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Ahlam Shibli احلام شبلي
Ahlam Shibli — TRACKERS

A Document of Experience

Jean-François Chevrier, 2007

Strangeness is the principle common to both journalistic reporting and investigation. The English verb to report, from which the French word reportage comes, emphasizes the account. But a prior investigative process has taken place. The idea of the investigation is used to underscore the questioning that motivates reporting as an activity. A feeling of strangeness is a stimulus to investigation when it is interpreted as an encounter with an as-yet unrevealed truth. The detective novel locates this truth at a horizon defined by the solving of clues, around which the investigation's various hypotheses spring up. Even before Freud pointed out the analogies between the structure of myths holding a central riddle (Oedipus) and the neurotic's questioning of the family romance, the detective story had already established an experimental or speculative form of psychology (Edgar Allan Poe) which broadens the mechanisms of inductive interpretation by revealing the workings of mystery and otherness within self-evident, but enigmatic, reality. But the experience of otherness is a core component of ethnographic observation. As the publication of the diary kept by Malinowski during his time in the Trobriand islands in 1917/18 shows, field experience equates neither to self-sacrifice, nor to a dissolution of the self in an experience of communion with the exotic. Exoticism enhances an interior distance between self-misunderstanding and understanding acquired in the field. The curiosity of the ethnologist, exalted by the beauty of the "savage" world, also feeds on itself, maintaining in this way an irreducible ambivalence between attraction and repulsion. Malinowski is constantly thinking about his love life in the West, mulling over his fear of being unable to remain faithful to the person he desires from afar. After exhorting himself yet again to be faithful to his elective love, he writes: "As for ethnology: I see the natives' existence as utterly devoid of interest or importance, something as remote from me as the life of a dog."[1]

Ahlam Shibli's account of the military training of Palestinian trackers serving in the Israeli army testifies to a feeling of detachment, or even serenity, which seems to have protected her from Malinowskian ambivalence. As a Palestinian of Bedouin descent and Israeli citizenship, opposed to the policy of repression of her people by the Jewish state, she cannot approve of the betrayal of the future trackers. But there is no sign of such disagreement in her pictures; or at least none that I can clearly decipher as such. Beset by gnawing anxiety about his sexual life, Malinowski constantly oscillated between attraction to and repulsion from native women—and men. Ahlam Shibli's situation is obviously different: she has not immersed herself in an exotic culture, since the group on which her investigation focuses is composed of fellow countrymen and even, in some cases, of young men from her own village. But it is still the case that the attitude demonstrated by her pictures, when compared with the ethnologist's tropisms, show a striking reticence with regard to all forms of seductiveness. Her motivation was not "pure": no investigation is completely free of curiosity and in the visual domain enquiry calls on an instinctive scopic drive for which voyeurism is the most spectacular form of satisfaction. However, going against the habits fostered by the news media, Ahlam Shibli avoids the voyeuristic mechanism, just as she does any judgmental stance.

Her aim, obviously, was to understand, which means to begin by seeing who these young Israeli citizens are, coming as they do from the Palestinian minority and serving a dominating, oppressive majority. But understanding does not equate to approval. Furthermore, a focus on comprehension through the eye and limited to images is not the comprehension of a scientific investigation, not "objective," which is counteracted by the investigator's subjectivity, as we see in Malinowski's Diary. It is impossible to overstate the extent to which there are two faces to all reporting: description presupposes work on oneself, a distancing that begins by "shaking free" from the subjective. This work must be visible in the images and even determines their quality in part. The photographer is necessarily placed in the position of a witness, even if he or she rejects the role of professional witness assigned by the news industry. Any investigation out in the field will test the shifting boundaries of witness and the corresponding subjectivity. To understand through images is to "grasp" what is happening: vision sees from a viewpoint. But the reverse movement is necessary: the effort to understand must involve a loosening of the grasp of the eye. It is not enough to contrast a poetics of vision (a way of seeing) with the production of information. Conditioned by an ideology based around a dominant and dominating "subject," the "subjective" gaze all too often reproduces the reductive mechanisms of appropriation. Shaking free of oneself [se déprendre de soi]—as Michel Foucault described it—is the precondition for a descriptive accuracy that cannot be guaranteed by any science-like stance. Malinowski's Diary revealed the tissue of ambiguity that contradicts the criterion of anthropological objectivity. Journalistic photography can be likened to the discipline of anthropology but it must integrate into its discourse an effort of subjectivation, the transformation of the subjective point of view, unless one awaits the external gaze that will put the account into context. For an artist working in political actuality, nothing can be more dangerous than to think in terms of artwork and context. The reporting of Ahlam Shibli does not call for supplemental information. It will generate comments that will vary according to the interests of the spectator but it has an autonomy that sets it apart from historical or anthropological documents.

