“A Treasury of Rays”: Finding a Winter Garden in Palestine
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In May 2018, photographs of Gaza speak to one another through the tangled cables of the international media. Tear-gas canisters drag ghostly trails of white across the black smoke of burning rubber, patterns of noxious fumes seeping onto screens and across pages all over the world. Protesters carry slingshots into the New York Times and stretchers into Al Jazeera, boys too young to grow beards lie still for a second in the upper-left corner of the nightly news. Parents press faces into the death shrouds of their children, people run, anger blooms like a burst blood vessel over the glossy images of so many Palestinian flags.
These photographs, it seems, are more in a series of elegies. Whatever they show — bodies ready for burial, doctors in ill-equipped hospitals, children flying kites — all of these images become images of death. Decades of media coverage have transformed Palestinians into visual synecdoches of their struggle, and especially since Israel began its blockade of the territory, in 2007, nowhere is this more apparent than in photographs of Gaza. As the name itself grows synonymous, on different edges of the political prism, with collective punishment, low life expectancy, and reckless extremism, the images made of it become pixels in a generalized portrait of suffering.
When Mayssara Batniji was married there in 1985, Gaza had not yet slipped into the nightmare we know today. The photographs his family members took at his wedding, destined for frames and photo albums, were those of joy and celebration, untethered to the specters of death and disorder. This changed in 1987, when, two weeks into the First Intifada, Mayssara was shot dead by an Israeli sniper. Mayssara became a martyr, and these family photographs became precious, painful objects, the images of a groom who “is dead and is going to die.” They remained in their frames and albums, but in the privacy of the family home the ritual of viewing them became one not only of remembrance, but also of mourning: for the personal loss of Mayssara, and for the enduring losses of the struggle that ended his life.
Five years before Mayssara’s wedding, on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, Roland Barthes published what would become his best-known work on photography, Camera Lucida. Written shortly after the death of Barthes’s mother, the book is as much a meditation on mourning as it is an account of photography, hinging largely on a (potentially apocryphal) image of his mother as a child. This image, “the Winter Garden Photograph,” emerges through the text as a kind of comfort object for Barthes, euphorically uncovered after a voracious and emotional search. The photograph satisfies the author in a way other images of his mother could not; “my grief wanted . . . an image which would be both justice and accuracy,” he explains, but so many “were merely analogical, provoking only her identity, not her truth.” The Winter Garden Photograph, by contrast, was “essential,” achieving, for Barthes, “the impossible science of the unique being.” Clearly, what constitutes justice and accuracy — what, indeed, comprises “the impossible science of the unique being” — is a question of an intensely personal nature. What Barthes describes as observing the core truth of his mother is in fact a means of processing grief; some spark in a photograph compels him to accept it as a proxy for its subject, legitimizing the communicative exchange he craves with the deceased. As Margaret Olin notes, Barthes uses the photograph “to satisfy his desire to possess or commune with his mother, to absorb her into himself and preserve her there through his identification with her.”
This article will attempt to answer one question: What does it mean for a Palestinian to have a Winter Garden Photograph? Put differently, how can a Palestinian use photography as a means to “possess or commune with” departed loved ones, given the nature of a visual field that links death to sight in ways that preclude intimacy? As I will demonstrate, both the Israeli scopic regime and its primary antagonist, the humanitarian media, visualize the deaths of Palestinians according to a limited set of principles, in relation to external interests. These deaths — past, present, or impending, actual or hypothetical — are bound by photography and the historical, military, and media discourses that rely on it to the assumption of a non-Palestinian audience. Photography is linked to the evidentiary and posited as a way to confirm, deny, or control the deaths of Palestinians, rather than to mourn or memorialize them. To use the photograph as a means of communing or identifying with the deceased thus becomes a radical act for a Palestinian, whose access to privacy, ownership, and representation is severely restricted; indeed, doing so resists the very conditions of photography under Israeli occupation.
