On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography

As I read the first few lines about the Panopticon model conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1786, my imagination was immediately captured. The Panopticon was an architectural construction: a central tower is enclosed by a circular building whose cellular spaces are open on the inside and their occupants exposed to the unremitting gaze the tower affords.’ – (Green, 2005). It reminded me not only of Big Brother and to some degree modern surveillance but upon reflection and to a lesser degree photography. Just as modern surveillance like CCTV is for the most part invisible so are photographs. The Panopticon model/CCTV/photograph allows the viewer to see whatever is displayed (inside the Panopticon/relayed from the CCTV/through the photograph) but not the other way round. At least I wouldn’t think people in photographs could see out of them!

The Panopticon - Jeremy Bentham - 1786
The Panopticon – Jeremy Bentham – 1786

As I understood from reading Green’s text on Foucault’s essay Discipline and Punish (1975), this one-way visibility gives the viewer a certain degree of power. This would be for the reason that the ‘prisoner’ – the person inside not looking out – can’t see the watchman but the watchman can see the prisoner. Whether this new form of disciplinary power is good or bad is questionable. Green (2005) states that Foucault was aware of this when he wrote Discipline and Punish (1975): ‘power cannot be regarded only, as it often has been, as a negative force which makes itself known through the operations of repression, exclusion, limitation or censorship. Power must also be recognised in its positive forms when it enables the production of knowledge’ – (Green, 2005). I could see this was somewhat true with disciplinary power in the form of CCTV when the power afforded from these technologies is used to inform.

Relating this back to photography, especially pertinent with the prevalence of photographs nowadays, the viewer has instant access (via the internet and social media) to a multitude of images which is only increasing. The viewers of the photographs can see the people or objects inside the photographs but the reverse isn’t true. Therefore it seems plausible the viewer of the images has power over the images and how they view them whereas the people and object’s depicted in the images have little power once uploaded. However, if you were to follow this train of thought a little further, there is more power attributed indirectly from people depicted in images uploaded to the viewer than there at first might seem. The reason for this would be the people depicted in the images uploaded are often the people who took the picture (selfies!) or at least people close to them and they can have the option of controlling who sees them as well as interacting after the fact with viewers of the images. Green touches on this briefly at the end of On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography (2005) as a possible solution for the invasive properties of power: ‘But just as the forms of power are localised and specific so should be the forms of resistance. We must engage power at the points of its application and operation; that is, within the particular domains of knowledge and the particular institutions through which it is operative.’ – (Green, 2005). This correlates back to the power of social media photography, where the social media platform through which the photography is operative contains at least some resistance to its power through control of exposure of images and interactivity.

Another significant point in On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography (2005) was that photography is a very good medium for recording subtle variations in the people it photographs as a form of power: ‘But clearly involved here was not the discovery of pre-existing truths which the camera so meticulously revealed but the construction of new kinds of knowledge about the individual in terms of visible physiological features by which it is possible to measure and compare each individual to another.’ – (Green, 2005). The indexical properties the photograph possesses surely went a long way to establishing the photographs as ‘a form of empirical truth or evidence of the real’ – (Green, 2005) but it was through comparison of the details of the photographs that allowed the viewer to gain a form of power. Combined with ‘physiological measurement and written documentation’ – (Green, 2005), these photographs informed the viewer much more powerfully than they would have singularly or without written documentation.

The major thing I took away from reading about Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975) through Green’s On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography (2005) essay was that the viewer in most cases gains much more power from photographs than the ones who are photographed and in this manner photographs could stand as the perfect modern-day Panopticon. However, as mentioned, there exist certain ways of at least reducing the overwhelming power afforded the viewer through looking at photographs. That is because the social media platforms photographs are often viewed on nowadays allow the people in the photographs a certain degree of control back themselves.


Foucault, M. and Sheridan, A. (1991). Discipline and Punish. 2nd ed. London: Penguin.

Green, D. (2005). On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography. In. The Camera Work Essays, pp. 119-131.

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