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Camera Mortis: Ethics and Aesthetics in Emmanuel Levinas and Richard Mosse

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Jakobson, Christine 


This thesis examines the purpose of art — specifically, fine art photography — in depicting contemporary conflicts that have resulted in suffering, violence, human rights abuses, and death. The thesis argues that the purpose of such art is not aesthetic. Instead, such art functions as a means to channel artistic expression towards increased political awareness and to facilitate an ethical encounter between the viewer and the other through a questioning of the other’s death and the viewer’s self. The depiction of the other’s death gives rise to a contemplation of moral responsibility and a movement from the viewer’s self towards the other, breaking the viewer’s solitude and expanding her moral horizon to encompass an other removed in time and space. The thesis takes Emmanuel Levinas’s articulation of ethics and aesthetics to propose a theory of a camera mortis that reflects the proximity of life and death as a defining condition of the twenty-first century and art. To develop this approach to art, the thesis primarily refers to Levinas’s three concepts of death, temporality, and responsibility to offer a revision of Levinas’s aesthetics. It proceeds with an analysis of how Levinas opens up debates about Richard Mosse’s major projects, addressing the question of what art is for. Chapter One outlines Levinas’s ethics as first philosophy and critically examines his notion of art before considering his writing on the political. In so doing, it revises the common conception that art and ethics are incompatible in Levinas’s philosophy. Chapter Two examines Mosse’s first major project, comprising Infra (2010–11) and The Enclave (2013), to propose a reading of Mosse’s aesthetics in terms of the potential to change a viewer’s perception and to increase self-awareness via an encounter with the conflict in Congo rendered through variations of the colour pink. The chapter also complicates the artworks’ ethics by demonstrating that the other remains unseen and confined to alterity in temporal delay and in the making invisible of death and suffering. The third chapter examines Mosse’s second major project, comprising Heat Maps (2014–16) and Incoming (2017), to argue that the artworks throw the viewer’s self-perception into radical crisis via an encounter with the corporeality of the refugee. They do so by highlighting the absence of a coherent present and a confrontation of the moral responsibility towards an other who is not treated as an equal in her worthiness to be alive.





Wilson, Emma


Aesthetics, Art, Death, Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics, Photography, Richard Mosse, Time


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge