First of all, thank you for accepting this exchange. After doubting what our theme and the core focus of our letters should be, I think it’d be best for us to look at the role of photography in the new ways of perceiving political action. More specifically, at what photography can do to improve this world of ours without yielding to the temptation of humanism, which has dominated such a large part of its history. Political imagination needs photography, but not in its current form.
Your contributions in this regard have been essential. The publication of your work The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008), shifted the goalposts of the debate. Ever since, it has been impossible to conceive of photography as something limited merely to the images it produces. The radical vision forged in your book suggests that photography has, from its very inception, infiltrated the body politic. The presentation of its invention by Dominique François Arago on 10 August 1839 to France’s Chamber of Deputies, before men of state and of science, demonstrates the fact.
This is why the most immediate interest in this new technology would not be exclusively aesthetic in nature. Photography would rapidly be seen as the perfect ally for the extractivism that was the hallmark of the 19th century. Some imagined it as a kind of scanner, able to capture the world, store it and transport it – the ideal tool for accelerating the expropriation of the discoveries of the material world and, subsequently, those of the lived world, too.
The critical spirit that has grown as a result of the current pandemic has led to a call for urgent repair of the world we have been inhabiting, including many of the premises and institutions making it up. You most recent book provides a cogent contribution to this, highlighting the role of photography as a core factor in the policies that govern our relationship with history and the spaces created by capitalism. Museums, the objects making up their collections, the documents and the experts accessing them… are all under suspicion.
“The formal innovation that has done so much to mark the history of photography is of no use to us now.”
With the appearance of this new work (Potential History. Unlearning Imperialism, Verso, 2019) towards the end of last year, some critics may have thought that you shifted from analysing photography to criticising the persistence of a colonial regime. A regime whose influence still lingers on, even if we do not always admit the fact. However, as you yourself have said, to decolonialise the museum, we first need to repair the world.
The formal innovation that has done so much to mark the history of photography is of no use to us now.The changes we seek to bring about are much more far-reaching. We wish to know what role photography has played in shaping this world, a world we also now allow ourselves to place in quarantine. A world you don’t hesitate to describe as being under the yoke of a violent, imperial regime. The day you published the first entry on the Fotomuseum Winterthur blog you made a proposal so radical as to imagine that the origins of photography should be traced all the way back to 1492. The earthquake unleashed by this statement caused the toppling of pillars hitherto regarded as unshakeable.
So, the photographic device is no longer limited to the mechanical appliance used to capture the images in question. It acquires a new dimension that transforms the small world of photography that first saw the light of day in the 19th century. This new dimension brings with it a potential history of photography, and with it photos that are “not taken”, “unshowable” or “inaccessible”.
Although, recently, you have applied this arsenal of resources to the history of colonial enterprises, it might be advisable to warn our readers that these notions do not simply spring from a mere intellectual whim. They are the product of having lived and worked in the context of an Israel that has for decades imposed a de facto apartheid on the Palestinian community.
It has become a perverse regime with its own logic and dynamics. Each and every day, the international news pages feature articles reminding us of this “exceptional situation”, one whose consequences are not limited to the occupied territories.
Your essays, both written and visual, extrapolate the effects of the region’s conflict to embrace a global regime that perpetuates the forms of colonial government. Reading your texts gives us the impression that photography was not born in France, but rather forged with the humanitarian disaster afflicting the Palestinians.
I remember the time you showed me your project Act of State. Palestine-Israel (1967-2007). Going through the more than 800 images that comprise it, we paused in front of one.
You asked me what I saw. I answered that I saw some kids running along an unpaved road opposite an Israeli soldier. You then confessed to me that you had the image sitting on your desk for a long time until, one day, you realised that there was something odd about it. The distance between those kids, who seemed to have just come out of school, was greater than one might expect. The law prohibiting gatherings in public spaces would also be applicable, without distinction, to the children living in the occupied territories.
These kinds of observation, the ones you don’t find on the flip side of press photos, allowed you to display the catalogue of gestures that mark the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. A series of contacts marked by the refusal of one side to acknowledge the citizenship of the other. However, to identify this kind of injustice, the evidence provided by the practice of photojournalism is simply insufficient. When what is under attack is a fully fledged civil society, albeit one that is not recognised as a state, another kind of evidence is called for. In this regard, the photographic evidence based on what the camera has seen becomes obsolete.
“How many times have photographs been used to claim the opposite of what actually happened?”
Martha Rosler often says that the documentary aesthetic turns those viewing art into citizens. But the fact is that the document, the product of these practices, is attracting more and more criticism.
Susan Meiselas, a frequent collaborator of yours, experienced a similar crisis when she found herself faced with the task of shedding light on domestic violence. She simply couldn’t do it. Instead, she resorted to images taken by the San Francisco Police Department to convey the language of the institution that, up to that point, had to deal with this very specific form of violence.
She believed that it made no sense to photograph, one by one, the bodies exhumed from the mass graves, as she herself had witnessed. The crime so exceeded the scale of an “everyday” murder committed against a specific number of individuals: it was a crime against Kurdish society as a whole.
“So what kind of photograph was called for to depict the exact magnitude of an outrage against what we call civil society?”
