Printed Matters

Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel

In a new book, the esteemed photojournalist Miki Kratsman describes the uneasy recognition by some former students at Tel Aviv’s Geographic Photography College in 2005: The relationship between photojournalists and media outlets was rapidly shifting in a direction that did not favor visual storytellers, as online platforms achieved supremacy and content demands increased exponentially. From their insecurity sprang Activestills, a collective of dedicated photographers whose work challenges dominant media narratives about a range of issues—including one of the most violently entrenched conflicts on the planet—and the critical assessment of photography to affect change. Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel, the group’s second publication, is an incisive critical and personal reflection on its work of the previous decade.

Image from “Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel” (Israel’s Ethiopian community demonstrates against police brutality and racism, following a series of incidents involving police violence directed at Ethiopian youth, West Jerusalem, 30 April 2015). Courtesy of Shiraz Grinbaum.

Image from “Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel.” (Protesters take part in a demonstration calling for animal liberation, Tel Aviv, Israel, August 24, 2013.) Courtesy of Shiraz Grinbaum.

It is vital to understand the terminology adopted by Activestills members and contributors. None of the participants accept the title “documentary photographer.” Photojournalists working in the documentary mode—such as Jacob Riis, Jessie Tarbox Beals, Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith, and James Nachtwey—operate by long-standing procedural and ethical codes in journalism that understandably prioritize neutrality when capturing a story. While exposing events to worldwide audiences, photojournalists as a rule do not intervene in the actions that unfold before their cameras.

Beginning in the late 1970s, theorists including Susan Sontag and Martha Rosler turned their critical gaze to the effects of photojournalism and the distanced stance of its practitioners. Elucidating the relationship between liberal politics and social reform, and documentary photography as a tool of both, Rosler argued convincingly that such well-intentioned practices present subjects as victims whose salvation depends on the viewer’s response to their plight. Prioritizing the viewer’s psychological comfort establishes a dynamic in which the person or people touched by tragedy plead their case via the photographic image to those in power and hope for the best. Decades later, Activestills members realized Rosler’s call for photojournalists to engage fully in the social-justice matters they report to prevent the stories they tell from being sanitized by a viewer’s needs. Photographing events ranging from weekly protests of the separation wall that ghettoizes West Bank Palestinians to marches for LGBTQ rights, immigrant and asylum-seeker rights, and fair housing throughout the Israeli state, Activestills members stand with protesters of all stripes to make more visible the struggles that affect both Palestinians and Israelis. In doing so, the group advances the title “activist photographers” to describe its members.

Image from “Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel” (The home of the Adgluni family being demolished by Israeli authorities, Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem, 27 January 2014). Courtesy of Shiraz Grinbaum.

Image from “Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel.” (Palestinian protester opposite an Israeli soldier during the weekly demonstration against the occupation, Nabi Saleh, West Bank, January 8, 2010.) Courtesy of Shiraz Grinbaum.

The current volume is an analog account of Activestills’ work. The format is notable because so much of the collective’s work is available online via their steadily growing archive (more than 35,000 images) and alternative media platforms, including Electronic Intifada, +972 magazine and its Hebrew counterpart Local Call, and daily updates to associated Flickr accounts. The ease of online access almost renders a book redundant, but the reading experience offers critical analyses of who and what are shown in the images. Single shots of protesters facing or physically confronting heavily armed Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) function in tandem with sequences portraying Israelis protesting state-sanctioned homophobia and visualize a range of social-justice struggles in addition to the nearly seventy-year conflict between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. In capturing this wide range of encounters, Activestills photographers tease out the small yet urgent details of life that do not receive sustained attention.

Image from “Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel” (A Palestinian family in the ruins of their home in the Al-Tufah district of Gaza City, which was heavily bombed during the Israeli military offensive, Gaza Strip, 21 September 2014). Courtesy of Shiraz Grinbaum.

Image from “Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel.” (The Kadoori, Hamias, and Ashram families sit around an improvised Sabbath table near their demolished homes in the Giv’at Amal neighborhood, Tel Aviv, September 19, 2014.) Courtesy of Shiraz Grinbaum.

Rejecting the documentary photography mantle was perhaps the seed of Activestills’ subversive strategy, the display, dissemination, and overall effect of which is carefully analyzed in essays by the historians Ariella Azoulay, Simon Faulkner, Vered Maimon, and Meir Wigoder. Azoulay, who has long worked through notions of citizenship, photography, and “ethical spectatorship,” addresses the Activestills archive as a direct challenge to those who refuse the breadth of Palestinian human rights and work strenuously toward outright cultural erasure.[1] The online archive is updated with near-real-time frequency, rendering it “operative, and not simply contemplative,” and mirroring the violent interactions between protesters, soldiers, and settlers.[2] Access to and use of the archive thus destabilizes the dominant media construct from within and further exposes the decidedly biased reportage of these events produced by Israeli and international media outlets. Similarly, Simon Faulkner considers in depth Activestills’ exhibition strategy and how such methodology affects audiences who both support and reject what the images report. The collective settled on a presentation tactic in which unframed prints are hung outside of a formal or institutional visual-art context, favoring plein-air installations in or near locations where protests and related skirmishes erupt.

Image from “Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel” (Palestinian and Israeli protesters hold posters with the words: “Who Killed Mustafa Tamimi?” at the weekly protest against the occupation in Nabi Saleh, West Bank, 7 December 2012). Courtesy of Shiraz Grinbaum.

Image from “Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel.” (Solidarity protest with African asylum seekers imprisoned in Israeli prisons under the “Infiltrators Law,” Tel Aviv, December 28, 2013.) Courtesy of Shiraz Grinbaum.

The effect is striking. In Activestills exhibitions, protesters and their supporters view the actions in which they’ve been involved, an act that bolsters their participation and ongoing resistance. For those in Palestine and Israel who stand against a spectrum of state abuses, the guerilla exhibitions sanction not just their fight but also their existence. Alternately, Activestills exhibitions staged beyond the Green Line are often met with hostility. If the installations are not vandalized (marked with hate speech or torn down), parties opposed to public displays of skirmishes at the separation wall and throughout the Occupied Territories rush to provide political narratives to counter the group’s reportage.

Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel closes with interviews or brief essays by the group’s founders—Oren Ziv, Keren Manor, Yotam Ronen, and Eduardo Soteras—and various members. Responding to questions about what it means to live as an activist photographer and to find community with those who resist occupation and social disenfranchisement, the artists express decidedly somber thoughts. Ziv notes that in the heavily saturated media climate we inhabit, ignoring outright the inequities around us is untenable, if not immoral. As media consumers, we are supplied with more than ample information about the violence our world produces, be that in Palestine/Israel, or the European Union, or the United States. Countering viewers’ sympathy fatigue is not Activestills’ primary motivation; participating in and photographing human struggle is. This extraordinary volume, which is as important for understanding photography’s potential as any critical text thus written, gets to the root of how people pitted against one another will remain locked in conflict as long as the aspirations for peaceable coexistence are thwarted by state actors. Through tired eyes, we have a responsibility to look at what they produce.

Image from “Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel” (Palestinians climb over the Israeli separation wall, on their way to attend Ramadan Friday prayer in Al-Aqsa mosque, A-Ram, West Bank, 19 July 2013). Courtesy of Shiraz Grinbaum.

Image from “Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel.” (Palestinians climb over the Israeli separation wall on their way to attend Ramadan Friday prayer in Al-Aqsa mosque, A-Ram, West Bank, July 19, 2013). Courtesy of Shiraz Grinbaum.

[1] Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum, “Introduction,” Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel (London: Pluto Press, 2016), 33.

[2] Ibid, 34.