As an example of such a subversive practice, I will return to Mayssara Batniji’s wedding pictures — or one incarnation thereof. To My Brother (2012) is a series of sixty etchings by Mayssara’s sibling, the artist Taysir Batniji (b. 1966), who redeveloped the negatives twenty-five years after Mayssara’s death and traced the photographs by hand, carving their outlines into the surface of white paper without using ink or pencil to mark them.
The resulting white-on-white impressions exist at the edge of the visible, yet their tenuous legibility ultimately points to their photographic logic. The act of manual tracing, foregrounded over the iconography of the image, mirrors and underscores the materiality of the photograph as something that is, as Susan Sontag puts it, “stenciled directly off the real.” The fusion of the (photochemical) imprints made by Mayssara’s body and those diligently traced by Taysir’s hand asserts the magic of the photographic index, its unique — if fleeting — ability to bridge the chasm between the living and the dead. At the same time, it troubles the relationship between the indexical and iconic elements of photography, suggesting that distancing one from the other enables a more empathic engagement with the image. Ultimately, the work posits the family photograph as a unique site for reordering the evidentiary and the emotional as they relate to the photographic index, offering a means of reframing the relationship between death and the visual in Palestine.
This essay begins by delving further into the meaning of the index and its function in To My Brother, borrowing from Margaret Olin’s notion of the “performative index” in order to explore how Batniji’s etchings challenge the importance of resemblance in photography. Then, it considers the implications of this challenge for the terms of the Israeli scopic regime. Here, my analysis is rooted in Gil Hochberg’s formulation of Israel’s “visual occupation” as anchored in the concepts of concealment, surveillance, and witnessing; this powerful formulation structures the remainder of the essay, which examines how the work’s engagement with visibility, tactility, and the gaze reveals the performative index as a strategy for contesting scopic dominance and creating space for intimate connections with images. By way of conclusion, I return to the question of family photography, reflecting on Batniji’s work as a window onto the peculiar sovereignty of the family photograph.
Magical Thinking and the Performative Index
Taysir Batniji trained as a painter, first in Palestine and later in France, but since the beginning of his career, in the 1990s, has declined to define his practice according to a particular medium. Instead, the artist has developed a remarkably interdisciplinary, multimedia oeuvre, which uses everything from photography to found objects in search of “an artistic language . . . that reflects the situation of Palestinians today, between presence and absence, displacement and emergency.” Many of his most entrancing works subtly exploit viewers’ assumptions about Palestinian identity, as well as their expectations regarding his medium. In Laughter (figure 4), for example, his use of embroidery inevitably invites association with Palestinian folk crafts; Palestinian women have produced widely respected embroidery for centuries, and, especially with its red and ivory color palette, the work evokes a tradition known to Palestinians and foreigners alike. To a non-Arabic speaker, the association of embroidery with decorative patterns might suggest we are looking at something foliate or nonrepresentational, such as a piece of a border design, and its primary visual connotation is that of “Palestinian-ness.” An Arabic speaker, however, will recognize this as repetition of the letter H, reading “hahahahaha” across the swath of fabric. Laughter’s significance is determined not by its legibility, but rather from its exilic existence as simultaneously legible and illegible, both a cultural marker and an inside joke that muddles the boundaries among writing, sewing, speech, and decoration.
Like Laughter, To My Brother derives its power from layering signifiers that speak across and against borders of representation. At first glance, the work appears as a series of sixty blank pages placed in white frames and hung in close proximity to one another. Move closer, however, and the spectral images of a celebration begin to emerge: men and women, young and old, dance beneath garlands of lights, as uncles, cousins, grandparents, and friends hold children who eye the festivities impatiently. Following the faint outlines of bodies in motion, one soon discerns the ghostly imprints of a happy couple — Mayssara and his wife — posing dutifully for photographs amid the hubbub of their wedding. No ink marks the outlines of the bride, groom, or guests; instead, the artist used a small knife or stylus to carve them directly into the paper, calling attention to their diligent, even tedious construction.
In considering the relationship of these images to photography, it is helpful to reflect on Sontag’s assertion that “a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image) [but] it is also a trace” of whatever has been photographed. However skilled a painter may be in photorealistic depiction, her work, according to Sontag, “is never more than the stating of an interpretation,” whereas “a photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects) — a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be.” A photograph, like a Catholic relic, is in some way co-substantial with its subject rather than simply representing or referring to it; it is, in semiotic terms, an index of its referent.