The scale of the savagery required a new means of conveying the evidence. We have found that the promise of seeing, documenting and exhibiting it all no longer meets the political demands of our times. You denounce these expectations, inherent in democratic societies, as a privilege associated with an abuse of power stemming from the rights implanted and guaranteed by an imperial regime. We know that these regimes of visibility, apparently so comprehensive, exhaustive and sometimes scientific and academic in nature, leave the question of responsibility out of shot. We have separated the knowledge arising from our progress from its inherent culpability. The asymmetry is outrageous.
But things have been like this for a long time. So much so that we have developed a capacity for systematic forgetfulness… and this brings to mind filmmaker Michael Haneke. A short while ago, you yourself showed a frame from Caché (2005) on your Facebook page.
We immediately started discussing its exasperating ambiguity, and this encouraged me to take a fresh look at the film. It begins with some mysterious videos that Georges, the main character, receives from parties unknown. He is suddenly struck by a childhood memory. When he finds out who might be behind the videos, his doubts become nightmares. One irrefutable fact lies behind this story: the violent death of 200 Algerians drowned in the Seine after the repression of a demonstration on the streets of Paris on 17 October 1961. In the DVD’s extras, Haneke does not hide his horror. In response to the interviewer’s questions as to the film’s theme, the director responds without hesitation: “The question is whether we will accept that we are guilty”.
Our dialogue does not begin with this series of letters. It started in 2007, when you invited me to take part in the seminal exhibition Anti-Photojournalism, which you co-curated with Thomas Keenan, and where you invited me to show my photographic archive and exhibition Act of State – Palestine, 1967-2007. And conversation has never ceased, since we continued to collaborate on various projects. About a year ago, it became more intense, as we started working together on my exhibition Errata, commissioned by you for the Fundació Antoni Tàpies. So by now we already have a well-established correspondence practice.
Let me pick up where your letter ends, with your reference to the film Hidden. Just a few weeks ago, you commented publicly and briefly on an image I posted on Facebook. The still was taken from the final scene of Haneke’s film, and received no reaction except for yours:
“What about the scene in which the stepbrother slits his throat…” I loved this comment for the very natural way in which you referred to Majid as “the stepbrother”. I briefly wrote that I’ll reply to you in our forthcoming letters series. So here we are. Majid was an Algerian boy who was adopted into the main character’s family and grew up with him. In the film itself, no-one gives a name to the relationship between the two men.
“Imperialism lures us into accepting as given and irreversible its structures of violence and injustice, structures that are built on racial divisions”
You simply and straightforwardly called him “a stepbrother.” For me this emblematizes what I call unlearning imperialism, the subtitle of my new book Potential History.
Imperialism lures us into accepting as given and irreversible its structures of violence and injustice, structures that are built on racial divisions. These divisions determine how people appear in the world, how they are identified and recognized, what they are allowed to be, do and have, the type of treatment to which they will be exposed, and how what is done to them is perceived as being a normal part of the order of things or an injustice to be remedied. These divisions are inscribed in the technologies that we are using and operating, so rejecting them requires a proactive commitment to unlearning.
I can’t summarize the film for those who haven’t seen it, but I can briefly mention some necessary details that will explain why recognizing Majid as a “stepbrother” is, in itself, such a powerful performance of unlearning imperial violence. You end your letter by quoting Haneke: “The question is whether we will accept that we are guilty,” and I think that the question should be reversed: are colonizers and imperial citizens committed to unlearning the conditions and worldview responsible for generating the depiction of colonized peoples as guilty, as is incessantly implied in photography and film? A proactive unlearning of imperial violence should be a priority, including when we watch films that engage with colonial violence: otherwise, the colonized would continue to be the immediate, obvious suspect. In the case of Hidden, without such unlearning, the film tricks us into suspecting Majid from the start and into viewing him as potentially being responsible for whatever happens to Georges, the white, middle-class, male character. Majid’s appearance in the film is already filtered through what I call “the resolution of the suspect” (the title of my book on the photographer Miki Kratsman).
We meet Majid as a suspect long before we learn any details of his life: he was sent away to an orphanage shortly after Georges’ parents, a wealthy French family, who had known Majid since he was born (Majid’s parents worked for them and lived on their farm), adopted him. This French family decided to adopt Majid when they learned that his parents, an Algerian couple, were among the 200 Algerian protestors who were drowned in the Seine by the Parisian police. Georges, their spoiled son, who was around 6 or 7 years old at the time, lied to his parents about Majid, accusing him of unspecified acts, and on this basis asks them to send him away. Georges should certainly be blamed for his decisions as an adult to brutally reject several opportunities to redress his relationship with Majid, and later with his son, and in general for the way he inhabits the position of colonizer as an adult. But he cannot be blamed for what he did when he was a six-year-old child. His wish to see Majid disappear from his family and his life should be kept as a childish demand that should have never been fulfilled by his parents, and Majid would not have been kidnapped from his home by social services actors the way he was, were he not an Algerian boy.
It was Georges’ parents’ responsibility to address differently the anxiety, jealousy, or pain motivating their child’s wish, and not to yield to his whims. The film makes clear that this expulsion from home left Majid with an open wound for the rest of his life, and Georges’ mother with an unspoken sadness. For Georges, however, this traumatic expulsion represents no more than a closed chapter in his life story. Georges refuses to acknowledge his role in the belated return of Majid to his life—through memories, hallucinations, nightmares and video footage—and, rather than opening up and listening, for the first time, to what Majid or his son might have to say about their entangled lives, Georges is ready to pay cash just to let Majid disappear from his life a second time.
