Photoactivism: Political Iconography in France, 1944-1968

Avissar, Nir, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Confino, Alon, History, University of Virginia
Rosenfeld, Sophia, History, Yale University

The aim of this dissertation is to provide a critical history of French reportage photography in the decades following the Second World War, beginning with the Liberation in 1944 and ending in May ’68. During the Trente Glorieuses, reportage photography became an integral part of the media, which operated as the central platform for engaging the public in political discourse. My research explores how, during this era of mass communication, the photographic medium participated in the nation’s political life in concrete historical circumstances. In the course of this investigation, I inspect both the material, thematic, and formal strategies photographers employed to produce images in different political contexts, and the publication history of their works (who published their images, in what format, and for what purposes). The dissertation thus examines the role reportage photography played in promoting political discourse in France by visually engaging the most critical historical processes the nation was undergoing: modernization, democratization, and decolonization. At the same time, it also analyzes the reciprocal impact that changing political climate had on reportage photography. Specifically, it provides an historical account of the multiple causes that effected during the 1960s the displacement of humanist photography by photojournalism as the medium’s prominent current.

This study rejects the notion that reportage photography was a neutral and passive mirroring of political life. By coining the term “photoactivism” I thus intend to designate reportage photographers’ constantly active engagement with political discourse, both as visual witnesses and as participating actors in (re)framing the nation’s self-perception and political culture. Beholding momentous historical events, I contend, photographers forged varying iconographic attitudes at different points in time to bridge, or otherwise bring out, the discrepancies between what the dominant discourse allowed for and what it excluded from its bounds. While in the reconstruction years the state and civil society were relatively aligned with one another, during the 1960s they became increasingly antagonistic. Reportage photographers thus found themselves caught between the hammer of the state and the anvil of civil society, having to maneuver between opposite ends of the political spectrum, and meet the demands of various institutions without foregoing their own views and social commitments.

The dissertation takes part of the historiographical current known as the “visual turn,” which expands historical research by incorporating substantial ocular sources and treating them in novel ways, while addressing the methodological challenges they pose. My thorough inspection of the iconographic output and representational platforms of prominent photoactivists promises to shed light on the constitutive role reportage photography has played in French political culture. It also affords a demonstration of the significance of political history for the evolution of reportage photography.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
history , photography, France, postwar, photojournalism, humanist photography, Algerian War, May 68, Modernization, Reconstruction, national identity , political culture, media studies, tiersmondisme, press, decolonization
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