As a form of manual reproduction, tracing occupies a liminal space: it cannot be said to “state an interpretation,” nor can it be understood as a direct material vestige of the thing it visually represents. Batniji’s images are, in a literal sense, indices not of the figures they portray but of a manually operated tool and, by extension, the artist’s hand. As traces, their relationship to their referent is necessarily anterior: they are what the referent has left behind, testimonies to Taysir’s absent body. Because the photographs from which they were traced also have indexical relationships to their subjects, To My Brother can be seen to form connections between connections. In tracing a photograph of Mayssara, the artist brings impressions of his own body into contact with those of his brother’s — able, in a sense, to touch him again.
This is what grief demands of a photograph: a material reconstitution, however partial or temporary, of the life that was lost. Indeed, Batniji’s poignant drawing-together of traces is akin to Barthes’s search for the Winter Garden Photograph insofar as they both emanate a specific and visceral longing for the image-as-agent, a belief in (or perhaps a hope for) its ability to respond to their love. They seek not only to touch but also to be touched, and this fantasy is enabled by the nature of the photograph as “a material vestige of its subject.” “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here” notes Barthes; his picture of the Winter Garden is “the treasury of rays which emanated from [my] mother as a child, from her hair, her skin, her dress, her gaze,” on the particular day it was taken. In the intimate context of a family album or collection, the photograph of a deceased person is cherished because it preserves a link to the corporeal, endowing the (sur)real body of the subject with agency no longer available to it beyond the borders of the image. Through the minor miracle of the index, the empty hope of resurrection rises to the surface of the possible.
If the photograph’s magic derives from its direct connection to bodies, though, what can be said of the fact that Mayssara is not the sole figure in these sixty etchings? What happens to the power of the index when the touch it facilitates is not always between the bodies of these brothers, but often between the artist and other objects or people? This dilemma calls to mind Margaret Olin’s suggestion that the greatest indexical power of the photograph lies in the relationship between the image and its beholder, rather than between the photograph and its subject. The “performative index,” she asserts, behaves in a relational sense that expands the field of engagement beyond the index and its literal referent, “performing a relation that may not depend on resemblance.” Per this formulation, the iconic quality of the photograph— that is, its visual likeness to its subject — is not necessarily related to its indexicality.
It is here that the material nature of the objects at hand announces itself most stubbornly. These are not photographs, and even their performative index exists as a trace. What we see is the imprint of an exchange, the establishment of a relationship between Batniji and the images of his brother’s wedding based on an indexically catalyzed touch. Referents and indices expand and contract before our eyes, but they do so within a finite set of associations into which we cannot enter. We, as viewers, are only secondhand beholders, encouraged by the flat, evasive images to seek their connection to someone else rather than trying to find our own.
The focused intimacy of the connection thus created is especially remarkable given the communicative obstacles facing Batniji as a Palestinian living in exile. These can be succinctly imagined in the shape of a long-distance phone call — one that comes after days of negotiating time zones, missing one another due to miscalculation. It’s expensive and the connection is horrible, the conversation stymied by the constant need to repeat oneself over the metallic crackle of static or by the sudden silence of a dropped call. On one end of the line, the lethargic hum of a quiet apartment in a European city, and on the other, Gaza: “overbearingly loud,” inundated with the harsh sounds of traffic, the “ceaseless buzz” of drones, “the cloud-shattering booms of the F-16s.” The call registers an unmentioned difference: slips in language, subtle changes in accents, the hollow feeling of lives that once mirrored each other drifting steadily in opposite directions.
