Photographs (Gaza) (2012)

Pictures don’t say “anything,” they say “nothing” and certainly not “everything” as much as they show us “something.” I wanted to share this photograph gallery from the progressive Israeli website +972. They were created and distributed by Activestills, “a collective of Israeli, Palestinian, and international photographers, united by a conviction that photography is a vehicle for political and social change.” These are powerful photographs that demand our attention. But do  they “speak for themselves,” as per Activestills? For anyone who has thought for even a minute at all about pictures and photography, I don’t know what to do with this kind of a statement, except to try to parse it out, first morally-charitably and then politically-critically.

On the one hand, the photograph is transparent, the human face shown clearly. And yes, “we” can safely say that the Palestinians living in Gaza, and also in the West Bank, suffer, and that they suffer “more” than Israelis. This transparent aspect of these photographs reflect a simple truth that has nothing to do with Zionism or anti-Zionism. In Gaza, they are now suffering something terrible. That much we know for sure. In the picture, this suffering is present at hand. These pictures show us something about the human face, brute facts of raw suffering. But this “revelation” yields no critical or political knowledge. It’s purely human. They tell us next to nothing, which is an awful something.

On the other hand, these photographs, like all photographs, are opaque. For someone like myself, not persuaded that Israel, not even this rightwing government, simply attacks a civilian population unprovoked, these pictures do not simply speak for themselves. This hidden aspect of the photograph has everything to do with Zionism and anti-Zionism, with ideology and political calculations. Is “resistance” to Israel worth the price of waging conflict with Israel? What happened before and what happens next? These are inhuman questions, cruel and indecent.

Who’s going to budge and bend, what needs to happen from both sides of the political fence so this does not happen again? What needs to happen, first from the Israeli and then from the Palestinians, or first from the Palestinians and then from the Israelis, or all at once at the same time, or maybe from some other place, American or Egyptian? It almost doesn’t matter from where, only that “something happen.” Otherwise, it’s just going to be another batch of photographs, sooner or later.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to Photographs (Gaza) (2012)

  1. Gail says:

    I think photographs say a lot. At least that’s what Butler and Mitchell and Azoulay have convinced me. And I don’t think Gaza has “dropped off” on FB; I think your FB crowd recognizes the complexity and fraught quality of the entire situation–it’s emotionally equivalent to waking up and finding oneself in the middle of a land-mined field. (“Well, maybe I’ll just sit down and be very very still for a while, until someone comes along to guide me out of this mess.”) I do not condone states bombing anyone. I do not condone non-state entities using violent tactics to get across their dissatisfaction. I think anyone who by voice or by silence justifies or accepts the killing of children–even as ‘collateral damage’ or ‘because the enemy was using them as shields’ or because it ‘can’t be helped’–is abhorrent to me. I have a hard time thinking they are seriously part of the liberal project of democracy, or understand the reciprocity involved in the rhetoric of rights and justice.

    • zjb says:

      About the killing of children, I would also include the language of “sacrifice,” “martyrdom,” and “resistance,” and “war-machines.” But more to the point, it has not been my point to “justify” and “accept” this brute fact. Regarding this I know you are right, Gail. I think it comes down to “expecting” it when groups, no matter how assymetrically arrayed, enter into armed conflict with each other. About “liberalism,” I’m not so sure, though. This would suggest that liberalism does not assume war-like countenance, which I know you know isn’t true. We can take this back to colonialism and imperialism, which are liberal phenomena, and also to the carpet bombing and fire bombing of Germany and Japan by FDR and Truman during WW2. I think all of us are trying here to strike a balance between sympathy and criticism. My own thoughts about all this are very bitter.

  2. leakyink says:

    I wonder if the FB silence mirrors a persistent inability to articulate in words an adequate response, or even merely a response. I feel so incredibly torn, and I feel that in some way my words will always fall short of the gravity of what’s happening. I feel an incredible weight to use my words to talk about – indeed, paint pictures with – those I know in different parts of the world… and in a sense I feel paralyzed by that. And yes, sometimes I think visual images convey realities – those lived every day in Gaza and Tel Aviv and, yes, even Syracuse – in a way that words cannot. For me, visual images can sometimes help create the space for verbal images, for discourse.

    • zjb says:

      Yes, the language is conflicted, tired, worn out, whereas pictures are tireless? I don’t think that to “show” is the same as to “say.” I also think that you cannot do without one or the other. This gets back to “saying” versus the “said.” In her own reading of this Levinasian topos, Edith Wyschogrod (in the Ethics of Memory), went back to this need to articulate a sense of “the said,” which she understood as more verbal in relation to the silence and open-endedness of images.

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