Idolatry and the Civil Covenant of Photography: On the Practice of Exhibiting Images of Suffering, Degradation, and Death

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Abstract

Exhibiting perpetrator photographs of suffering and death presents a series of curatorial problems for museums and galleries. Unlike photojournalist images taken to inform a social conscience, the initial creation and circulation of such photographs have historically been implicated in the violence they depict. Beyond skepticism as to photography’s capacity to arouse a moral impulse, exhibitions of perpetrator photographs have been criticized for promoting voyeurism and extending suffering through the reiteration of images of human degradation. I consider how a problem central to Jewish theology might speak to such curatorial concerns, specifically the question of what constitutes the practice of idolatry. In this context I explore issues related to the ethics of visuality, developing the implications of Leora Batnitzky’s reading of Franz Rosenzweig’s cultural writings for my own concerns regarding the museological practice of public history.

Idolatry and the Civil Covenant of Photography: On the Practice of Exhibiting Images of Suffering, Degradation, and Death

in IMAGES

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