Batniji’s recent work deals with his global web of familial relationships, emphasizing the kinds of disjunctures this image evokes. In To My Brother, however, the artist reaches beyond his geographical, temporal, and representational limitations to assert a soft, unbroken intimacy. The rest of this essay will consider how To My Brother accomplishes this by exploiting the play between presence and absence, thus creating a fissure between the index and the icon. It does not sever the two altogether, but it frays the ties that bind them in order to subsume the literal, multiple referents of the wedding photographs into the “meta-referent” of his brother. Here, the index maintains its association with the Barthesian “that-has-been,” the life that once was, but the referent expands to encompass precisely that: the life, rather than the body, of the deceased, inclusive of the people Mayssara loved and the spaces he occupied. Batniji’s work enacts a poignant and personal connection between brothers, but it also establishes the conditions for that connection; deemphasizing the role of resemblance creates space for Palestinian mourning in an overwhelmed visual sphere, defying the restrictions of the occupied image-world and deflecting the gazes that constitute it.
Death and the Israeli Scopic Regime
On July 19, 2018, Israel passed a constitutional law that defines itself as the exclusive homeland of the Jewish people. This law affirms that Israel’s right to self-determination is natural, cultural, religious, and historical in nature; most significantly, it asserts that this right is exclusive to the Jewish people. In the days following the passage of the bill, Israel faced a tempest of international criticism, as well as strong, vocal opposition from its own left wing. This outrage, though, belies the fact that there is nothing extraordinary about the Nation-State Law. Its deliberate exclusion of Palestinians did not create their gaping absence from Israeli civil society; it merely gestures to a practice of omission and erasure stretching back to the state’s foundation. Law or no law, Palestinian existence is shrouded by everything from the segregation of physical space to the use of misleading terms such as “Israeli Arab,” defined in many ways by a kind of “visible invisibility.”
Gil Hochberg coins this apt phrase in Visual Occupations: Violence and Visibility in a Conflict Zone (2015). According to Hochberg, “visible invisibility” is a condition of various spatial and rhetorical strategies — “state-governed blinding mechanisms,” as the author terms them — that attempt the erasure of Palestinian history and experiences from the Israeli visual field. The inevitably incomplete nature of this erasure translates into a kind of haunting, “an invisibility that calls attention to itself as such,” especially with regard to the history of the Palestinian Nakba. The remnants of razed Palestinian villages hide in plain sight, rebranded by the Israeli national parks system as “biblical ruins” or subsumed into the “natural beauty” of carefully planted forests. The concept even extends to a specific legal status, presently held by more than seven hundred thousand Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories. During the creation of Israel, in 1948, many Palestinians who were expelled from their homes resettled elsewhere within the boundaries of historic Palestine, often near the houses they hoped to return to. Because Israeli law allows the state to seize any property whose owners it deems “absent” — whether or not those owners left consensually — these Palestinians lack any legal capacity to reclaim the homes to which they still hold deeds. The United Nations defines such people and their descendants as “internally displaced persons” (IDPs); in Israel, they are known as “present absentees.”
Hochberg argues that the ethos of concealment — of which “visible invisibility” is an integral part — is one of three structuring principles that govern the scopic regime of the Israeli occupation. The second, surveillance, defines the visual sphere experienced by Palestinians as dominated by the militarized Israeli gaze, exemplified most aggressively by the checkpoints dotting the West Bank. Third, Palestinian lives are rendered visible to a global audience through the framework of witnessing: “eyewitness” modes of reportage, notably photojournalism, seek to document visual testimony to the “reality” of the occupation. This incisive formulation can be seen to link the deaths of Palestinians to the visual world — and thus to photography — in a limited set of terms that correspond to its tripartite structure.
First, it constructs the Palestinian as a ghost, whose past life or invisible existence acts on the Israeli present through the dynamics of concealment and disclosure. Second, it communicates the immediate threat of death through a highly visible militarized gaze, of which the Palestinian is subject. Third, international efforts to “bear witness” to Palestinian suffering result in the emergence of death as a spectacle. Here, photography is meant to contest the boundaries of the visible imposed by the state; unfortunately, the conditions of the occupation all but assure the absorption of these images as generic and unremarkable by audiences saturated with images of horror.