The context in which Trackers was produced and the context in which it is seen are however far from unimportant. Similarly, there is no neutrality in the photographic eye. The idea of neutrality is ambiguous; it can refer to a stance based on ideological distance, or even indifference to the political actuality, or to a more or less calculated silence and suspension of judgment. In any event, Ahlam Shibli's previous work shows that she has never dreamed of being a machine or an assistant to a machine and that she has always put forward a personal point of view. In the situation of armed conflict that opposes and divides the peoples of the Israeli-Palestinian territory, any claim to neutrality is simply a pious I came across themwish supportive of an unacceptable status quo. The suspension of judgment in Trackers is a guarantee of the honesty of observation; it was unavoidable in circumstances that call for a gaze free of emotion, but it is not offered as a subjective solution. This emotionfree gaze converges with the trend toward the avoidance of drama characteristic of descriptive, post-conceptual "almost-documentary" photography (Jeff Wall). But Ahlam Shibli does not transform a necessary distance into an esthetic standard. The gray images of Goter, simultaneously vibrant and deadened, precisely delineated but ghostly, proved to me, when I came across them, that photographic lyricism, impoverished or obscured as it is in contemporary creation, iscreation, is not not necessarily restricted to the private domain (as distinct and protected from public affairs), that it can make visible a territory, describe how a historical community lives, and it can have an impact on current affairs, without being demonstrative.[2] Trackers is a new manifestation of such lyricism, faced with undesirable reality and put violently to the test by the informational criterion intrinsic to reporting.

The illusion of neutrality is frequently confused with a deliberately impersonal standpoint. But the latter is a formal choice stemming from an anti-expressive attitude—or rhetoric. This is clear in the case of the artists of the 1960s who defined themselves in opposition to the lyrical improvisations and procedural compulsions of Abstract Expressionism and Informal Art. The political meaning of such a choice changes with context, even supposing it can actually be identified clearly. But one thing is sure: irrespective of its effectiveness in domains where observation is more important than involvement, impersonality is impossible to sustain in the interactive situations characteristic of reporting. Ahlam Shibli has photographed young Palestinian trainees in an Israeli army training camp without seeking to build any "personal" relationship with them; she does not depict them as "individuals," and she does not give them a voice. Her attitude would seem to contradict the ethics of neo-realism as defined by the author and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, co-author with Paul Strand of Un Paese (1955). Talking to a resident of Luzarra—his home village photographed by Strand—Zavattini says: "Imagine I want to relate the events of your day, your day as a manual worker, well, I watch you, I study you, I need a fair amount of time to understand and describe your day, I take my time, I observe attentively how one individual lives—so, after all that effort, how on earth could I not call you Antonio, why would I call you Paolo instead?: neo-realism never replaces one person with another."[3] Ahlam Shibli has rejected this principle, but any individual who is photographed is necessarily presented in person to the lens (even if they are supposed to have abdicated their individual personality). Furthermore, she has not set out to differentiate types, she has photographed singular individuals in situation. Indeed, this notion seems to me to be one of the keys to her attitude, as Ulrich Loock has already pointed out. She did not want to speak to the young soldiers, but she did meet with the families of some of them to understand where they had come from, and how they could have reached their decision to serve the Israeli army.