So, this is the backdrop to me reading you calling Majid a stepbrother, bringing Majid back to form part of his French family. A disavowal of the authority of all imperial actors working on this scene, which is what Georges’ family members are. They all take part in unilaterally determining the fate of colonized people, as if the latter’s lives were theirs to shape, and in stripping them of part or all of what they have, including their material and symbolic place in the world, their sense of belonging, their emotions, their memories and their image of themselves. The day that Georges’ parents decided to terminate Majid’s adoption and stop giving him a home after his parents’ murder, they found ammunition in the arsenal of French colonial actors, this imperial right to turn colonized Algerians into a “problem” that requires a “solution.” Thus, once Majid is no longer the stepbrother of a successful white professional, he can easily become a suspect, an intruder, whom the police can arrest together with his son in the middle of the night, based only on Georges’ groundless allegations.
Look at this telling image of Georges, the white TV presenter celeb, sitting in the front of the police car, while Majid and his son are in the back, guarded by an armed policeman.
In my reading of the film, as I have already just outlined, I have always rejected Georges’ power to render Majid foreign to this family in a way that releases it from any accountability for its actions. But it didn’t occur to me that the right way to complete this reading would be to relate to Majid as Georges’ stepbrother. When I started thinking about this film, it was clear to me that one of the first things we need to unlearn is its categorization as a thriller that keeps colonialism in the background. The commercial trailer primes potential viewers’ expectations for the film as a thriller. They are guided to look for an answer to the question “who is behind the videos sent to Georges’ house?”. While the film complicates the answer, it nonetheless feeds its audience this question, for which they have to find an answer. This question, in itself, threatens to impact our perception and reinforce existing racial biases, so as to make viewers (and indeed most, if not all, of the reviewers whose critiques I read) almost oblivious to the intrusion into Majid’s house. So much fuss about who is behind those anonymous videotapes that threaten the harmony of a French bourgeois family’s life means the fact that, in many of them, Majid’s house is also under surveillance (including when he commits suicide) is made invisible, even though we see it right there on the screen. I needed to watch the film several times over to proactively reconstruct the privacy of Majid’s house, so that when, as a spectator, I would be shown a video shot in his house without his knowledge or consent, I would not fall into the imperial trap that lures us into seeing him as a suspect rather than a victim. Have you noticed that both houses are penetrated with cameras? Have you, too, been tempted to suspect Majid and ignore the fact that he was under attack? Have you even considered Georges as a potential suspect, too, or did you see him merely as a victim of a mysterious stalking? These are the questions we have to ask to reject the film’s impulse to make us suspect Majid, even if—in the end—we acknowledge that there is insufficient evidence of his “guilt”. I see this consistent shifting of the spectator’s “policing” gaze and attention away from the white protagonist to his colonized stepbrother as further proof of the fact that image-making technologies were invented along with imperialism, at the time these racial taxonomies were invented and naturalized, and not alongside the invention of seemingly neutral recording devices to document what was and is already out there.
This is the type of reading for which Potential history provides some tools. It requires from spectators, scholars, artists and curators—or from anyone else engaged in the project of unlearning imperialism—a clear commitment to abolishing imperial and racial capitalist formations and structures. When faced with the neutrality of the histories and theories of media, and with the different schemes of production and preservation of knowledge in institutions such as universities, museums, libraries and archives, such a clear commitment is necessary. These institutions, the corresponding disciplines, the seemingly neutral devices of recording and documentation, and the procedures affiliated with them, all offer us a whole range of commitments of various types: to previous scholarship on the topic (regardless of its orientalist, racist or imperialist bias), to the discipline (regardless of its implication in colonial projects), to delineated histories of distinct objects, to historical accuracy, to neutrality, to facts, to categories such as “illegal workers” or “infiltrators” crafted in imperial factories, etc.
It is with regard to this work of potentializing history that I’m assuming you described my first essay on the Still Searching blog (Wintherthur Fotomuseum) as an “earthquake”. It rejects the terms under which photography had been given to us and denies it its outlier status, as providing a view on the world rather than being of that world. In a way, though, In the Civil Contract of photography (2008), I had already switched the focus from the technological device—the camera—to the community, and insisted on engaging with photography as a practice in which many others are involved alongside the photographer. I rejected the almost unanimous convention of the time that gave pride of place to the photographer because she owns or at least controls the means or production. My shift of focus questioned many of the common assumptions about the birth of photography, but I still (at that time) respected the imperial temporality that ties photography to Europe in the 1830s and ignores the imperial condition, and the imperial extraction of visual wealth, which I came to describe later on.
“Once we understand those rights as preceding the invention of photography as a device-based technology, we can begin to see how the persona of the individual who holds the camera”
And, in connection with the issue of commitment that I emphasize above, I’d like to address two points you raise in your letter. The first is the concern that my engagement with the colonial regime could draw me away from my engagement with photography; the second is related to my earlier discussion (2008) of Dominique François Arago’s famous speech, where I show that photography was inseparable from the formation of the body politic. In Potential History, I return to Arago and ask what were those rights that he and his peers were already exercising in the 1830s, the rights that enabled them to relate to the worlds of others as if they had been made for them, accessible to their violent actions and gestures, which they then shaped into skills, expertise, and virtues: curiosity, scholarship, knowledge, taxonomy, typology, aesthetics, connoisseurship, souvenirs, works of art, records, documentation, accuracy, or care for the historically authentic and the aesthetically beautiful. Once we understand those rights as preceding the invention of photography as a device-based technology, we can begin to see how the persona of the individual who holds the camera, her skills and intentions, are but minor details in what imperial photography is, and how important it is to shift focus and view it within its broader context, following its operation through military campaigns, photographic expeditions and all manner of surveying missions. When Arago’s commitment is viewed in light of his place within—and of the logic of—those institutions, it can surely only be regarded as a commitment to the accumulation of visual wealth and imperial acquisitions in general, and as a consistent disregard for the fact that this accumulation entails their expropriation from others. We should therefore invest in disrupting our semi-automatic participation in photography for photography’s sake and engage with it based only on a different kind of commitment: an anti-imperial commitment to abolishing this logic and repairing worlds damaged by imperialism.