Although Hochberg’s analysis centers on the West Bank, the impotence of the humanitarian gaze is nowhere more apparent than in Gaza, from which images of suffering emerge constantly into mainstream media to be promptly forgotten or recontextualized. Indeed, her formulation of the scopic regime endured by West Bank Palestinians is applicable to the besieged strip as well, though not without caveat. Mechanisms of surveillance differ considerably between the two territories, given the nature of their respective relationships with the Israeli military. Palestinians are not subjected to the same system of checkpoints within Gaza as they are on the West Bank, yet the militarized gaze that materializes through this system is everywhere in Gaza. There, it is embodied not in the checkpoint but instead in the drone, which, omnipresent, constantly collapses the threat of death with the knowledge of being watched.
No well-kept forests grow over Gaza’s ruins, however. Lack of funding, coupled with Israeli restrictions on the import of construction materials, ensures that buildings destroyed during the 2008–2009, 2012, and 2014 bombardments remain in states of disrepair, a dearth of some 125,000 housing units creating highly visible homelessness and extreme overcrowding. Two thirds of Gaza’s population comprises internally displaced refugees — the human cost of ghostly ruins elsewhere in historic Palestine — hundreds of thousands of whom live in camps that are packed beyond capacity. If the visual spheres of the West Bank and Israel are haunted by the ghosts of the past, Gaza’s is an open wound, the aggressively present site where the brutality of the colonial enterprise manifests most visibly.
The urgency of its landscape notwithstanding, Gaza still falls prey to erasure via rhetorical revisionism. As the communications scholar Dina Matar has pointed out, the nature of violence in Gaza is concealed by the Western media’s careful phrasing; Israel and Hamas “exchange fire,” a “war erupts,” Israel “responds” to Gazan provocation, and readers are led to believe they are witnessing a fair fight instigated by Palestinian terrorism. This sort of coverage obscures a multitude of sins, foremost among them the essence of the conflict as one between colonized and colonizer, and the enormous disparity in power and resources — not to mention death tolls — that such a conflict entails.
Haunting, Conjuring (In)Visibility
In conceptualizing To My Brother, Taysir Batniji drew inspiration from a particular memory:
I contemplated the details of my brother’s death, what to show and what not to show. . . . And I thought about this pencil drawing of an Israeli soldier that my brother had done a few hours before his death. For some reason, I or another brother erased the drawing. The imprint of the pencil markings still remained, and I thought, why don’t I do a work with the wedding photos in the same way, trying to achieve this effect of something that was there but has disappeared? Something that we can see but not really see.
In considering how to reflect on his brother’s death, Batniji’s evocation of (incomplete) erasure returns us to Hochberg’s notion of visible invisibility. As I have established, the presence of absence is a loaded concept for Palestinians, weighted by years of physical displacement and cultural effacement. Here, however, the artist evokes it not as a representational condition but as the very state of grief: the acute awareness of “something that was there but has disappeared . . . something we can see but not really see.” Those of us who have lost a loved one might empathize intuitively with this paradoxical paradigm, knowing the way death can calcify as a tangible lack. For a Palestinian, though, such a formulation requires reclaiming absence from an overdetermined field of signifiers, reinvesting in its potential to resonate rather than erase.
Within the terms of the Israeli scopic regime, notes Hochberg, the invisible is rendered visible through a kind of “haunting.” The ruins of Palestinian homes “haunt” the Israeli landscape through the insistent visibility of absence, the gap that marks the failure of the Zionist state to fully assimilate the ruined villages into its national narrative of indigeneity. The palpable presence of absence is inextricable from the obfuscatory mechanics of the Israeli scopic regime; the state’s attempt to obscure a truth results in its spectral emergence. Haunting is, after all, a crisis of visibility, by which the unseen nevertheless makes itself known by acting on the terrestrial. Like the Freudian uncanny, haunting is attached to the sudden resurfacing of the repressed, the intrusion of the forbidden despite the efforts of the rational brain.