Before Trackers, Unrecognized and Goter depicted the precarious habitat, the environment of Bedouin villages under Israeli control. As its title indicates, Unrecognized describes one of the 179 Palestinian villages in Galilee and the Naqab (Negev) regions that are "unrecognized" by Israel (since 1948). Its inhabitants are second-class citizens with limited rights, condemned to a precarious existence. They are not allowed to build permanent structures and do not even enjoy access to the basic services to which citizens are automatically entitled.[4] Goter shifts the focus of enquiry to the south of the country, to the Naqab desert, and expands it: to the pictures taken in villages similar to those of Unrecognized are added others of the ghetto communities (townships) where the Israeli government set out to concentrate the region's Bedouin population in the 1960s. For this work, almost entirely in black and white, the photographer has chosen a distant point of view and the broader field provided by the wide angle lens to express how space is lived by a people with a nomadic culture whose rights to their ancestral territory have been denied since the time of the British Protectorate. Goter is a description of a political landscape, a description that is precise and idealized (both these characteristics are accentuated by the use of monochrome). It is less an act of protest than a reflective artwork of lasting value that contributes in its own way to the struggle of a people for survival. The dwelling reduced to a simple shelter resting on the ground, a shanty—Ahlam Shibli makes a distinction between home and house—is an image of dispossession, an image of a spectral body voided of its substance. But that image, made real by photography, also expresses an anachronistic—and deliberately frustrated—ideal of nomadic mobility in contradiction to the fixing of identity that is intrinsic to rootedness. In this way, Goter contrasts contemplation with the irony of disenchantment, so common in contemporary art, which stems above all from an abdication of will in the face of factual complexity (while laying claim to lucidity), and for which the processes of idealization are reduced to the ambiguous charm of kitsch. It is also the realism of familiar everyday life improvised in an arid desert landscape, in contrast to the sublime emptiness celebrated by the Zionist mythology of a land reserved for the chosen people.

In Trackers, Ahlam Shibli has taken the risk of breaking with the distance that creates landscape by moving closer to her subjects than she has ever done before. Furthermore, until now she has avoided male figures—or kept them at a distance. The emblematic image of Unrecognized for her is the portrait of a woman sitting, confidently facing the lens, in front of a corrugated iron wall decorated with an enormous flower.[5] Palestinian society is patriarchal and the man's role is that of the warrior, driven by an ideology of national liberation. Ahlam Shibli, deeply concerned at the difference between male and female roles in the definition of her artistic responsibility, expresses her combat in other terms, in a register where politics cannot be separated from poetic depictions of daily existence, where the power of imagination can be likened to the power of the mother in the home. Her interest in childhood links in with this. Self Portrait is the fable of a reinvented childhood in a familiar landscape of legend. In contrast with the "green paradise of childish loves" (Baudelaire), the environment of Trackers is in a way a return to reality or a resumption of the reality-test: a head-on look at young adults hardly out of their teenage years, seeking their identity in the interplay of power. The training camp can on occasion look like Palestinian villages, which themselves inevitably resemble encampments. But the similarity ends there. The world of the camp is male, except when families come to attend the passing-out ceremony. Gestures and attitudes are dictated by their military apprenticeship there. During periods of inaction, their bodies abandon themselves to sleep. The instructor leaning on a long stick supervising shooting practice—we can deduce this from the plug in his right ear—typifies disciplinary authority.

These images are devoid of heroism. The most astonishing picture in the first sequence is that of the young soldier moving carefully forward, slightly bent over, a grenade hefted in the palm of his hand. In order to create Unrecognized, Ahlam Shibli immersed herself in the life of the village before taking her first picture. At the risk of falling into the picturesque, she has avoided commentary and sought intensity, pictorial condensation, contrasting the density of lived experience with the precarious conditions in which it is lived. The subject of Trackers led her to adopt a different approach since she could not and would not empathize with these young soldiers. Her starting-point was a script. She defined the investigation's various different stages and locations. After an initial, fairly short sequence devoted to the training sessions, she leaves the camp to visit the places and the families from where they come, these Palestinians who have signed up in the Israeli army. We can see, given this, the extent to which stories, any story, whether in words or in pictures, is a geopolitical statement in this region of the world, an interpretive standpoint, but also an appropriation, a marking of territory. Such marking had previously appeared in Self Portrait: the young girl we assume represents the artist, on the basis of the title, is carving an inscription into the bark of a tree under the gaze of her companion. But this elegy-like scene springs from a culture that is universal. Trackers does not depict an area of territory transfigured by play but the ambiguity between appropriation and alienation that characterizes the social psychology of colonial relationships (Ahlam Shibli has read Franz Fanon).