In this sense, engagement with photography must include also non-productive modalities, forms of withdrawal and abstention from acquiring, displaying and disseminating more photographs, and a refusal to use certain archives for certain reasons and topics. Other modes of engagement should be encouraged, those that build upon the re-distribution of what is already accumulated, retroactive interactions and intervention in the way photographs are preserved and displayed (or not) that respond to the refusal—explicit or implicit—of photographed persons to surrender their images, misrecognition of imperial rights exercised by institutions, or production of substitutes when necessary. More generally, the use of photographs should be guided by a consistent effort to unlearn imperial rights, which we are still lured into exercising, albeit inadvertently. In my exhibition Errata, which we co-curated at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, I displayed some of my experiments with such practices and modes of action.
We cannot accept, for example, the erasing of the mass rape of German women in 1945 erased from our memories of WWII, or that of the massacre of tens of thousands in at least three Algerian cities on the very same day that the French announced that the “war” was over. We should reject the political justification that allowed the very groupings of those victims, never mind their raping and killing, which made the groupings acceptable. We should also question the shortage of photographs of mass violence perpetrated in the open, alongside our “poetic” lamentations about “archival silences”. We have scissors, tapes, crayons, photographs, testimonies… and we should use them. We should use them to refute imperial claims about where our stories start and end, and where and when to find the visual resources from which to illustrate them.
I inserted these black rectangles in several books about 1945 as placeholders for untaken photographs of rape because, without them, the role of gender violence in imposing the patriarchal-racial-democratic regime disappears. These are placeholders, but this doesn’t mean that I’ll replace them with photos of the torn bodies of raped women if, some day, some archives decide to make them available. As you mentioned in your letter, a similar reasoning led Susan Meiselas to withdraw from holding the camera and taking photographs of women as victims of domestic violence. However, this is not a universal recipe. When it comes to photography, a fresh decision must be taken every single time, depending on the situation and the unfolding event, and with regard to when, why, who, how, and by whom photographs should be taken or can be displayed. Sometimes we have to produce what is missing, other times we have to refrain from or reject showing what is available, and on other occasions we have to go on strike and refuse to be the vehicle through which images make some groups constantly appear as suspects, criminals or disposable.
Such decisions are not a matter of expertise, authority or authorship, they are and ought to be taken in common, led or guided by members of the communities implicated in those images and in response to their calls. I cannot end this letter, today, without quoting @tidalectics, an educator and organizer, co-founder of Greater Boston Marxist Association, one of the many black voices on social media calling: “Stop sharing the videos of George Floyd’s murder!!!” Even this gesture of not showing, it should be remembered, is not a recipe to follow at any time in every case of police brutality.
Understood as part of a struggle guided by an unequivocal commitment to Black Lives Matter and abolition, Darnella Frazier did the right thing in recording the lynching and posting it, otherwise, as she said, the police may have gotten away with killing Floyd. Posting this video on social media brought millions of people across America and the world out onto the streets to protest against the murder. Their presence on the streets and their voices demanding in uncompromising way accountability and de-funding the police have now become the placeholder for evidence that should no longer be posted.
Since we began this correspondence, things have snowballed. I kicked it all off by remembering the most significant contributions you’ve made to photography and how it is to be found in the sphere of political philosophy. However, your latest book, which contains a powerful call to action, has been reflected in – or even surpassed by – the demonstrations of all kinds in response to the death of George Floyd. Its subtitle, Potential History, Unlearning Imperialism, is out there on the street, more clearly than ever. Maybe we needed a pandemic to realise that racism spreads like a virus. This has been pointed out by Achille Mbembe, who, although a noted academic, has also suffered from censorship preventing open debate on the terrible legacy of colonialism and how it survives under apparently democratic forms of government, including, amongst others, necropolitics, which kills indirectly by establishing who can help swell the list of redundant lives. Given what is happening, it would appear that events have been in some hurry to make these tensions more patent than ever.
Faced with such situations, we will continue to wonder what role photography still plays. I, personally, believe that we have reached the time we agreed to describe with the phrase heading our exchanges: “photography on strike”. A stoppage that, far from abandoning responsibilities, unveils new potentials for photography, some hitherto unseen and, apparently, far removed from its most obvious remit. What should photography do when it is on strike? How can we suspend our unconscious involvement in a regime so naturalised as that instilled by the lengthy, consolidated history of photography? The twin facets of your enterprises – photography as a civil occurrence and photography as a tool of a colonialism that has never ceased to wield its power – seem, to me, to respond better than ever to what we are seeing on the news these days. The attacks on monuments that, even now, continue to glorify the colonial (ad)venture merge into one gesture the issues you raised in The Civil Contract of Photography and your most recent proposals in Potential History. Unlearning Imperialism. One hasty conclusion might be that, inasmuch as it forms part of the body politic, photography has no need of cameras to act. The throngs of people toppling statues have taken control of events. They no longer wait for things to happen, as was the case with “classic” photography. They make them happen. These crowds show that they have appropriated the ability to catalyse events. That’s why it’s no surprise that you have put on your Facebook wall, one after the other, news items on monuments toppled around the world. This time – unlike others – there is no crisis of performativity. It’s happening, and we’re watching.
