Posted by: simonsteachingblog | December 7, 2009

Photography, citizenship, and the Israeli Occupation

Within recent thinking on citizenship a distinction has been made between formal citizenship granted by sovereign power and citizenship as an ideal that exceeds the authority of the sovereign. This latter understanding of citizenship has been identified by Engin Isin and Greg Nielsen as a ‘citizenship yet to come’ generated through ‘acts of citizenship’ (Engin Isin and Greg Nielsen, ‘Introduction’, in Engin Isin and Greg Nielsen, eds., Acts of Citizenship, London: Zed Books, 2008, p. 4). Such acts involve demands for the ‘right to have rights’ made by the citizen on behalf of the non-citizen and by the non-citizen on behalf of themselves. Acts of citizenship make demands and require rejoinders from others who are drawn into a new context for conceiving citizenship. In this context, citizenship is not a status that is passively received, but something that is actively generated. We might think of this active and creative understanding of citizenship in terms of Jacques Ranciére’s notion of ‘politics’ as something that only occurs when ‘the police order’ is contested by emergent political subjects seeking new forms of equality (See Todd May, The Political Thought of Jacques Ranciére: Creating Equality, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008). It is this kind of equality that is at the heart of Isin and Nielsen‘s understanding of acts of citizenship aimed at the creation of inclusive conceptions of what the citizen might be. For Ranciére ‘politics’ involves the creation of a point of ‘dissensus’ in ‘the given’ that is disruptive and creative at the same time. For Isin and Nielsen acts of citizenship entail ‘a break from the habitus’ (Isin and Nielsen, ‘Introduction’, in Engin Isin and Greg Nielsen, eds., Acts of Citizenship, p. 4), which is also defined as creative. For all three writers, the democratic politics of ‘citizenship yet to come’ has an aesthetic aspect involving the rearrangement of the field of the visible, or what Ranciére calls ‘the distribution of the sensible’, referring to the distribution of what can be seen, said, and thought (See Jacques Ranciére, The Politics of Aesthetics, London and New York: Continuum, 2004). This last point seems particularly relevant to visual images such as photographs.

These ideas about the difference between formal citizenship and ‘citizenship yet to come’ can be considered in relation Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Here we have a situation where a sovereign territorial state grants formal citizenship to the inhabitants of Israel, but at the same time denies citizenship to Palestinians in the occupied territories. This difference between the citizen and the non-citizen is particularly stark in the West Bank where Israeli Jewish settlers exist within extraterritorial bubbles of civilian law surrounded by Palestinians who live under a different system of law that is itself frequently suspended through acts of sovereign violence (See Neve Gordon, Israel’s Occupation, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2008). This division of the citizen from non-citizen can be contrasted to an inclusive conception of the ‘right to have rights’ held by different people in the region. It is such an understanding of citizenship that Bassam Shakaa, the former mayor of Nablus, referred to when he described himself as a ‘Citizen’ in conversation with the French writer Eric Hazan in 2006 (Eric Hazan, Notes on the Occupation: Palestinian Lives, New York and London: The New Press, 2006, p. 21). Shakaa is not the formal citizen of any state, but he describes himself as a ‘Citizen’ on the basis of his commitment to a notion of civic responsibility and his understanding that he should have the rights of a citizen. Such understandings have also informed the political movement against the West Bank Barrier that has involved grassroots cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian activists in Palestinian villages such as Ma’sha and Bil’in. These actions are underpinned by values of political equality defined in opposition to the division between citizen and non-citizen, especially where Israelis stand alongside Palestinians against members of their own army, and where Israelis and Palestinians have formed new political micro-communities such as at the anti-wall camp in Ma’sha in 2003 (See Tanya Reinhart, The Road Map to Nowhere: Israel/Palestine since 2003, London and New York: Verso, 2006). These communities were not organised around an explicitly articulated desire to redefine citizenship. Nevertheless, these practices constituted moments of rupture within the dominant political order of ethnic-national separation of the kind fundamental to acts of citizenship.

Relationships between acts of citizenship, ‘the distribution of the sensible’, and photography in the context of Israel and the occupied territories can be explored through the discussion of two examples. The first example is defined by the critical and curatorial work of the Israeli writer Ariella Azoulay, particularly her exhibition Act of State held in early June 2007. This exhibition was intended as a history of the Israeli occupation through photographs.

'Act of State', Minshar Gallery, Tel Aviv, June 2007

Amongst the photographs arranged chronologically around the walls of the Minshar Gallery in Tel Aviv were images that involved Palestinians presenting evidence of the brutalities of the occupation to the camera. These photographs involve strong instances of negotiation between the photographer and the photographed person. Palestinians are depicted showing marks of torture on their bodies, wounds resulting from rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition, and spent tear gas canisters. 

'Act of State', Minshar Gallery, Tel Aviv, June 2007

One photograph depicts a shop-owner holding up a padlock cut by Israeli paratroopers to break a strike against the occupation in Hebron in 1982. 