By joining the Israeli army, a Bedouin earns a right to land, and can build a house, where he can freely exhibit the proof—photographs among other things—of his military prowess. Ahlam Shibli set out to look at the rewards and at the price for this allegiance to the masters. She does not take it as read that loyalty to a repressed national tradition is worthier than opportunism: tradition can be a force for blindness and inability to act. She went to see, and she shows the young peasants on leave back in their homeland alongside their elders, in a rough, stony field or on the arid land of a stud farm. One of them, recognizable by his T-shirt with the silhouette of a wild beast, makes three appearances: twice with his horses and the third as a dutiful son standing alongside his father, who was a career soldier in the Israeli army (as is evidenced by the automatic rifle slung across his shoulder). This image is one of a pair, similar in terms of enlargement, with that of the instructor at the opening of the first sequence. It is followed in the script by a set of images of graves where the division between combatants is repeated once again: on one side, "Arab-Israeli" soldiers (the Israeli state official description); and on the other, members of a Palestinian commando group.[6] Placed as it is in the center of the story, this sequence reminds us precisely and soberly of the sanctions of fratricidal war. The juxtaposition of these pictures reflects a confrontation of languages (Arabic, Hebrew) and funerary symbols. The spectator who does not speak these languages can feel the opacity of the battle between interpretations that underlies territorial rivalry.

The two plastic chairs sitting in front of a line of shaded graves testify to the intimate coexistence of the quick and the dead, or even the persistence of dialogue beyond the grave. The contemplative silence of these pictures springs from the arcane depths of an account that sets itself apart from the norms of spectacular news, preferring a document of experience to a presentation of preformed, discursive knowledge. From the news standpoint, preferring the dramatic event as it does, there is no justification for the lengthy series showing soldiers at rest that follows the grave sequence; but it matches one reality of military life, the long periods spent waiting, doing nothing (true also of film shoots), and it introduces into the story a recurring image, like an extended metaphor, of sleep that resembles death. Like all artists who work within events in the news rather than for the news, in the present and not for information, Ahlam Shibli knows that she must continually reinvent a distance and a time not dictated by the sense of urgency of an eye-witness account. The history of the region has taught her the importance of models for appropriating the past as a narrative, and the dangers in responding to calls for witness from militant ideologies sanctifying victims indiscriminately. I do not know whether she would agree with Mahmoud Darwish when he says that "the past is the firmest of tenses" and "all pasts are immediately transformed into a collective consciousness."[7] In any case, it is certain that the procedure involved in instantaneous recording, even when directed by a script, presupposes a relationship with current events based on deferred interpretation: any news image is a past to come when the present is lived in the future perfect.

While condemning the Jewish state's seizure of Palestine, Darwish sees this territory as the "Land of the Story." This superlative formulation, which acknowledges the authority of the Bible, among other sources, does not rule out the poetry of daily existence. Such poetry is the use of a language that cannot serve the victor's ideology, not so much because it is the language of the vanquished, but because it is another way of telling, or being in, the story of history. The relationship with power of a poetry of resistance can be effective only if it is founded on an experience of subjectivation that overflows readymade critical attitudes. Trackers is a document of such experience. It makes images illustrating the role played by norms of identification in the mechanisms of domination an integral part of the autobiographical story of Ahlam Shibli. That tension is particularly visible in the effect of interaction between the images produced by the photographer and those we see here and there in the domestic context of the individuals pictured. To conclude, I return to my initial comments. In a confrontation with norms that are strange to her—one needs only compare the imagery of Self Portrait with the trophy pictures of the "Arab-Israeli" soldiers—Ahlam Shibli has continued her geographical survey of the Palestinian environment, replacing the dwellings with gestures and bodily attitudes. Geography expressed in images is also writing with the body. The eye, when its ideal powerfulness is made present by photography, can see through walls; but stories create boundary lines, and these make themselves felt particularly in territory that is segregated. All work on subjectivity in a colonial context, if it avoids simply harping on or exorcising estrangement, is a process of internal decolonization. Ahlam Shibli depicts in minute detail the framework and the transparency of the tents in the training camp. This insistent image of the inside/outside relationship provides a paradigm for thinking on identity that seeks to overcome imposed divisions.

Translated from the French by Alan Waite

This essay was published at:

Ahlam Shibli: Trackers. Edited by Adam Szymczyk. Exh. cat. Kunsthalle Basel. Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2007. (Essays by: John Berger, Jean-François Chevrier, Okwui Enwezor, Rhoda Kanaaneh, and Adam Szymczyk.)

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