“Haunting,” “spectral,” and “uncanny” are among the many magical adjectives To My Brother calls to mind. Here, the empty space of the blank page is punctuated only by emptier space, the etched grooves in which the play of light and shadow outlines the traced photographs. The legibility of a given composition changes with the angle at which it is viewed; perched on the edge of the visible, it appears and disappears with the ethereal instability of ghosts. Indeed, it may even seem intuitive to see this series as staging the uncanny. The familiar — amateur photos of a family wedding — is rendered strange, drained of warmth and reduced to a maze of lines and shadows barely visible against its white field. The work and thus this transformation were prompted by death, and analogize the event at the heart of the uncanny: the creation of a corpse from a living human being.
Yet the presence of absence does not haunt these images as it does the image-world of the Israeli occupation. If a marked failure to appear is disclosive in both cases, the conditions of its disclosure starkly differentiate its meanings. Impulses of secrecy, repression, and concealment animate the occupied visual field, arming the plain fact of absence with a mutinous edge. Gaps and silences, here, are filled with the clamoring of a collective subconscious and heavy with the threat of exposure. In Batniji’s work, by contrast, absence shows itself freely, without contestation; it emerges through a transparent and deliberate process, rather than as a triumph of the repressed.
The uncanny, too, fits this work poorly, as it fails to account for the fundamental intimacy of Batniji’s etchings. Created only by the pressure of a stylus on the paper’s surface, Batniji’s otherworldly forms are inseparable from the labor that produced them. The delicate linework mapping the contours of the photographs attests to the artist’s patience and concentration, each carefully traced shape announcing itself as intentional. Batniji wrestles the “visible invisible” from the terms of haunting imposed by the Israeli scopic regime and uses it, instead, to actively conjure absence, welcoming the ghosts it shelters. Absence, in this series, is not a failed claim of nonexistence. Rather, it is a frank declaration of “that-has-been”: it is both the form and the content of To My Brother, negative impressions on blank white pages that figure loss in its most visceral form.
Batniji successfully decouples the presence of absence from the restrictive framework of haunting in order to mobilize it as a space for loving, if painful, reflection. The method by which he does this is as significant as the act itself, but in order to understand why, we must consider the place of photography in maintaining Israel’s “visual occupation.” All three of the concepts signaled by Hochberg are underwritten, in the case of photography, by a belief in the index as evidentiary. The indexical quality of a ruined wall — or a photographic index of one — is what grants it the power to “haunt”; it bears a “trace of truth,” a physical testimony to the “thereness” of a repressed past that allows this past to resurface. The indexical trace is what renders the invisible visible. Faith in photography’s ability as an index to convey accurate information about its referent supports the use of photographic surveillance technologies as well as its deployment as a means of “witnessing.” The terms of the Israeli scopic regime can be seen to fuse the icon with the index in the service of providing or discrediting evidence: the iconography of a photograph offers information, where its indexicality works effectively to authenticate it. The photograph is positioned as necessarily making a claim, or as verifying a claim imposed on it, by visually representing reality.
Batniji’s piece undermines this representational framework by driving a thin wedge between the icon and the index. The visible is unreliable, but the absence is known and named; however the appearance of the work’s surface may change, knowledge remains rooted in the “that-has-been.” To My Brother signals this by subordinating the visual to the tactile, enchanting us with its texture, compelling us to trace the fragile veins of these images across the paper’s smooth surface. Touch, like the index, is here a “conduit to reality,” the concrete act by which these images were created as well as that which allows us to verify their existence. Our ability to see the etchings is conditional, depending on light, but the grooves themselves are unchanging: always able to be felt, always feeling the same way.
Evading the Gaze
Through Batniji’s enactment of the performative index, touch, rather than sight, becomes the bearer of information. The work presents itself as communicative — even the title, To My Brother, takes the form of an address, and the viewer cannot help but think of Batniji’s laborious process as a way of mining messages from the past. The information conveyed in this intimate exchange, however, is coded within the relationship among Batniji, these images, and the brother they have come to represent. The viewer is privy only to the act of connection, heavy as it is with the intricacies of longing and grief; she cannot access nor participate in the intimate communion it enables. She is not addressed.
