The Impulse to Share Evidence: Tensions in Representing the Unity Uprising
by Rana Nazzal Hamadeh
Images of people suffering have long been a topic of debate. Images of inflicted violence can distance, objectify, condemn, and dehumanize—or they can produce compassion and move masses to action. As cameras have become omnipresent, critics have increasingly questioned the role and effect of images of suffering, but their undeniable importance to change-making produces important tensions. As artists, how can we make work that invokes the value of life? How can we represent violence without replicating the relations of domination depicted? How can we express everything that cannot be recreated: the invisible, banal, physical, and psychological effects of loss, suffering, and violence? And are there moments when we should simply try to show things as they are? These are some of the questions I asked myself in spring 2021 as a popular uprising erupted in Palestine.
“[S]traight photography leads you to the scandal of horror, not to horror itself,” wrote Roland Barthes in 1969.1 Three decades after her 1978 Cuesta del Plomo image of a severed body during the Nicaraguan revolution, photographer Susan Meiselas was still reflecting on whether it is even possible to “make pictures that are not spectacle for the comfortable safe lives that look at them from a distance.”2 And whereas images of suffering in distant places tell the viewer that “this is the sort of thing that happens in that place,”3 images of violence nearby can tell viewers that this is the sort of thing that happens to those people. In both cases, the image distances the subject from the viewer in such a way that leaves the latter incapable of identifying with the former.
Consider, for example, the nearly constant stream of videos documenting Black victims of police violence in the United States and Canada. Despite the immense visual evidence, jury conviction rates in the US have not been impacted, and the widespread denial of anti-Black racism prevails.4 When images and videos depicting racial violence reach our social media feeds, they become available to be watched again and again in all their graphic detail, running the risk of entangling viewers in a voyeuristic gaze at trauma, suffering, and grief. Although some documentation is taken with care, violence is often captured by technologies that belong to the perpetrators, such as surveillance cameras, or police car dashboard and body cameras, which deepen the likelihood of objectification.5
In the case of the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, aerial images, with their distancing frames were among the only representations of the violence distributed by North American media.6 That changed, for a moment, with the publication of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs. The photos of hooded prisoners next to smiling US soldiers with their thumbs up burst into the American public, interrupting, for many, the story of the noble American war and summoning disgust. The pictured soldiers became mirrors for the American public, inspiring indignation not just against the crimes, but also “against seeing ourselves made into the people who would commit these acts.”7 The prisoners were hooded not only to heighten their terror, but to obscure their humanity from the guards (and the camera). In the few months that the photographs were circulated, they lodged themselves indelibly in the North American imagination8 —but they would not have the impact that the Vietnam napalm photos did 30 years earlier in provoking mass anti-war sentiment.9 In the following years the Iraqi death toll would grow to unimaginable numbers while the American public returned to seeing only aerial footage or images from “embedded” journalists living and travelling with US military units. In effect, the Western public was shielded from images and narratives of the extent of the violence enacted against the Iraqi people—not just those who were detained, but the population at large. I was in grade school in Ottawa when the Iraq war began and still remember the haunting images of Iraqi suffering my family and I witnessed on Arab news stations via our satellite TV, which portrayed a vastly different war than what we saw on Canadian news. It’s worth noting that while the Abu Ghraib photographs provoked horror in many of us, they were not captured in order to expose the torture—they were taken triumphantly. The photographs were themselves a form of violence, used by the US captors to humiliate the Iraqi prisoners, underscoring the thin line between images that prompt care and images that assert domination.10
Needless to say, in Palestinian communities, the debate about whether or not to share images of Palestinian suffering came to the forefront when the popular uprising, marked by unprecedented social media engagement, erupted in May 2021. With smartphones in easy reach, the Unity Uprising and Israel’s violent response were incredibly well documented. People watched live as Israeli police in Jerusalem attacked worshippers in the Aqsa Mosque, then harassed residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood facing imminent ethnic cleansing. They watched on live television as the Israeli army flattened the building housing Al Jazeera and the Associated Press in Gaza, and as a mob of Israelis pulled a Palestinian from his car in a Tel Aviv suburb in an attempted lynching.11
The “Unity Uprising” earned its title because it challenged the fragmentation imposed by Israeli settler colonialism—a fragmentation that is not only geographic but also social and political.12 The images being shared on social media, in news media, and in WhatsApp groups helped us reach across the Bantu-stan-like enclaves of colonized Palestine and our diaspora, and form the shared feeling of rising up. I was living in the occupied Palestinian West Bank at the time, and spent May and June between protests, marches, vigils, and funerals for those killed by the Israeli military at the protests. In all of our spare time we were glued to our phones, watching videos of thousands of exiled Palestinians in Jordan and Lebanon storm the border to return (knowing they would be stopped), of medics in Gaza in tears as they filmed bodies pulled from the rubble after an air strike, or of Palestinians in Haifa hide from mobs of Israeli settlers chanting “death to Arabs.” However they might be perceived after the fact, these images were central to our experience of this historical moment.
