred on the 18 November 2011, when the police officer Lieutenant John Pike pepper sprayed student protestors at a sit down protest on the University of California’s Davis Campus. [11] The response to this particular event through use of photographic images can help us consider a new basis for the appropriation or ‘use and reuse’ of photographs. The footage and subsequent images that emerged from this event show a single line of students sat on the ground linking arms while Lieutenant Pike casually walked up and down the line spraying them with a large canister of ‘weapons grade’ pepper spray. The fact that this action—which contravened the guidelines for the use this painful deterrent—was caught on camera is not the most important point here. Photographers, whether professional or not, have helped to bear witness to events from the mid-19th century. Yet traditional photojournalistic practices have relied on the photograph’s supposed veracity, as well as the authority or integrity of the publication and of the professional photographer, to help guarantee the photograph as a factual document.

In the past the possibility of this event becoming ‘visible’ to the public at large, would have relied on the attendance of a journalist/photojournalist capturing images that would then need to be passed by an editorial and legal team at the large news organisation, whose interests it has been argued have been to perpetuate hegemony, illustrated brilliantly by John Heartfield in his photomontage, Whoever Reads Bourgeois Newspapers Becomes Blind and Deaf: Away with These Stultifying Bandages! (1930). [12]

The imagery, both photographic and otherwise, that has been created in the response to Lieutenant Pike’s actions, suggests a new paradigm through which to reconsider the use and re-use of images. There have been a plethora of websites that have emerged from the Occupy movement that provide a platform for individuals to speak or make visible their discontent, from tumblr and twitter pages to dedicated websites, such as On this website there is a page dedicated to reports of the pepper spray event that contains eyewitness accounts as well as a combination of video footage and still images. It is from here that the website diverges from merely ‘documenting’ this illegal action. Rather than claim any objectivity to the event, the creators of this website gather further information with which to speak against the actions of Pike and the UC Davis Police Department. Included on this webpage is detailed information on the pepper spray used, the MK-9, with its colour coded strength and recommendations for usage, amply illustrating Pike’s abuse. Directly beneath this information is the name and contact details of Lieutenant Pike, including his staff portrait home address, phone number and Skype address. Given the prominence of this information at the ‘beginning’ of this webpage, it can be seen that this is activism that seeks to ‘name and shame’ Pike rather than ‘disinterested’ reportage. [13]

The vast majority of the page is taken up with images created by a multitude of individuals using the image of Pike with the pepper spray, under the title, ‘casually pepper spraying cop’. The images submitted almost all follow a pattern of ‘cutting out’ the image of Pike in the act of pepper spraying and ‘pasting’ his image onto other images in the mode of photomontage. The effect of this simple procedure, in conjunction with the imaginations of the individuals who submitted images, has produced and incredibly eclectic variation on the theme. Among the seventy-four images submitted, we can see Pike ‘casually pepper spraying’ the American constitution, the marines raising the American Flag at Iwo Jima, Yoda, a figure in Picasso’s Guernica, and God in Di Vinci’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It is important to note the denial of a range of hierarchies that these digital photomontages embody. There is no distinction made between iconic historical photographs, popular film/television shows or artistic ‘masterpieces.’ They have been appropriated and used by individuals who took it on themselves to speak back, for a range reasons, through anger and/or humour. The montages display a variety of technical sophistication and most do not seek to be convincing, and they are uploaded and presented without any obvious order of importance. The relationship between the production, dissemination and viewing of photographs has become diffuse.

The Occupy movement has reclaimed a public sphere for open debate, that is based on an a priori logic of an equality of intelligence. [14] This emancipated space has helped to encourage the use and re-use of photographic images, images taken from the vast multimedia flow of data that is the Internet. While many of the images produced through this new paradigm, especially the examples of ‘Casually Pepper Spraying Cop’, do not seek to be called art, we can see a version of Rancière’s aesthetic regime, played out in a more ephemeral, perhaps conversational mode.

The images make no claims to power, seek no place of authority, yet combine to express dissensus with the abuse of power. In the example of the footage of Lieutenant John Pike, the images original function as a document has not been totally lost when crudely ‘montaged’ into the plethora of other images. Montage in this instance is not used to deny the status of the footage as bearing witness; instead the images are actively used to speak against this event. In doing so it has had the useful effect of demolishing the authority of the documentary image as a statement of fact, and allowing instead for a reconsideration of the use of photographic imagery as a catalyst for debate, becoming in the process reflexively political.