To My Brother’s refusal to address the spectator is bound up in its deflection of the gaze. More accurately, it is linked to its evasion of two specific gazes, both of which have largely determined how the deaths of Palestinians are visualized: the Israeli military gaze and that of the non-Palestinian “witness.” In order to understand the significance of this deflection, we must return to Gil Hochberg’s observations of Israel’s “visual occupation.” The visual field of the West Bank, Hochberg argues, is governed by a logic of surveillance that ensures that Palestinians remain subject to and, crucially, highly aware of the Israeli militarized gaze. This concept manifests as a surveillance apparatus that is characterized at once by highly sophisticated technology and primitive means of control; whereas satellite imagery, passive sensors, and various digital classificatory systems effectively render the Occupied Territories wholly porous to the intrusions of the occupier, watchtowers, checkpoints, and trained guns maintain a “spectacle of power” in the control of Palestinians. The Israeli gaze and its structural conduits define the Palestinian as an occupied subject, always looked at and unable to look.
The gaze can be equally determining in images that seek to undermine the hierarchy of surveillance. Since the Oslo period, the Occupied Territories have experienced a proliferation of human-rights NGOs as well as an increased international media presence, both of which often seek to expose the plight of the Palestinians to a presumably ignorant world. The project of “bearing witness” to Palestinian suffering has largely revolved around images of human agony, which either directly depict death or allude to its imminence. As many critics have pointed out, the sheer volume of these images neutralizes their impact, and they circulate with the problematic effect of rendering death a spectacle. The gaze of the “witness,” first the photographer and then the viewer of the photograph, seems to substitute the impotent and voyeuristic act of looking for meaningful intervention against the atrocities depicted.
Not all consider this gaze to be futile or self-serving, however. To the contrary, Ariella Azoulay suggests that the exchange of gazes facilitated by the photograph constitutes a civil contract, which itself can productively reshape the economy of images of suffering. According to Azoulay, an injured non-citizen (that is, a Palestinian) enters the “citizenry” of photography by “addressing others through a photograph,” whereas the empowered citizen thus addressed “speaks on behalf of the photograph itself.” Indeed, the ethical imperative of the spectator under the civil contract of photography is to turn photographs of horror into emergency claims, to perform the imaginative and empathic work of moving from addressee to addresser in order to articulate “the sense of such photographs” as “signals of danger or warning.” This transformation from image to signal enables the photograph to productively intervene against the horrors it describes, counteracting the widespread apathy that meets these ubiquitous images today.
Batniji’s work engages with the gaze by frustrating the viewer’s efforts to glean information visually. The transient quality of the images eludes the steady gaze of the spectator, and the performative index’s removal from resemblance leaves no single person to witness or survey. To My Brother attaches Mayssara to sixty images, each showing different people and objects, and asserts the impossible indexicality of the connections thus made. In doing so, it suggests that Mayssara’s “essence” is to be found not in a given body, but in the montage of experiences that made up his life. Diffusing Mayssara’s identity across these images takes on additional significance when we consider the ways in which the Palestinian subject is isolated and degraded by the regime of surveillance, reduced to an identity photo to be scrutinized or a body to be searched.
In addition to evading the gaze, To My Brother prevents its figures themselves from gazing back. No claim is made, and Azoulay’s redemptive exchange of regards cannot occur. Indeed, Batniji’s etchings are indifferent to their spectator, a closed circuit in which the artist uncovers the “umbilical cord” of the index and follows it to his brother. The “horror” of Mayssara’s passing, and of the fact that similar killings occur almost daily in Palestine, is everywhere in the mournful etchings, but nowhere does it allow the spectator the privilege of “speaking for it.” We look, instead, as eavesdroppers enthralled by a fascinating conversation: rapt, empathic, but aware that whatever we learn was never meant for us. The temporal dimensions of the trace add to this effect, even hinting that the viewer is not welcome at all. In presenting a sign of something that is no longer present, the piece performs a small victory of evasion — had the gaze landed a moment earlier, it seems to suggest, it may have found its target. Instead, the viewer may only look at what remains, knowing that its referent is at large and, perhaps, content to remain unseen.
