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Blurring the lines between activism and photography

Activestills, a photography collective operating in Palestine/Israel, view the photographic act not just as witnessing, but as tantamount to the act of protest itself.

Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum
31 October 2016
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Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahmah flying a kite between two segments of the Israeli separation barrier during the weekly protest against the occupation, Bil’in, West Bank, 25 July, 2008. Photos by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org What is now termed “visual activism,” which includes “activist” or “struggle” photography, can be seen as offering a response to the radical critique leveled at photojournalism and documentary photography in the 1980s by critics such as Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula. These critics argued that by focusing on the condition of victimhood — and the empathy it was to intended to arouse in the viewer — documentary photography was complicit in the liberal politics of the day, and completely divorced from any social reform agenda or revolutionary politics.

Within the discourse about documentary photography, the focus was either on the “brave photographer,” or on the feelings of the spectator, but not on the subject of the photograph. This condition has led to the constitution of a passive viewer and perpetuated existing power relations in which information about a group of powerless people was addressed to the socially powerful.

In this way documentary photography failed to point out and address the economic, social, and political structures and conditions that enabled inequality in the first place. The shift from “classic” photojournalism to visual activism can be articulated as a radical change: from the documentation of destitution to the visualisation of political agency, and of social relationships and networks that underlie the activities of struggling and protesting communities.

Activestills’s work is an impressive and idiosyncratic example of this shift. The collective, whose members include Palestinian, Israeli, and international photographers, has been operating in Palestine/Israel since 2005.

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Subhiya Abu Rahmah, the mother of Bassem, and his brother Ashraf, pose for a portrait in front of their home, April 7, 2010. Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org. Its members see themselves as both activists and photographers, viewing their photographic act as interventionist — tantamount to the act of protest itself — and not simply as a form of witnessing. The collective’s emphasis is not on “representation” of the “suffering of the other,” but on the enactment of political agency and the demand for rights — to mobility, livelihood, and protection from violence.

As we elaborate in our book Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel, published earlier in October, activist photography is intrinsically bound with the communities with whom they work, and the oppressive strategies which they struggle against. In the case of Activestills, the collective’s efforts are meant to address the communities’ visual and material needs first, for example by supplying them with images for advocacy and legal actions.

In our view, Activestills’s photographs acquire their political currency not only because of what they show, but also due to their operative modes of transmission, circulation, and dissemination as integral components of struggles. One image that can be given as an example of the above is that of the late Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahmah, who was killed in 2009 by an Israeli soldier, during a protest in the West Bank village of Bil’in.

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Subhiya cleans the memorial monument to her son at a ceremony marking the eighth year of the popular struggle in Bil’in, 4 October, 2013. Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org.A photograph taken by Activestills of Bassem holding a kite near the Israeli separation barrier appears in a poster commemorating his death. The poster was then hung outside his house and around the village, and was later used as part of a memorial monument marking the site of his death. The image was also turned into a shield, protecting demonstrators from tear gas grenades during later protests.

Thus, the photograph takes an active part in the continuous mobilisation and propagation of the struggle through its appropriation by the community that it makes visible. The image becomes an agent for transformation and political change, rather than a “fixed” representation of resistance, an object for passive contemplation.

This logic also underlines Activestills’s modes of public display. The collective frequently organises street exhibitions in the spaces where the struggles for rights take place: in the streets of Bil’in; in the temporary tents built by residents of Al Araqib village following Israeli demolitions; and in the spaces where African asylum seekers and refugees live in Tel Aviv or where they are held in Holot detention center.

This mode of display allows protesting individuals to identify and recognise themselves as active political subjects, thereby reinforcing agency and collective affiliation. Thus holding, touching, and pointing to the photographs become acts of defiance; constitutive gestures through which oppressive power relations are challenged and redefined.

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Protesters marching with carton shields, Bil’in, 15 May, 2009. Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org. As our book examines, the power of activist photography is in its capacity to take part. As those photographed by Activestills and the photographers become agents for political change within global visual culture, they point together toward new possibilities for the enactment of collective agency, and the continuous regeneration of imaginative strategies for the visualisation of the political sphere.

Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel, edited by Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum, is published by Pluto Press.

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