I spoke to Mohammed El-Kurd, a poet and writer; he and his twin sister Muna were perhaps the most influential Palestinian voices on social media in the past year. Mohammed is one of hundreds of Palestinians in East Jerusalem being forcibly expelled from their homes by the Israeli regime; his images of the daily violence enacted by Israeli police and settlers in his Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood catalyzed, in part, the Unity Uprising. “It’s an excruciating dilemma,” he said, “because it’s not a dignifying situation to put your loved ones in. You hesitate before sharing the images because you want to preserve and protect your family.” At the same time, Mohammed recognized that the images played a huge role in mobilizing global action—specifying that this was owed in large part to who was behind the camera, and how they were able to frame the images. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, there were fewer foreign correspondents in Palestine when the uprising erupted, meaning international media could not rely on their usual reporting of what was happening on the ground, a framing that Mohammed called “careless and extractive.” Instead, they turned to voices like Mohammed’s. “Our role as artists is really to give agency and dignity to the humanity of the oppressed. If we are going to share the images of us being brutalized, we should also be showing the images of us celebrating, fighting back, living our daily lives.” This is essential to articulating ourselves as complex and full human beings, he said, “and not just producing flattened representations that feed into political spectacle.”13
“[P]hotographs can and do distress,” wrote Sontag in her 1978 On Photography, “[b]ut the aestheticizing tendency of photography is such that the medium which conveys distress ends by neutralizing it.”14 Although Sontag would complicate her stance in later essays, she identified an essential dilemma: the same thing in images that has the potential to arouse care can also numb it. Images can flatten, and thus, in images of violence, not all suffering can be seen—and in fact perhaps there is more that cannot be seen, or which is visually unremarkable. Reflecting again on Cuesta del Plomo, Meiselas recalled the shortcomings of the photographic frame to express that scene. “For a long time I’ve lived with the inadequacy of that frame to tell everything I knew,” she writes, “and I think a lot about what is outside of the frame.”15 The frame excludes not only much of the sensory environment, but the emotional, social, and cultural ramifications of the pictured violence, as well as the power structures that made the violence possible.
Representations that capture their subject more accurately do not necessarily avoid these pitfalls. In their essay “Care, Domination, and Representation,” Rochelle M. Green, Bonnie Mann, and Amy E. Story argue that images of violence lose their ethical claim precisely when they succeed in representing their subject.16 In other words, images can be too conclusive; they tell the viewer that “this is the whole story,” and the viewer leaves satisfied with a two-dimensional understanding of the person or place depicted. “Capturing how things look fools us into thinking that we’ve captured their truth,” wrote Teju Cole.17 For Sontag, photographs by their nature capture, which is to say: they objectify their subject and transform them into something to be possessed.18 She argues that to produce understanding, one needs narrative. This echoes what Mohammed told me, that images of the violence enacted on Palestinians during the Unity Uprising were more moving because they were explained and framed by people from the impacted communities who understood the deep implications of what was happening. “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else,” wrote Sontag: “they haunt us.”19
Artists who represent violence and suffering often use strategies or interventions to avoid repeating established narratives or objectifying their subjects, and to prompt their audience to think in new and more complex ways. Material for a Film (2005–ongoing), by Palestinian artist and filmmaker Emily Jacir, for example, commemorates the killing of Wael Zuaiter, who in 1972 was the first target in a two-decades-long series of assassinations of Palestinian artists, intellectuals, and diplomats by Israeli agents across Europe—a campaign known as Operation Wrath of God.20 The poet and intellectual was shot with 12 bullets outside his apartment in Rome, with a 13th bullet lodging itself in the spine of his copy of One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales which he had been translating into Italian since 1962.21 Having been collected over centuries, the title’s fables, romances, and legends are presented through the story of Scheherazade, newly married to a king who has vowed to execute a new bride every morning. For 1,001 nights, she tells him a story ending in a cliff-hanger to force him to keep her alive for another day. As part of the expansive work, Jacir fired a gun through the spines of 1,000 books and hung them on the gallery wall. The pierced pages are a silent representation of the force that took Zuaiter’s life, and the ripples his loss left—in the people who loved him and in those dedicated to the Palestinian cause.