Let’s leave these toppled statues lying on the floor. Let’s avoid the temptation of sweeping up the rubble
As noted a few days ago by Aditya Iyer, a journalist covering the attack on the statute of Edward Colston in Bristol, it’s not about erasing things from history, but rather correcting how history is written. I remember that, little more than a year ago, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador demanded of King Felipe VI that Spain apologise for the abuses committed during the colonial period. Aside from the fact that the request was received with almost unanimous disdain by the Spanish political class and the hegemonic media, this soon led to a call for a shared narrative on the past, that mention should be made of everything, a request more typical of intellectuals and historians than wronged communities. They key question here is what kind of writing these times merit. Unlike those who champion the destruction of every trace or reminder of imperial brutality, I think we would do well to imagine a writing that provided a glimpse of the past. In other words, after this colonial history has been justly accused and singled out, confirming its guilt as resoundingly as required, today’s writing should not completely cover up the object of so much wrath. I believe that it is only in this way that an appropriate reaction can avoid escalating into violence. In this case: instead of those exercises of deconstruction in which a struck out word allows us to read what lies beneath the display of negation, it would rather foster a critical education that keeps the object attacked and question its meaning in plain view. Let’s leave these toppled statues lying on the floor. Let’s avoid the temptation of sweeping up the rubble. May the statues that have lost their heads never recover them.
In my view, the most pressing question is which version of the history of photography allows us to engage in these debates so apparently unconnected with the very object of photography. In addition to invoking your repeated emphasis on photography as an occurrence that has no need of a camera, in the sense of a mechanical device and fetishistic object, because what we’re interested in here are the civic links it establishes in its civic surroundings, I’d like to mention here an interview that Judith Butler gave to a Élisabeth Lebovici regarding the infamous photos that came of the Abu Ghraib jail in 2004 (Libération, 20 June, 2004), photos that everybody ought to remember. Aside from the scandal, the torture and abuse suffered by those Iraqi prisoners, these photos contained the seed of a radical transformation. When Judith Butler stated that, “En Irak, la prise de photos de torture faisait partie de l’événement”, she was doing away with the idea that photography could continue to bear impartial witness, unconnected to the events, separate and distinct from what it contemplated.
From that point on, photography embraced the events, their recording and their circulation in a single click. Where, before, there was a division of labour that called for an assembly of the different stages leading to the revealing of events through an image, now all that was needed was the push of a button. This explains photography’s assimilation with the events depicted. A sad outcome if we look at what those members of the US army did. However, any innovation, comes with its pros and cons. We might also think that the use of photography in the different uprisings taking place between 2010 and 2012, lumped together under the descriptor “the Arab Spring”, followed the same logic. From that moment on, the very fact of taking a mobile phone out in the middle of a demonstration would automatically activate a form of political participation. This is something we can now confidently state because taking photographs is no longer restricted to simply capturing a moment . It now involves the dissemination and inclusion of the image in a public space in which other images circulate. Politics in the true sense of the word, is catalysed by photography. This shows how we are freeing ourselves of those automatisms you denounce in your letter.
On this point, it’s often said that digital photography makes this or that possible on a political level. But we’d be wrong if we said that this was a technical achievement. The counterexample I always give is the anti-photojournalism that Allan Sekula took as his premise to immerse himself, with his camera, in the “alter-globalist” demonstrations in Seattle, where the photographer joined the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organisation. The result would be Waiting for Tear Gas (1999-2000), a sequence of 81 35 mm colour slides, projected over the course of 14 minutes and accompanied by short text.
In this label, which always accompanies the projection, Sekula notes that the premise he set himself called for him to do without a press pass, zoom lens or gas mask. Conditions that allowed him to join in the protests like any other demonstrator, without any intention of capturing a well-defined image and mostly patiently waiting around for things to happen, as so often is the case in all kinds of events. The resulting shots are a kind of beautiful homage to street photography, with all kinds of images of demonstrators in fancy dress, naked or kneeling as if in prayer. But, at the same time, they also document a multitude that is revealed as an organised political subject.
We are so stupid that we ascribe to technology something that is actually a human achievement
Nevertheless, this last statement requires of us that we forget photography as a visual document. Instead, we could regard it as a transitional object that opens the door to a new way of understanding an occurrence. If, up until that point, the event had been the object of media management that laid down, minute by minute, what should be happening at these meetings of official representatives, in Seattle, the delegates were unable to even leave their hotels. The streets were taken over by a spontaneous happening stemming from a much broader civil alliance. Further proof of how connections and the politics arising from them are not the result of technologies, but rather inherent in the multitude. Twenty years later, when I show this sequence to photography students, they think it was taken with a digital camera. We are so stupid that we ascribe to technology something that is actually a human achievement. It is here that I am in agreement with the statement that the automatism implicit in the history of photography does us no favours at all. The fact is, there in Seattle, Allan Sekula was shooting with an analogue camera. What he did was to put photography on the side of this new body politic personified by the street protestors. There was no need for anything more. Photography had done it all.
