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Unveiling the truth ? Aerial photographs and the social sciences in interwar France

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Contribution to book (peer-reviewed)
Author Reubi Serge,
Project Représenter la culture. La photographie, les sciences humaines et leurs savants
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Contribution to book (peer-reviewed)

Book Geschichte der Sozialwissenschaften im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert
Editor , Link Fabian
Publisher Duncker & Humblot, Berlin
Title of proceedings Geschichte der Sozialwissenschaften im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert


In 1914, aerial photography is not a tool that is widely spread in the social sciences. Except for archaeology and geography, it is not used at all. Ten years later, the picture has changed : not only have scholars of most disciplines started to experiment it, but their uses have changed and now raise new issues. What was until then used mainly for illustrating purposes (or sometimes to accelerate the process of sketching), is now believed to be a means to unveil the reality of the observed world. My paper, which focuses on the uses of aerial photography by French social scientists of the Interwar period, will examine this rhetoric of unveiling. Rooted in what Ginzburg has coined « evidential paradigm », it comes in different forms and shapes according to disciplines and theoretical perspectives. In each case, however, it allows one to follow the questions of the mutations of the epistemic virtues and the scholar’s selves raised by Daston and Galison (2007). Indeed, the rhetorics of unveiling seems to bring along a vanishing scholar and so might the understanding of the uses of aerial photography clarify the scholars’ conception of objectivity and investment in research. However this rhetoric of unveiling has two sides which I will analyse. On the bright side, explicit methodological, theoretical and science-policy texts generally ascribe to the aerial photograph one or more of the following unveilings : a. aerial photograph, as an unveiling process, is believed to consider the earth as a palimpsest and and able to decipher it to reveal its intrinsect truth ; b. aerial photographs are also supposed to be able to examine large scale objects and identify structures which remain unobservable from the ground and therefore unknown to human beings ; c. aerial photographs may unveil because they are precise, complete, and faithful : they do so because they allow to see without being framed by any theoretical preconceptions of the scholars and independant of their subjective investments in their research. In all cases, aerial photographs show the world without limits (in depth, in width, or in the theoretical frame), and if it is so, it is because they are understood to present the world from an extra-terrestrial point of view and takes for granted that the scholar has dissappeared, if not physically, then at least as a subject : hence the photographs speak by themselves, this is why they are « objective ». On the darker side, if aerial photographs speak by themselves, one simultaneously observes that someone has to make them understandable. The study of publications of various research processes using aerial photographs reveals indeed that although the scholar is absent from the picture, he is still there. Not only because he is willing to be absent, but also because he returns literally at its margins, in the caption where the author explains what there is to see. This contrast between a dissappearing and a reappearing self will hence lead me to question the epistemic virtue which drives the work of these scholars.