An expert in visual culture and photography, Ariella Azoulay focuses her research on how history is told through visual mediums — photographs, film, drawings, and other visual elements — and how these provide a level of detail and context not provided solely by the written word. She comes to Brown from a rich career of teaching, writing, and curating in Tel Aviv.
Azoulay has spent most of her academic career studying photography and political theory. She uses historical and contemporary photographs as sources for narrating the civil history of zones of conflict and political regimes. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been her primary case study. Recently her research has concentrated on the concept of revolution and its unfolding, from the 18th century to the present.
“In photographs one can see many things that are not documented in texts,” Azoulay says. ”They provide a record of an encounter between various participants that always surpasses the intentions of the participants. Through the photographic image I seek to reconstruct the event of photography and the condition of its production.”
Historical images have allowed Azoulay the means to go beyond the ideological framework in which the history of Palestine–Israel is conceived as a century-old conflict between two national entities. She has looked at it in the context of colonialism and its legacy of partitions that contributed immensely to the creation of conflicts rather than the resolution of them. “My own work over the last few years has been to use images to revise political concepts — that of citizenship and sovereignty first and foremost — in order to understand Palestine in the larger global context of revolution, colonial legacy, imperialism, and of what is left over after imperialism.
“Through the reading of images from various revolutionary moments, I redefine two concepts of revolution — the ruling one and the civil one. Without this split, one cannot understand why revolution continued to appear promising, although most of them were completed by the creation of a sovereign ruling power that contradict civil aspirations of sharing the world,” Azoulay says.
In recent years, Azoulay has produced several documentary films that address different aspects of the history of Israel and Palestine. Her most recent documentary, Civil Alliances - 47-48, is based on archival documents that she found in Israel. These documents catalog, according to Azoulay, “Intense civil activity throughout the country during 1947-1948 when Palestinians and Jews sought compromises, set rules, formulated agreements, and did everything possible not to let violence take over their lives. In the film, Jews and Palestinians gather around a map of Palestine from the ’40s to report a civil race against the clock until the founding of the State of Israel in May 1948.”
Azoulay’s work was inspired by her fascination with history and interest in art. Her first academic degree was a Licence in Cinema and Literature from the Université Paris VIII, from which she was also awarded an M.A. in semiotics. She earned her D.E.A from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, then returned to Tel Aviv to attend Tel-Aviv University, where she earned a Ph.D. in 1996 from the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas.
At Brown, Azoulay has a dual appointment in the Department of Modern Culture and Media and the Department of Comparative Literature. She will teach one course in modern culture about photography and human rights, focusing mainly on the decade between the end of the Second World War and 1955. Her comparative literature course will focus on revolutions from the 18th century on, including the French, American, and Santo Domingo revolutions, including writers Olympe de Gouges, Hannah Arendt, and C.L.R. James. She will begin teaching in the spring semester and looks forward to exploring her new city and country.