From now on, photography should be regarded as a public space that will be occupied by the grammars and vocabularies of these revolutions
If, in my first letter, I highlighted your assessment that, right from its mewling and puking stage, photography entered the body politic, it can now be safely said that there is no question of it. Photography’s progress cannot depend upon the formal parameters imposed on it by the history of art. If we can truly free ourselves of this conception that, amongst other things, has allowed photography to enter museums, we will have to accept that its fate is linked to developments in the body politic, its death rattle and its transformations. The Black Lives Matter movement is, in addition to providing a response to structural racism, correcting the anatomy of that body politic which excluded black lives from its makeup, much in the same way as photography had never foreseen that toppling effigies fell within its bailiwick. From now on, photography should be regarded as a public space that will be occupied by the grammars and vocabularies of these revolutions. It won’t matter whether we do so with analogue or digital photos. Its true makeup is out there, in the very same place as the general public.
I’m going to call a halt to things here. I’m perfectly aware that subject deserves a much closer look, so let’s keep an eye on the statues that will, almost certainly, be toppled in the coming days.
Things have most certainly, as you put it in your letter, “snowballed” since we began our correspondence six weeks ago. The streets are filled with protestors led by the Movement for Black Lives, and their calls for police de-funding, the abolition of the prison-industrial complex, and abolition! are spreading like wildfire, empowering people to act in different ways and directions in their immediate surroundings, in their workplaces and in their organisations. I’d suggest that this situation as a whole should be viewed not only as the result of actions, but also of inaction – in other words, of the potentialities opened up when, due to the pandemic, so many people have found themselves unconstrained by their ordinary positions of productivity. I think that, over the last few weeks, we’ve been experiencing something close to a general strike, perhaps the closest we or any of our generation have come to know. This is a radical moment, and at this point in time that I’d like to think about photography “on the picket line”.
I appreciate how in your two letters you have set our discussion of current events against the backdrop of the premises of the political ontology of photography I articulate in my work. Indeed, I see photography as being neither about the body politic nor reducible to its photographs. Rather I conceive of it as a performance by the body politic that challenges its imperial representations, as constructed by those who hold the means of representation, not always at the moment a photo is produced. In this sense, I emphasize how the operation of the camera, like the production of a photograph, is optional (rather than indispensable) in the event of photography. So, when you ask, “what should photography do when it is on strike?”, my response would be to, in a way, rephrase the question or turn it on its head. As we cannot assume that photography is on strike independently of the body politic, what we should be asking is whether the body politic is on strike and, if so, how does it manifest itself in doing so? As I have already insinuated, what the body politic manifests now is a general strike.
Even in “ordinary” times, the streets are always filled with people, but their presence is marshalled into prescribed, familiar flows and arrangements.
The abolitionist imaginary cannot start or end with people on the streets. Rather than saying that public demonstrations are the ultimate manifestation of the body politic, we need to remind ourselves that the body politic is always there (even though many of its members may not be recognised as such) and that it always manifests itself in different ways, many of them distinct from public protest. When its members are not taking to the streets together, the body politic manifests itself through its policed patterns of power relations. In line with the institutionally regulated forms and formations, members of the body politic affirm themselves in the positions that they are socialised – or coerced – into inhabiting, separated and classified along race, gender and/or class dividing lines, or through what I have called elsewhere the resolution of the suspect, or into the figure of the unmarked Man, the ultimate bearer of rights under the regime of white supremacy. Even in “ordinary” times, the streets are always filled with people, but their presence is marshalled into prescribed, familiar flows and arrangements. The variety of their assigned positions, constrained by clear rules of mobility and immobility, ensures that the relentless movement of extraction – which simultaneously yields accumulation and dispossession, production and consumption – will not allow this differential body politic to get out of control. It is this relentless movement of racialised capital that the pandemic has, to an extent, brought to a halt. Just to be clear, I want to stress here that a stop has not been put to racism itself, but rather to much of the production and consumption which it is intertwined.
So, the pandemic has led to a partial withdrawal from labour. However, in and of itself, the pandemic is not a strike. Being on strike is the imposition of the condition under which the meanings of a cessation of labour that were formerly foreclosed become imaginable again. The policies of lockdown, quarantine and social distancing, when combined with the undeniably insecure working conditions of those defined as “essential workers” (and who have been required to ignore or break all the rules everyone else has had to follow to protect themselves from the virus) have created conditions similar to those of a strike. Both those who have had to keep working and those who have been forced to stop working are part of a potential general strike.
This mass withdrawal from positions of work is, in itself, a surprising, unfamiliar and radical manifestation of the body politic that should not be dismissed, but rather paired with the presence of the masses on the streets. Once seen in combination with the withdrawal from work, these street mobilisations are no longer just another interval of public protest but, instead, become something greater.
