Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Black and White and Back: Reversed Negatives in Rula Halawani’s series Negative Incursions

Published onMar 15, 2018
Black and White and Back: Reversed Negatives in Rula Halawani’s series Negative Incursions

Figure 1. Rula Halawani, Untitled XII, Negative Incursion series, 2002, archival print, 90 x 124 cm, edition of 5. Photograph courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Write down!
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew
—Mahmoud Darwish, “Identity Card”1

Acclaimed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish expresses the inherent frustration of the Palestinian condition of invisible visibility in his 1964 poem “Identity Card.”2 Addressing an existence that is often negated, confined, and erased under Israeli colonial occupation, Darwish’s poetry speaks to a population that since 1948 has been constantly watched, but never seen. Half a century later, Darwish’s poetry maintains its relevance as the occupation continues to suppress and expand its hold on Palestinian territory. In 2002 during the Second Intifada, or Second Palestinian Uprising, Israeli Defence Forces launched “Operation Defensive Shield,” the largest military operation in the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War. Invading Ramallah, followed by Tulkarm, Galqilya, Bethlehem, Jenin and Nablus, the IDF infringed upon a territory of people that it continues to occupy today.3 Palestinian photographer Rula Halawani responded to the Israeli offensive with a photographic series that includes twenty-three images taken during a one-month period after the invasion.4 Entitled Negative Incursions (2002), Halawani’s large format negative prints were motivated by this significant event, which caused many Palestinians to lose any remnants of hope for peace directly after the duration and failure of the Oslo Peace Accords. Among them, Halawani would also lose her faith in photojournalism—after a substantial career as a photojournalist—and in the ability of traumatic photographs to affect viewers situated outside of the conflicts pictured. Faced by a global community that continues to disregard and repudiate the critical situation of Palestinians enduring a pressurized military occupation since decades before Operation Defensive Shield, Halawani’s series interrupts this disassociation.5 Through a process of negation that metaphorically and methodically challenges the fatigued and impartial consumption of images of suffering, Halawani’s enlarged photographs—printed as negatives rather than positives—create an ambivalent representation of conflict in contradistinction to the clarity typically demonstrated by photojournalistic documentary photographs.

In an interview, Halawani explains her choice to use negative imagery, stating: “In negative, the pictures were able to express my own feelings merged with the feelings of my people, to explain what had happened to us and to Palestine. As negatives, they express the negation of our reality that the invasion represented.”6 Highlighting and rendering visible what is normally concealed in shadow, and subsequently masking the things that are usually visible, Halawani’s series Negative Incursions obfuscates the easy consumption of images of atrocity by reversing the legibility of the positive image by displaying her photographs in negative. In doing so, Halawani foments an obscuration of the perception of images of atrocity as unbiased records of truth. The image and its indexical relationship to the event resonates with the correlation between history and photography that Siegfried Kracauer identifies in History: The Last Things Before the Last (1969) where he states “History resembles photography in that it is, amongst other things, a means of alienation.”7 Accordingly, the figures in Halawani’s images appear to take on an ethereal, otherworldly quality in their visual representation, removing them not from the deleterious condition of the conflict and occupation, but their naturalization within that conflict. As such, Halawani explains her choice to print the images in negative as a necessity—an emblematic method for expressing the negation of the Palestinian experience, one of constant invasion, repression and isolation.8

Engaging with a phenomenological approach to the status of the negative image, I will explore how Halawani’s series accomplishes what positive images, no matter their composition, complexities or content, have often failed to do for Palestinian subjects. Through a method that literally inverts images of conflict of the already othered Middle East, Halawani’s negative photographs disrupt the detached viewership of the spectator of calamities. The unprecedented negative image creates a rupture in the constant stream of images of atrocity made available, a phenomenon that Susan Sontag refers to as “a quintessential modern experience.”9 This aesthetic transformation turns landscapes, memories, people, and atrocities from familiar photographic subjects to otherworldly-looking representations of what we are accustomed to seeing in documentary photographs. The juxtaposition of a Palestinian collective memory and the subsequent creation of a collective Israeli amnesia adjudicated in Halawani’s series is at once simultaneous and oppositional. The negative images have a disorienting quality that creates a rift between what is expected and what is seen. Approaching the photographs in this series as manifestations that challenge the history and nature of the negative, the documentary, and the conflict they capture I will address the following questions: Does the aesthetic choice to invert documentary images into negatives have the potential to produce affect or does it simply increase the status of atrocity as a spectacle, as so many media images do? And more poignantly, investigating the formal and technical aspects of the medium as metaphor, what can this process of negation, the visual inversion of color, life, and image accomplish when representing a current case of a violent colonial occupation in Palestine that has so often been understood in black and white?