Anat Saragusti, 'Hebron', 1982

Azoulay has interpreted the act of presenting the padlock to the camera in terms reminiscent of Isin and Nielsen’s conception of acts of citizenship. Thus she states in her book The Civil Contract of Photography: ‘His stance is an insistent refusal to accept the noncitizen status assigned him by the governing power and a demand for participation in a sphere of political relations within which his claims can be heard and acknowledged.’ (Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, New York: Zone Books, 2008, p. 20) Azoulay suggests that this demand for citizenship is made on the basis of an assumption that the imagined viewer of the photograph will care about what they see and find it intolerable. This assumption that photography can function as an alternative court of appeal appears to be shared by other Palestinians. For example, a member of the Israeli women’s organisation Checkpoint Watch reported on 3 July 2008 that a Palestinian woman at the Hawara checkpoint near Nablus asked her to ‘Photograph me and show it to all. That all should know what they are doing to us.’ Like the shopkeeper holding up the padlock, the woman assumed that there are people in Israel who will recognise her as someone deserving of ‘the right to have rights’. Working from such gestures made by Palestinians to cameras wielded by Israeli photographers, Azoulay suggests that these acts are just one point in set of civic relations that potentially link the photographed person, the photographer, and the viewer. Such civic relations exceed the sovereign power of the Israeli state and the ethnic-national distinction that divides people governed by this state. The combination of the photographs and the responses Azoulay argues they have the potential to generate disrupts formal distinctions between the citizen and the non-citizen, delineating a different conception of citizenship. As such, these photographs involve an answerability that makes them similar to acts of citizenship as theorised by Isin and Nielsen. However, the obvious problem here is that there is no further possibility of rejoinder to the viewer on the part of the photographed person simply because they are only present as an image. Photography can be an important form of witnessing and as such can function as a token within political struggles over citizenship, but it cannot adequately function as a proxy for a person. This means that if the taking of the photographs included in Act of State and discussed by Azoulay in her book can be identified as acts of citizenship, they are so in rather limited terms. One might therefore suggest that Azoulay’s focus on the civic potential of photography has been generated out of, as well as against the prevailing conditions of separation between Israelis and Palestinians. This is not stated to discount Azoulay’s ideas but to suggest that what she calls ‘the civil contract of photography’ might only contribute to acts of citizenship through the incorporation of photographic practices into broader structures of political action that involve interactions between actual people.

My second example involves the unofficial presentation of photographs of checkpoint activities at the Hawara checkpoint by the Palestinian photographer Khaled Jarrar. This exhibition began at 12.00pm on Saturday 3 February 2007 and lasted for three hours. Jarrar had pre-publicised the exhibition amongst Palestinian acquaintances and NGOs, including Checkpoint Watch. This resulted in about 50 Palestinians, Israelis and foreign passport holders turning up expressly to take part in the exhibition as an event. Without the presence of the Israelis and the foreign passport holders the exhibition would not have been allowed to take place. These people also participated in the hanging of the 41 small photographs used for the exhibition on a fence between the entrance and exit of the Ramallah side of the checkpoint.

Khaled Jarrar, exhibition at Hawara Checkpoint, February 2007

The responses the exhibition provoked from Palestinians and Israeli soldiers are particularly interesting for the current discussion. One international observer reported an encounter between a Palestinian man and a soldier in which the man pointed to the photographs and declared to the soldier ‘look what you are doing to us’.

Khaled Jarrar, exhibition at Hawara Checkpoint, February 2007

It seems from this that the presence of the photographs temporarily altered the field of vision at the checkpoint so that a different relationship between what could be seen, thought and said was generated. Jarrar himself reports that when he took down the photographs and was placing them in the boot of a taxi three soldiers came over to talk to him. This conversation did not involve Israeli soldier-citizens acting as ‘petty sovereigns’ (See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London and New York: Verso, 2004), simply ordering Jarrar, the non-citizen, to do something. Rather it involved a moment in which the soldiers, prompted by the photographs, felt it necessary to explain their position to Jarrar. The soldiers contested the veracity of the photographs, suggesting that they misrepresented the treatment of people at the checkpoint, which they asserted was mostly ‘good’. Jarrar responded by challenging the ’right’ of the soldiers to either treat ‘well’ or mistreat Palestinians at the checkpoint, affirming in the process, the absurdity of a ‘good’ checkpoint experience. As Jarrar comments, in response to this, one of the soldiers ‘felt she needed to defend herself and her comrades by saying that they have to protect their country and that it is legitimate to fight terrorists.’ In relation to this conversation it seems that displaying the photographs functioned as an act of citizenship in the sense that it provoked a rejoinder from the soldiers. The exhibition involved a degree of answerability to which the soldiers responded by momentarily regarding Jarrar as a subject who had to be treated as some kind of equal and whose subsequent rejoinders also required response. For this to happen Jarrar had to be present alongside the photographs. The photographs as separate representations of the reality of the checkpoint experience needed to be present to add a new element to the checkpoint context, but their role was that of a kind of go-between around which an interaction between Jarrar and the soldiers could ensue. Although photographs can function as forms of appeal for people pictured within them, they cannot function independently of how they are used. This means that we might characterise gestures made by people in front of the camera as acts of citizenship, but the import of these acts cannot be fulfilled without the separate actions of others who use the photographs. In this sense whatever the civic relations enabled by photographs of the Israeli occupation might be, they are relations that are segmented and disjointed, rather than involving a cohesive political space defining a citizenship that goes beyond the limitations enforced by the state; a cohesiveness that Azoulay ‘invents theoretically’, to use her words, in The Civil Contract of Photography (Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, p. 12). This is also the case with the exhibition Act of State, where it is the gaze and thoughts of the spectator, and the texts Azoulay placed alongside each image, as well as the words she articulated in gallery talks that activated the photographs in particular ways. These acts of interpretation respond to the image created by the initial negotiation between the photographer and the photographed person, but they are separate acts. These acts respond to photographs as discrete aesthetic entities that have the potential to contribute to the world of politics through the reordering of visible reality that they entail.

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