Palestinian-Canadian artist Rehab Nazzal’s short silent film Mourning (2012) commemorates the assassination of her brother (my uncle), Khalid Nazzal, in 1986 in Greece as part of the same campaign.22 Khalid was shot by Israeli agents outside his hotel in Athens, and a few years later I was born into a world where his loss was a constant presence; my brother and several cousins bear his name, his death is commemorated in June of each year, and through portraits and photographs I have known Khalid’s face for as long as I can remember. How does one bring that loss into the gallery? Mourning depicts the black-and-white footage from our family archive of thousands gathered in Yarmouk refugee camp for Khalid’s funeral and protest march. Yarmouk, outside of Damascus, was home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria, and Khalid was buried there in exile after Israel refused to allow his body into Palestine to be buried. Rehab stripped its audio and set the video in an oval frame on a black background, as if we are watching the procession through a scope. The lack of sound and colour, and the artist’s minimal intervention, force the viewer to focus on the crowd, where you can make out outraged mourners gathered around his family, holding each other. “The targeted assassinations were officially invisible,” Rehab told me. “Mourning was about making the violence visible.”
The impulse to be seen when your experiences are denied is one that many colonized peoples can relate to. The more international visibility Palestinian images and videos received during the May 2021 uprising, the more Palestinian content was flagged as “sensitive” or removed altogether from social media websites.23 7amleh, a Palestinian digital rights organization, documented the removal of nearly 500 pro-Palestine posts on Instagram and Facebook in just two weeks in May 2021, and human rights groups have pointed to possible relationships between social media platforms and the Israeli government’s Cyber Unit as well as the Israeli Ministry of Defense; The Intercept’s May 2021 investigation into Facebook’s content-moderation rules also found evidence of the company’s impeding criticism of Israel.24 The “sensitive content” filter was not seen by activists as a way of minimizing the circulation of objectifying images of Palestinian bodies in pain, but as a deliberate act of censorship that furthered the erasure of Palestinian life.
The will to document what is happening in moments of mass mobilization and repression is also propelled by the need to collect evidence, even when we do not have faith that today’s political and judicial systems will deliver justice. Beirut-based sound and visual artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan joined the interdisciplinary Forensic Architecture team to investigate the killing of two Palestinian teenagers, Nadeem Nawara and Mohammed Abu Daher, at a protest in the West Bank in 2014.25 Abu Hamdan’s audio analysis was used in court to expose the Israeli military’s intentional use of live ammunition at the protest, a practice that is commonplace, but which is denied in official statements. Abu Hamdan later expanded upon the confines of presenting evidence for an investigation in the video Rubber Coated Steel (2016), in which he imagined his own tribunal for the boys by authoring a courtroom transcript presented as written text over passing images in a space that resembles a shooting range.26 Like Rehab’s Mourning, the lack of sound engages the audience’s imagination. “In a way, even if you don’t see the reality of what happened, you don’t see the event, the moments in which those people are shot,” said Abu Hamdan about the silence, “you see another kind of reality, and that allows the real event to emerge.”27
I find myself thinking about the power of such omission when looking at the images that have emerged from the besieged Palestinian Gaza Strip, which has been subjected to Israeli air strikes since 2008. In the latest bombing campaign in May, homes and residential buildings, roads and infrastructure, schools and hospitals were targeted alike. The flood of images captured people at their most vulnerable: weeping over the shroud-covered body of a loved one, in the dusty aftermath of a bombing, or collapsed in the rubble of what was once their homes. These moments of grief remain online, forever available for public viewing. So I created Grieving in Private (2021–ongoing), in which I overlay the media images of Palestinian grief with photographs I have taken across colonized Palestine—of cactus branches and forested hills, olive trees, poppy fields, hazy skies, and rich, red soil, allowing the land to protect the grieving subjects from the invasive gaze of the viewer.
While Jacir, Rehab, Abu Hamdan, and even I use formal strategies, interventions, and refusals to invite their audiences to prehend the humanity of their subjects, at times of popular mobilization—like the unprecedented Unity Uprising—there is a sense of urgency and a need to show things as they are. “Palestinians remain virtually unknown,” wrote Edward Said in the 1986 photobook After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives, with photography by Jean Mohr. Said’s sentiment was not that Palestinians are absent from the media but that “the images used to represent us only diminish our reality further.”28 This is what propelled artists like El-Kurd to document as much as he could of the police violence and settler takeover of his neighbourhood. During the uprising, Abu Hamdan handed his Instagram account over to Inas Halabi, a Palestinian artist who reported live from Haifa as Israeli police suppressed the ongoing protests.29 There was a collective sense of responsibility to both witness and show what was happening around us, and Palestinians on the ground worked tirelessly to make visible our organizing and our struggles, our celebrations and our grief.
What is the difference, then, between images that distance and dehumanize, and images that provoke the value of life? There cannot be a static answer, because the frame, the narrative, the positionality of the artist, and the political moment all impact the way that an image will be received. It is up to us who work with representations of violence—especially artists—to keep asking ourselves this question.