As many have remarked, with the assassination of George Floyd and the disproportionate number of Black Americans killed by the pandemic, racism has been revealed as the meaning of the pandemic. And, no less importantly, the general strike has been revealed as the meaning of the unproductivity of the masses on the streets, dislocated from their usual operative positions in the body politic. It is this pairing that has made it possible for Black Lives Matter’s abolitionist grammar to be naturalized in the language of millions. This shift has been so sudden that white institutions have felt compelled to issue statements cleansing them of their white-supremacist language of universalism. Make no mistake, these statements are often disingenuous, belated, and insufficient. However, they can serve as important starting points. Once such statements are made public, those who work in these institutions are collectively afforded the power to strike, to push these words beyond the screen and to use them to transform the institution in question. If, when the movement began in 2013, Black Lives Matter’s abolitionist and reparative grammar was met with attempts to imperially universalise it (“all lives matter”), the many who follow the movement today understand that this grammar is the picket line that must not be crossed. In other words, the many who are simultaneously outside their ordinary positions as operators of imperial technologies as they protest on the streets are now practising this abolitionist-reparative grammar as proper grammar. Otherwise, would Minneapolis City Council members have gone beyond calling for individual indictments and police accountability to advocate the total defunding of the city’s police department? Would the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone have existed as a police-free neighbourhood where protestors could draft their uncompromising demands to end white supremacist school-to-prison pipelines?
BLM grammar consists in rejecting the universal political grammar that has, for centuries, normalised crimes against Black people and postponed the ever-pressing abolition of imperial racialising regimes. Abolitionist demands, agendas and imaginaries are neither new nor unprecedented: now, however, they enjoy the status of a general strike that allows them to be uttered as part of the only proper grammar. It is a grammar that enables language to become referential again, to make sense in a world shared by all members of the body politic. With BLM grammar, truth claims are once again possible: for example, that George Floyd is one of many Black people assassinated by police officers, and that the organisation that has spawned and nurtured this mass killing for years should be abolished. Also, with BLM grammar, the temporality of truth claims is transformed: events that are described – in universal grammar – as sporadic, individual killings are recoded in BLM grammar as further episodes of a mass killing. The police assassination of George Floyd is not a dissociated event, but rather an instantiation of forms of violence that are reproduced across time and place, materialised in organisations such as the police and the military, whose shared logic is predicated on the existence of Black suspects whose lives can be snuffed out on the spot. The immediate and uncompromising attacks on public monuments are a symptom of this grammatical change. The toppling of statues of enslavers and colonisers puts a brusque end to exhausting and pointless conversations about what to do with such monuments, conversations that are predetermined by the grammar these monuments themselves impose. Once they come tumbling down, displaying a tiny portion of them for, let’s say, educational purposes would require the difficult work of justifying the presentation of such a physical slur in a public space. Such a decision would also necessitate a display that revokes the power of the monument to insult its spectators. What these toppled monuments do, however, is to highlight one urgent question that BLM grammar poses: what are the less visible monuments of the white supremacy that these sculptures celebrate? This is a question I’ll return to at the end of this letter.
There is another urgent matter that needs raising. The truth claims and anti-imperial temporality that have become possible once again through BLM grammar and the current general strike are not available everywhere. They are especially hard to pronounce and to hear in countries whose democratic regime is of the apartheid variety. I’d like to talk about one such place, Palestine, crushed on a daily basis by the state of Israel. (And, yes, I do insist on referring to Israel as a democratic regime, since our current democracies are nothing to boast about, and are all in some way based on a differential body politic. But this is a topic for another conversation.) A few days after George Floyd’s execution by police, as large-scale protests started to spread around the world, an Israeli policeman murdered Eyad al-Halak, a 32-year-old Palestinian man from Wadi al-Joz, Jerusalem. For the Israeli regime, the murder of al-Halak was a litmus test: would it provoke a response similar in scale to that of the murder of George Floyd? Well, no, it didn’t.
So it was that Israel obtained yet further confirmation, both local and international, that it could go on brutalising and extinguishing Palestinian lives as it has done incessantly since 1948, when its regime made disaster was installed.
Those small protests that did take place were not seen as arising within the context of 72 years of unceasing struggle, but instead dismissed as a sign that only a few cranks could be bothered to say his name. The conclusion? Another Palestinian’s life could be taken.
And so it was that, just a few weeks later, Ahmed Mustafa Erekat was assassinated at a checkpoint near Jerusalem. Like al-Halak before him, he was forced to stop at the checkpoint whenever he moved from one point to another. However, on that particular day, he didn’t stop “properly” , according to the apartheid grammar inherent in the Israeli checkpoint system. He was shot several times and then left to die, bleeding out on the road for more than an hour. Israeli hasbara (propaganda) denies the world the chance to hear the names of the Palestinians its soldiers and policemen execute.
In 2015, after the police murder of Michael Brown and the assassination of 2,252 Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli soldiers the previous year, Noura Erakat, a professor of human rights law at Rutgers University, joined with journalist Dena Takruri in an attempt to say their names in solidarity in the video from Ferguson to Gaza and vice versa.
Palestinians and Black Americans shared a common abolitionist grammar and could speak to each other in the same language. As Noura Erakat put it at the time, “the point is not to compare oppression […] But the point here is that solidarity is a political decision on how to resist and how to survive in our respective fights for freedom.” This week, on Democracy Now!, Noura Erakat spoke as loudly as possible the name of her cousin, Ahmed Mustafa Erekat, whose life was taken by the Israeli regime for its own self- preservation (between the sea and the river), in opposition to the body politic of those it governs – half of whom are Palestinians. But even when Erekat’s name is heard, it is barely associated with the demands to abolish the regime that took his life in one of its routine operations.
