Politics and Personhood: Reflections on the Portrait Photograph

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The faces of the missing are held aloft on placards in demonstrations or posted on walls in the aftermath of disappearances. They appear massed on the pages of newspapers and in the displays of genocide museums. Often nothing more than family snapshots given a public place, such images can be compelling. Although photographs of atrocity and war have frequently been discussed, little attention has been paid to these other images: images that do not show suffering but still seem, at least potentially, to be politically effective. How do these photographs work? What form of personhood do they instantiate and what politics do they point to? How are they different from other photographs? The paper examines what might be special about a photograph, especially a photograph of a face, and how its political impact might be understood. Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts of trauma and subjectivity, the paper suggests that a photograph embodies in its very temporal structure a personhood that is inimical to contemporary structures of sovereign power. The destabilising political potential of a photograph, like that of certain forms of literary text, could be understood as arising from its potential as an encounter with the trauma that inhabits sovereign power and sovereign subjectivity but that is generally concealed. The account presented offers an alternative approach to the analysis of the politics of a photograph, and gestures towards other manifestations of personhood and politics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-154
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 2013


  • face
  • photograph
  • trauma
  • subjectivity
  • sovereignty
  • Lacan
  • temporality
  • international politics


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