This essay has focused on the material qualities of objects that are not photographs. These qualities — namely, opacity and tactility — are not even ones we would necessarily identify in their source photographs; nevertheless, they enable the etchings to perform something distinctly photographic in their exploration of the index. To conclude, I will discuss something else these etchings borrow from family photography, or rather something family photography brings to them.The family photograph is not exempt from the burdens carried by other kinds of images in Palestine. Sons, daughters, parents, lovers die at the hands of soldiers, in the absence of adequate medical care, or for myriad other reasons attributable to the occupation, leaving images of their lives inevitably bound to the bitterness of their endings. A house once proudly photographed may have since been demolished, the living room in the background of an image now inhabited by a settler. For the Batniji family, as for many others, the images they cherish are laced with pain that cannot be divorced from its politicized context. Yet these private pictures, even when made public, linger at the periphery of Israeli visual control, maintaining a certain sovereignty unavailable to others. Theoretically, we can demand anything of family photography — hard data, evidence, “the truth” — but in practice, generally we do not. Instead, we approach it from a different register, a softer one, aiming not to prove or disprove anything but to learn about ourselves. The question of objectivity probably does not occur to us as we thumb through pages of faces we loved, or hated, or never knew. Even viewing a stranger’s family album, we will not default to a critical gaze: we will likely assume that the people in these pictures truly existed, and that the snapshots they inhabit have been spared the deceitful maneuverings of technology. At the same time, we will understand the personal and subjective nature of the images from the second we pick up the album, full as it is with the ephemera of everyday living. Truth, here, doesn’t ultimately matter, because in viewing the family photograph, we seek to recognize rather than to know. Batniji’s tender requiem subtly exploits this paradigm in order to highlight the photographic index as both a material and a miraculous connection. Freed by the absence of a truth claim from its usual role as authentication, the index serves as a synapse between the artist and his lost brother, perceived as such by a viewer whose empathy is assumed, rather than invited, by the framework of the family photograph. In contrast to interventionary models that weaponize the photograph as witness, To My Brother ultimately suggests the subversive potential of intimacy as an agent of visual decolonization. Batniji breaches the border of Israeli visual control not by presenting the photograph as a wound for all to see, but by possessing it as a “treasury of rays”: ineffable, indomitable, and rooted in the reality of love.
Alessandra Amin is a PhD candidate in the department of art history at UCLA, where she is writing a dissertation exploring art in the orbit of the Palestinian Liberation Organization during the 1960s and 1970s. Her research has been supported by the U.S. Department of Education, the Social Science Research Council, the Khalid Shoman Foundation at Darat al-Funun, and the Palestinian American Research Center.
Taysir Batniji with Sophie Jaulmes for the catalogue of Recontres d’Arles 2002 (translation mine). http://www.taysirbatniji.com/en/texts/taysir-batniji-2002 (accessed August 28, 2018).
For more on the manipulation of archaeology and landscape design in the erasure of Palestinian villages, see Nadia Abu el-Haj, Facts on the Ground (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (London: Oneworld, 2006); Noga Kadman, Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).
This figure comes from a press statement from Mufid al-Hasayneh, Minister of Public Works and Housing in Gaza, on 19 February 2018. English coverage of the statement is available at http://english.pnn.ps/2018/02/19/gaza-125000-homes-required-to-overcome-housing-crisis/.
As an example of this, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reports that more than 84,000 registered refugees currently reside in the Beach Camp, which covers only 0.52 square kilometer: https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/gaza-strip/beach-camp
For further analysis of anti-Palestinian bias in the mainstream media, see Greg Philo and Mike Berry, More Bad News from Israel (London: Pluto Press, 2004/2011); and Howard Friel and Richard Falk, Israel/Palestine on the Record (London: Verso, 2007).
According to Israeli human-rights agency B’Tselem, the IDF has killed 2,781 Gazan Palestinians between 19 January 2009 and 30 April 2018, of which 1,640 were known to be civilians. This figure reflects the number of Palestinians killed directly in military operations and does not include those who died after the infringement of the right to medical treatment, which remains a major problem in the territory. During the same period, Gazans have killed forty-five Israeli soldiers and have not killed any Israeli civilians. The report is available at https://www.btselem.org/statistics/fatalities/after-cast-lead/by-date-of-event.