Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel
(Pluto Press, 2016)
A turn of the page reveals an image—more precisely, a photograph, and in its frame is a grid of other photographs and viewers who come closer for examination. Turning their backs to us, they pay no attention to the camera capturing them; instead, they focus on the grid pasted onto an outdoor wall punctuated with graffiti. This grid, unfolding almost like a nonsequential contact sheet, incorporates numerous frames of a public demonstration: hands rising up to meet a police barrier; gaseous clouds descending on a cluster of figures; a woman on the ground, trying to protect herself from being trampled. At the lower left-hand border of each photograph, one makes out the words: activestills.org.
Published in 2016, Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel marks a decade of photographic work by Activestills, a collective of Israeli, Palestinian, and international photographers working in Palestine/Israel, all of whom document intersecting forms of oppression in the region: the Palestinian popular struggle against the Israeli occupation, rights of women, LGBTQ rights, rights for migrants and asylum-seekers, public housing rights, and the struggle against economic oppression, amongst others. In 2005 in the West Bank village of Bil’in, four photographers met during the villagers’ weekly protests against the confiscation of agricultural lands for the Israeli separation wall and the neighboring Israeli settlement of Mod’in Illit. Documenting the protests while also viewing photography as a crucial part of their activism, the photographers continued to meet and discuss how their work could act as a counter to an increasingly racist mainstream media to reach a wider Israeli public, and thus serve as a catalyst for political intervention. The number of members grew, but their political commitments remained, if not broadened.
The co-editors, Vered Maimon, a Senior Lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and Shiraz Grinbaum, a member of Activestills who also serves as the group’s curator and photo editor, argue for the significance of Activestills’s photography within the realm of activist photography. Several questions are threaded throughout: What role might this photography have within political struggles? What communities might it best serve? What are its possibilities and limitations? One might also return to several questions posed in the foreword by Miki Kratsman, whose photography has documented the Palestinian popular struggle since the 1980s: “Which side should I stand on? […] What are the political structures that make my presence in a specific territory possible?” The collective and contributors touch on these questions and generate new ones, resulting in increasingly blurred boundaries between the role of the photographer and that of the activist.
One returns to the first images of the book, which already begin to lay out an argument as to what the co-editors might mean when they speak of an activist photography. These initial images set the tenor and the stakes of the collective and foreground some of the ways their photographs are displayed and encountered. An image of a street exhibition in Haifa shows a scene absent of viewers and a grid of photographs pasted onto a city wall—streaks of graffiti censor scenes within the photographs. In another, viewers touch and point to images pinned to a fence (we later learn that this is the fence of Holot detention center holding jailed African asylum seekers). These street exhibitions are a critical component of Activestills’s practice of providing alternative modes of display and distribution. As scholar Simon Faulkner discusses in his essay, these two sites are exemplary of the different modes of spectatorship that Activestills’s work opens up. In Haifa, where the vast majority of the population are Israeli Jews, one might take the act of censorship as a reactionary response of refusal or opposition to the collective’s political aims or aims of the photographed demonstrators. Meanwhile, the exhibition held outside Holot detention center was primarily for detained asylum seekers, many of whom were involved in the March for Freedom, the main event in the exhibited photographs. Installing outdoor exhibitions at the sites where the photographs were taken has proven to be one significant way the collective has been able to provide those involved in various struggles with images of themselves.
Divided into two parts, entitled “Active” and “Stills,” the book publishes a vast array of photographs culled from Activestills’s digital archive (their online database on activestills.org holds over 38,200 photographs, all publicly accessible). The first section, “Active,” includes conversations and firsthand accounts with local activists, such as Nariman Tamimi, one of the leaders of the struggle against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh; Issa Amaro, who established the Youth Against Settlements organization; Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a member of the Palestinian Popular Struggle Coordination Committee and a leading activist in Bil’in; Monim Mandela, a Sudanese asylum seeker and an organizer of the March for Freedom; Lilach Ben David, a trans, bisexual, and feminist activist; and numerous others. Interspersed within these conversations are photographs of the various actions and protests that these activists reference and discuss, demonstrating the often long held relationships forged between the photographers who record and those embedded in fighting forms of oppression.
This collaborative dialogue makes it inaccurate to describe Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel as a conventional photo book or catalogue. Such a description is too neat for the polyvocal account of the struggles in Palestine/Israel that the editors, contributors, and collective have created here. The book as a whole results in a vertiginous zooming in and out of daily acts of resistance; painful encounters with brutal police tactics; and communities standing side by side against human rights violations in the region.
The second section, “Stills,” unfolds first through a series of photographs depicting protesters holding up printouts from Activestills’s digital archive. These protesters have transformed photographic stills from the archive into blown-up posters to be held and carried as material signs of continuing resistance. The inclusion of these images, alongside theoretical texts by scholars such as Vered Maimon and Meir Wigoder, provide a compelling argument for how images can be activated, not only through the grid, the common mode of display in both the street exhibitions and the format of the book, but also through the image’s circulation. For example, Vered Maimon singles out an Activestills photograph of Bassem Irahim Abu Rahmah flying a kite between two sections of the Israeli separation wall during a weekly protest in Bil’in. A year after the photograph was taken, an Israeli soldier shot a tear-gas canister at Bassem during a protest in Bil’in from a distance of less than forty meters away, resulting in Bassem’s death. The Activestills photograph of him was used by his friends and family to commemorate his death, turning the image into posters displayed throughout Bil’in. Later, the same image was transformed into a placard that also functioned as a shield to protect against tear gas grenades. In its circulation, the photograph was put to work to become something other than a representation—rather, an object to be used, a tool offering protection. This performativity, this operative status of the image, discussed by Maimon and others, goes hand in hand with Activestills’s rethinking of what it might mean to collectively share ownership of images. Not only do members of the collective share copyright, but those outside the collective are also invited to use Activestills images in their own acts of resistance.
Such commitment to rethinking photography’s role in human rights struggles, and how such forms could be activated and re-activated, raises a host of issues that are far from contained within debates around the possibilities and limitations of social documentary or photographic theory. Activestills’s work opens onto a challenge to question what one’s role as a maker of images, as a writer of images, as a viewer of images, might be, as well as the ethical responsibilities attached to this making, writing, and viewing, as the collective raises the stakes for what a visual politics of solidarity might look like.