  1. This quote is taken from Susan Meiselas’ book Nicaragua (1983) and was recorded at an anti-Somoza meeting in Matagalpa, August 1975. back
  2. Fred Ritchin, After photography, 2009,  New York and London, 15. back
  3. Jürgen Habermas, ‘Discourse Ethics: Notes of a Program of Philosophical Justification,’ in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, 1991, Trans Christian Lenhardt and Sherry Weber Nicholson, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 89. back
  4. Quote taken from, Kester, Grant, H. 2004, ‘Dialogical Aesthetics,’ in Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art, University of California Press, Berkley. P. 109-110. back
  5. This is a revival an old 19thCentury technique invented by the Irish Politician Daniel O’Connell. In Ireland in the 1840’s Daniel O’Connell held ‘monster rallies’ to generate and demonstrate support for a version of Irish independence known as ‘Home Rule’. The crowds at such meetings reached into the thousands and tens of thousands. As this was before the possibility of amplification, O’Connell placed men throughout the crowd, who could repeat what he had said, allowing his words to travel back through the mass of people so that everyone could hear his speech. back
  6. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 2009, Trans. Gregory Elliott. London, 63. back
  7. ibid. back
  8. [8]However as John Tagg insightfully identified, the productive tension that is maintained by the indeterminacy of the aesthetic regime, has been nullified in the past by the ‘a priori assertion that the domain of art, as privilege is a function of its lack of power.’[1] The question remains whether the lack of an identifiable instrumentality for art, that is supposed to be an indication of any lack of social agency, is the means by which we can challenge hegemony.

  9. Ernasto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 1985, 125. back
  10. Rancière has a particular use for the creation of scenes of dissensus that is founded on an a priori logic of an equality of intelligences or capacities, as he states: ‘”What ‘dissensus’ means is an organisation of the sensible where there is neither a reality concealed behind appearances nor a single regime of presentation and interpretation of the given imposing its obviousness on all. It means that every situation can be cracked open from the inside, reconfigured in a different regime of perception and signification. To reconfigure the landscape of what can be seen and what can be thought is to alter the field of the possible and the distribution of capacities and incapacities. Dissensus brings back into play both the obviousness of what can be perceived, thought and done, and the distribution of those who are capable of perceiving, thinking and altering the coordinates of the shared world. This is what a process of political subjectivation consists in: in the action of uncounted capacities that crack open the unity of the given and the obviousness of the visible, in order to sketch a new topography of the possible.” (Rancière 2009: 48) back
  11. See back
  12. There have been a sustained critique of the politics of representation that have questioned the assumed objectivity and authority of the photographic medium, essentially accusing documentary practice of creating a spectacle of suffering, that reinforced the systems of oppression and inequality. One of the most articulate critiques of documentary practice came from Martha Rosler in her essay In around and afterthoughts on Documentary Photography (1985). For Rosler, within a neo-liberal ideological climate of self interest, traditional documentary loses its naïve claims to working for social reform to become a spectacle of suffering produced by careerist photographers. In her own words, “Documentary testifies, finally, to the bravery and savvy of the photographer, who entered a situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay, or combinations of these to save us the trouble”. (Rosler 1985: 309). For Rosler therefore, in calling for charity or sympathy, traditional liberal documentary preserves the oppressive structures of the status quo, while denying the underprivileged or oppressed a voice and does just enough to pacify the potentially more revolutionary outcome of self-organisation. back
  13. back
  14. The distinction between to speaker and spectator as defined by Guy Debord in his book The Society of the Spectacle (1967)has been inherently undermined. back
  15. To help us tease out this important distinction, I want to turn to Jaques Rancière, and in particularlly his book, The Emancipated Spectator (2009). The critique of the spectacle, for Rancière has its origins in Plato’s denouncement of the memesis of theatre as place where the spectator was “invited to see people suffering, as a spectacle of pathos… through the opitical machinery that prepares the gaze for illusion and passivity.” (Rancière 2009: 3).  What is required therefore is paradoxically a theatre without spectators, where by the audience are not seduced by images as passive voyeurs, but become active particpants in the process.

    I suggest we can consider the role of the actor who embodies knowledge as similar to that of the photographer or artist who claims an authoritative position in relation to either the subject matter at hand, or the images under consideration. As a means to move beyond this self-vanishing mediation of a theatre without spectators, Rancère uses his concept of intellectual emancipation that he first explored in his essay The Ignorant Schoolmaster. According to a traditional pedagogical logic, the role of the schoolmaster is to abolish the distance between his knowledge and the ignorance of the student… Unfortunately, however this can only be undertaken on the condition that the distance is constantly maintained. As Rancière states;

    In the pedagogical logic, she (the student) is not simply one who does not as yet know what the schoolmaster knows. She is the one who does not know what she does not know or how to know it.”(Rancière 2009: 8)

    The first thing the student learns therefore is his/her own inability. The main activity of a pedagogical logic therefore, is to constantly confirm its own presupposition: the inequality of intelligence. If we equate the role of the schoolmaster, to the radical theatre of Brecht or Debord’s situations; these various attempts to challenge the spectacle, are still based on the assumed oppositions between the image and living reality, speaker and spectator, that does not challenge the a priori logic of intellectual inequality that these oppositions are derived from. If we accept the supposed oppositions between, viewing and knowing, appearance and reality, then we are already accepting a structure that maintains the two positions that can be described as those who possess capacity and those who do not (Rancière 2009: 13).

    Instead Rancière calls for an intellectual emancipation that is based on the a priori logic of an equality of intelligence; in effect the schoolmaster must accept his own ignorance. The foundational premise of this emancipation, is that intelligence is not a position to be held, instead all the schoolmaster can do is charge his/her students to venture out “into the forest of things and signs, to say what they have seen and what they think they have seen, to verify it and to have it verified,” an activity that Rancière refers to as  “the poetic labour of translation,” (Rancière 2009: 11).