Photography and the Political Arena, January 2009
Photography and the Political Arena, January 2009
The present issue* is dedicated to a discussion of the status of photography in the political sphere and to thoughts about the status of representation in the public arena. All the articles and essays found in this issue deal with the development of new insights into the conditions of possibility created in contemporary theoretical discourse. The analyses and discussions appearing here indicate a changing approach to photography, one showing the creation of a sphere of action – photography, thought, criticism – placing itself outside aesthetic and artistic discourse, past a critique and understanding of photography and its role in history. An approach is developing which focuses on the understanding that one can now be freed from aesthetic analysis as the only appropriate method and instead treat photography as playing a key role in the creation of intersubjective relations in discourse and social and political thought. Photography can be seen as at least a partial realization of the possibility for the weak to improve their status in comparison to the powers of repression, as a kind of power-free implementation of power.
The status of photography as a creator of a political viewpoint, with the power of a machine of affirmation and also of opposition, goes far beyond that of photography as examination, as documentation, and as a witness to events not necessarily rational or controlled. It has gone toward improving the status of the viewer as creator of an array of thought/speech/text, as creator of a community of discourse/image which did not exist in the past. There is no violence in the act of photographing, in the reading of photographs, or in their production and distribution, but there is a nonviolent violence in the ability of the virtual community and its members to use photography to create for themselves a kind of identity and status, a kind of machine to help them get past the discourse of an external ruler. These discoveries of the power of the weak are thus the focal point of this issue; the variety of views and voices can be seen as reflecting them in the section called "virtual exhibition" and not only in the articles. The albums of works included with this issue prove the strength of "the weak power", a weakness expressed primarily in the ability of the artist, the ability of the viewer to learn a new kind of gaze, a different way of looking. We have chosen this time to demonstrate these ideas through the albums, from the works of Simha Sherman through the appearance of signs of control on Route 443 (Ofir, Kratzman) and finally to the works of Yanai Toister (also in the English section), Oded Yadaya, Eldad Rafaeli, Efrat Shalem, and Shai Aloni, the large-scale works of Michal Heiman, and the works of Aviram Waldman, which provide a different angle on the urban experience. Louis Palu, a Canadian photographer specializing in documentary work, donated a fascinating album (in the English section) exposing the war in Afghanistan from an angle never previously seen. In addition, there is an up-to-date album of fresh works dealing directly with the present events in Gaza. Moshe Elhanati presents an album of works by an anonymous Palestinian photographer displaying a photographed reality rarely exposed in public, but only found deep in the blogosphere and the networks of e-mail. In all of these it can be seen how photography succeeds in making heard the voice of the voiceless, the voice of repressed and silenced populations and groups.
This issue also includes a series of short texts dealing with the world of photography in a variety of ways, some of them quite surprising. Yezi Michaelovich shows how photography exposes the development of an urban architecture from below, what he calls "archiparchitecture" (architecture of the masses). Avi Ganor, in "The Silence of the Eyes of the Nation: A Retrospective Look at Photography until the End of the 1970s", discusses the changing of the guard and the new culture created as a result of the trauma of the 1973 Yom Kippur War as the key to a different discussion of "The Eyes of the Nation", the groundbreaking work by Michal Ne'eman. He claims that the older interpretation has been an obstacle on the way to a political interpretation which has been little discussed and even then only within the artistic community. Ganor derails the presently-accepted view when he shows how Ne'eman moves the eyes of the nation from the tall, masculine, phallic Mt. Hermon on the country's eastern border, to a low, female, quiet place on the western border. Mati Shmuelof uses the unique photographs of Nir Kapri to give us an unusual view of the Southern Jail, full of security prisoners. Sharon Hess uses poetry to create a possible world of a female suicide bomber whose naked picture was generally distributed at soldiers' orders. Baruch Blich deals with an unknown facet of World War II photography in discussing photographs taken by German soldiers of Jews in concentration camps and ghettos while asking "is this memorialization, documentation, the construction of self-consciousness, the building of pride in the Army unit, a kind of reality, or perhaps an indirect admission of guilt…."
