David Green ‘On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography’

Notes on David Green ‘On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography’

David Green explains how Foucault’s writings explore how the changes in attitudes towards crime and punishment in the 19th and early 19th centuries led to significant changes in power relationships in society. The drive to humanise punishments led to a requirement to control and monitor prisoners, which in turn became generalised in industrial society.

As a more rational, scientific outlook began, the desire to study people as subjects rather than as individuals became pervasive throughout society. This was not just for reasons of penal reform, but directly affected all aspects of scientific study, medicine, social welfare and commercial profitability. Foucault’s main point of interest is in how this led to changes in power relationships; between those doing the studying and the subjects under scrutiny.

The introduction of photography provided a means of objective surveillance that became embedded in all aspects of this new power relationship. People could be photographed as objective types rather than as distinct individuals. Indeed the images accompanying Green’s essay make it quite clear that the subjects are unnamed, and do not register in the photographer’s intentions as individuals. They become dehumanised by having their identities expunged.

John Tagg says it is the emergence of this new social formation that gave photography any sort of context, and that products of photography only had meaning within the newly formed power relationships.


Green, D. (1997) ‘On Foucault: Disciplinary Power and Photography’ In: Walker, J.A. (ed.) The Camerawork essays: context and meaning in photography. (s.l.): Rivers Oram Press. pp.119–131.

John Tagg (1988) ‘Evidence, Truth and Order’ in: Wells, L. (ed.) (2018) The Photography Reader: History and Theory. (2 edition) (s.l.): Routledge. pp.307-310

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