Palestine, Partition, and the Photographic Imagination (Ariella Azoulay)

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This picture of a bus connecting Haifa and Beirut from the time of the British Mandate in Palestine, which I found in an article from +972 by Ariella Azoulay. And the ruins of Lod are, which I’m afraid to say against the intention of the author, are in their own sad way beautiful. They form part of a historical-political argument asserting that the partition of the country in 1947/1948 was a curse or a crime.

As always reading Azoulay, I’m not sure about the visual argument that she wants to make about aligning memory and moral-juridical frames of reference in relation to the violent historical ebb and flux of population movements and to the brute force of demographics and national difference. If you don’t accept the judgment that the partition of Palestine in 1948 was a “crime,” then the force of Azoulay’s argument about photography dissolves, leaving us with a group of photographs drawn from a different time and place.

I keep coming back to her work in part due to the respect that many of my friends have for her. They tend to be more generous than I am and I respect that generosity. And in part because of Azoulay’s photographic eye, the way she puts together an archive of pictures, even as I mistrust at the very same time the interpretive heavy hand at work in her writing. I’m beginning to understand that my ongoing interest in Azoulay’s work has more to do with [1] photography than with [2] history and politics, while also understanding that she would reject the difference or distinction I’m trying to articulate here.

But we know that photography has a complex relation to reference that is very media specific to its own iconic constructions and indexical constructedness. Responding to a comment sent to me here at the blog re: my last post about her, I put it this way. At work in the archive-argument constructed by Azoulay is the construction of photographic world, which is an imaginary world, unmoored, as such, from the historical referent which the author wants to judge and wants us to judge along with her. The imaginary character of this world is complicated, perhaps even obscured by the reality-effect you get from photography. Whatever you might think about it, one way or the other, I think it’s the unmooring of photography from reference that makes Azoulay’s work and the argument that the work supports genuinely interesting –not as truth, but as appearance.

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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1 Response to Palestine, Partition, and the Photographic Imagination (Ariella Azoulay)

  1. efmooney says:

    These photographs are amazing! Thanks for sharing them Zak, even if her prose eludes me. Don’t we need to have levels of truth and appearance? There’s no ‘illusion’ or ‘mere appearance’ or non-truth about that robust bus advertising its route between Haifa to ‘Beyrouth.’ That’s an indisputable truth (unless she is adept at photo-shop and a liar to boot). Of course, what you draw from that picture by way of a community that extends beyond that required if a bus is to function between Haifa and ‘Beyrouth’ is another matter. I think there’s plenty of truth in photography we can call documentary, plenty of it. From its discrete truths we weave narratives that can distort or intensify what become larger truths. We are creatures who spin tales. The threads needn’t lie, though the fabrics can be untrustworthy.

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