The main section of this issue includes articles by Dror Levi, who focuses on the indexality of photography as discussed in the realm of thought bounded by Walter Benjamin and Paul Virilio. Michal Schwartz deals with the meaning of historical and ontological intentional and unintentional destruction which creates a different understanding of photography documenting aspects which are not purely visual (as in the case of the American artist Sam Brackadge); and the eye-opening article by Ruthie Ginzburg providing a surprising analysis of photographs by the human-rights organization Betzelem. The article by Dana Arieli-Horowitz on the memory of German cities suggests the outline of a fascinating research project on the way photography has dealt with the tendency to forget and how the Nazi architectural past can again be found, sometimes even ironically, in photography. Sivan Shtang analyzes the complicated representation of sexuality through the act of photographing which makes it a political arena of meaning as part of the gender struggle. The intriguing article (in the English section) by Shlomo Abramov deals with rare surviving pictures from the attack on the bus on the Scorpion Path, pictures which became constitutive representations in the history of local nationalism. "Dina Discipline" by Hava Bronfeld-Stein places photography in a fascinating framework as part of the thought of Michel Foucault on power, rule, and the possibilities resulting from the use of photography as a political instrument, a special technique helping individuals and communities to turn themselves into subjects, but also to instruments for using the power of opposition. This relationship between turning man (the subject of photography) into an instrument, an object, what Heidegger called the "thing" (das Ding) and contemporary theory, which, through renewed ideological and historical research into modernism, allows the placing of photography at the center of social activity, of community opposition going beyond photography as representation or art, and connecting between it and Futurist trends from the beginning of the twentieth century. Following the analysis of the repressive presence of governmentality in all aspects of representation in the public arena, Foucault's theory helps us understand that the body, and the function of the look are a critical point in a significant change in the use of power, which according to Foucault occurred in the move from a society of demonstration to one of control, from one of punishment to one of meaning.
The criticism section of this issue is also mostly dedicated to photography and related issues. Most of these articles present our thesis through an examination of the actual experience of the photographer and how this experience is passed on to the reader/viewer. The development of this problematics can be seen in the article by Ariella Azoulai which deals with the works of Tiranit Barzilai, and in the two articles by Ariel Krill which close the circle beginning in photography, continuing in painting, and returning to photography. Baruch Blich gives his impressions of "Beauty and the Beast", an exhibition of the works of Miri Davidovich, and claims that Davidovich presents not only fascinating photographs, "… but presents a challenge to critical discourse – to deal with the photograph itself without taking into consideration where it is displayed and what theoretical framework defends it." Gal Ventura goes as far as London to cover an exhibition displaying the history of the depiction of Ophelia from nineteenth-century paintings to contemporary photographs. Dror Pimentel provides a critique and some thoughts about an exhibition of paintings by Moshe Kupferman where both sides of the paper, the front and the generally-hidden back, are shown. The latter is the only text in the issue which does not directly address photography, although it deals with the unrevealed, a topic which is of concern to contemporary photography.
Our hope is that this issue has successfully sharpened our view of the change in the relations between photograph and text; between original and translation based on a kind of destruction (of the original) in order to pass it on; and of photography as a kind of destruction always meant to leave traces so that the reader/viewer can follow the remains of the original glimmering through the written words. Following the claim of Benjamin that the translated text should not resemble the immediate meaning of the original, but rather that the original and translation together should serve the idea found between them and containing both of them, we hope that the articles presented here well reflect the ontological change in photography. Photography as personal violence, or as the personal conquering of the photograph, now becomes an open event, one aimed at a basic common denominator which is social, theological, and also aesthetic, not part of the history of art from which photography is alienated, but rather as a part of social history not found in the consciousness of most of the public. Photography thus rescues us from being locked in the 'look' of progress, forces the 'look' backward, restricts the modern 'look' promising control, knowledge and power, and leaves us uneasy.
* All of the articles and albums discussed in this article are written in Hebrew and are found in the Hebrew section of the Protocols. Articles or albums in English will be specifically indicated as such.