Unsurprisingly, though, these demands are heard by radical Black leaders who, from the very beginning, made Palestine part of the Black Lives Matter agenda. To understand why BLM grammar is rendered impossible in Israel, it is essential to remember that, under the Israeli regime, Palestinians are murdered not only as individual Palestinians – like al-Halak and Erekat were – but also en masse, during countless raids and military campaigns, because they provide the “enemy” that justifies the Israeli army’s very existence.
Consider, too, the inflated police and army budgets, much of which is spent on international propaganda, intimidating and silencing cultural actors and institutions with allegations of “anti-Semitism”, and interfering in different countries to promote the introduction of legislation that would make it illegal to say Palestinians’ names using BLM grammar: in other words, to publicly state that Israel’s apartheid regime is predicated on the principle that Palestinian lives do not matter. A propaganda that also includes the use of state-funded education that, over the course of 12 years, turns children into soldiers for whom Palestinian lives will not matter. A propaganda that likewise encompasses the hasbara fellowships awarded to students around the world to further the Israeli cause on university campuses internationally, in an attempt to police the discourse there on Israel/Palestine and abort any effort to issue truth claims about Palestine. The recent attack you mentioned on Achille Mbembe in Germany is one of the latest examples of these Israeli-orchestrated attacks on anyone who dares say that Palestinian Lives Matter.
So it is that going on strike requires those who embrace BLM grammar to also find ways to amplify truth claims about Palestine. Outrageously, grotesquely, or tragically, the AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) has issued a statement of solidarity with BLM, as if it were not one of the primary pillars of support for the state that is a monument to white Jewish supremacy and that blocks the way to a BLM grammar to establish the picket line that should not be crossed. For abolition to be achieved, people will continue to improvise different forms of going on strike as part of the general abolitionist strike and will continue to find ways to put pressure on institutions not to make an exception of Palestine, to say that All Black Lives Matter.
If BLM provides the grammar, then keeping the general strike alive requires the uncompromising use of this grammar in all the professions and trades that people carry on, especially once productive activities resume.
Works of art are the ultimate incarnation of this centuries-old pillaging.
With millions on the streets undistracted by the categorical command to produce and consume, those who usually produce photos or ideas – which also exist as commodities – hold the power to refrain from or refuse to deliver certain goods. And they should, whenever doing so would mean crossing the picket line of All Black Lives Matter grammar. There are many different ways for people to join the strike and render legible the complicity between the white institutions charged with the production of knowledge and culture and the law enforcement regime that has been shaped to protect private property. After all, these institutions are built on the foundations of centuries of primitive accumulation of Black and indigenous land, wealth and stolen labour.
Works of art are the ultimate incarnation of this centuries-old pillaging. To conclude our conversation, let’s fire up our imaginations by recalling some recent landmark cases of drawing this picket line, all of which are related to art museums. Firstly, there’s the letter written by 100 Whitney Museum workers, who discovered the connection between Warren Kanders, owner of Safariland, a firm whose teargas is instrumental in the violent repression of people across the globe, and their Museum, of which Kanders was a board member (to this day, he remains a funder for and advisor on arts and environmental initiatives at Brown University, where I teach, something that students continue to protest). Then there are the protests and sit-in strikes led by Decolonize This Place, which persisted for months and would not stop until the Whitney respected the picket line. And the work that Forensic Architecture, in collaboration with Praxis Films, pursued with photography in Triple Chaser. Photographs of Safariland teargas canisters were taught to go on strike and to refute the assumption that they represent a decisive moment, and that what they record is only discrete moments, fragments of discrete truths limited to what is captured within their frames. Here they were taught to speak in concert with other photos, to underscore the sense of anti-imperial truth claims.
Triple Chaser took part in Kanders’ toppling, and is also participating in the as-yet unfinished campaign to bring down another white institution – the sacred status of “secret documents”, produced and archived as part of violence and still regarded as a primary source for scholarship seeking to expose imperial violence. With the help of hundreds of photographs shared by activists from the United States, Turkey, Peru, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, Venezuela, Egypt, and Canada, the project assembles a choir of voices to sing out loud a truth claim about the role of museums in reproducing anti-Blackness and anti-Palestinianness.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay
C O R R E S P O N D E N C E : FACE TO FACE
As a closure to the correspondence held these months between Carles Guerra and Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, we invite you to view the following conversation in which the authors raise new questions on the theme “Photography on strike”.
Correspondence is an online project that aims to reflect upon the relevance that photography has had in contemporary society and the visual culture of our times. The program will be extended throughout the year following three conversations that will be published weekly. Read more
In collaboration with
Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir, Urs Stahel, Hester Keijser, Joan Fontcuberta, Geoffrey Batchen. Read more
Nathan Jurgenson, Fred Ritchin, Marta Gili, George Didi-Huberman. Read more
Valentín Roma, Mercedes Cebrián, David Campany, Anastasia Samoylova. Read more
Remedios Zafra, María Ruido, Borja Casani, Andrea Valdés. Read more
Carles Guerra, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay. Read more
Rosa Olivares, Sema D’Acosta. Read more
Rosa Olivares, Sema D’Acosta, Carles Guerra, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Borja Casani, Andrea Valdés, Remedios Zafra, María Ruido, Valentín Roma, Mercedes Cebrián, David Campany, Anastasia Samoylova, Nathan Jurgenson, Fred Ritchin, Marta Gili, George Didi-Huberman, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir, Urs Stahel, Hester Keijser, Joan Fontcuberta, Geoffrey Batchen. Read more