In an effort to antagonize the critique of the complicity of photography as a medium in his book Photography and its Violations (2014), John Roberts differentiates between direct violence, symbolic violence, and systemic violence, which all factor into the ethics of photography. The complexities of the political potential of documentary photographs are addressed and categorized by Roberts so that images can be read as indexical revelations of instances and structures of violence. Whereas direct violence is relegated to the realms of literal oppression, bodily harm and occupation, symbolic violence and systemic violence are considerably more insidious. Roberts asserts that these forms of interconnected violence can be classified as such:

Direct violence (war, daily criminality, physical aggression); symbolic violence itself (the mediatized cultural forms and language of market exchange, in which spatial abstraction plays a role); and systemic violence (the amnesiacal and catastrophic “smooth” functioning of the capitalist system, based on the normalizing and dehistoricization of conflict). (1) and (2) are largely visible, and (3) is largely invisible; but (1) and (2) also need the systemic occlusions and omissions of (3) in order to function efficiently.”10

Roberts problematizes these forms of violence within a neoliberal capitalist system that justifies the inescapability of direct violence through the advents of the less visible symbolic and oftentimes invisible systemic violence. He argues that through a process of desymbolization, otherwise understood as an obscuring rebranding of violence as necessary or unavoidable, such cycles are able to maintain themselves.11 Favoring “showing all” to “telling all,” Roberts considers photographic representations of violence, no matter how intolerable or pornographically expository they may appear, as necessary because they have the unique capacity to capture both the overt and less tangible forms of violence.12 However, there is a thin line between the desire and necessity to look and the “showing everything” that causes the viewer to simply look away and move away from the content of the photograph.13 Photography has indelibly become the mode through which individuals come to understand the world in which they live, and consequently, worlds physically and experientially far away.14 As in the case of Palestine, these pictured worlds are often subjected to deleterious living conditions otherwise unimaginable to recognized citizens in Western nation-states. Largely structured in response to these categorizations of violence, and the disruption of indolent spectatorships of atrocities balanced between showing all and showing too much, I will discuss specific photographs within Halawani’s series that both exemplify and challenge these different relationships between violence, photography, and documentary practice. Furthermore, the co-dependent categories of violence are not only relevant to the content of Halawani’s Negative Incursions series, but to the negative form of the photographs. The photographs are indicative of the three levels of violence, which Roberts refers to, but most pointedly reveal the invisible structures of systemic violence. The almost unrecognizable humans in Halawani’s images are purposively obscured to draw attention to the ambivalent position of Palestinians as stateless and displaced persons. In order to rescue their subjectivity, Halawani makes visible the very ambiguity of their existence and the endemic violence that is directed at them because of their status as such.

There have been attempts in the last few decades within the historical and art historical fields of discourse to recover the subjugated Palestinian narrative. Art historian Gannit Ankori’s important publication Palestinian Art in 2006, for example, signifies a landmark in this field of study, and is the only of its kind concerned exclusively with Palestinian art history. Ankori, like most postcolonial art historians and theorists, is indebted to Edward Said’s pivotal 1979 text Orientalism, which inspires Ankori’s discussion of ‘disorientalism’—a phenomenon she argues is specific to the Palestinian condition. Ankori describes this distinguishing Palestinian trait in art as having multivalent meanings that allude to several aspects of the Palestinian condition. Disorientalism refers to the desire to eradicate Western constructions of the Oriental other, the ethos of a literal loss of land, and a “sharp and composite sense of disorientation,” and overarching awareness of dislocation.15 In the proceeding chapters, Ankori attempts to re-construct a history of Palestinian art (including traditions in miniature painting, Fellahi embroidery, Armenian pottery and photography), one that is Pre-Nakba and thriving. Halawani, as a contemporary artist, has a different prerogative that not only reveals and retrieves this history, but complicates it through a documentary series that does not conform to the digestible aesthetics typically assigned to the category of documentary images. Halawani’s series seems to be interested in a declamatory positioning of documentary photography that is beyond mimetic representations of real life, meant to disturb its viewers, “polluting reality” with what cultural writer and journalist Ahmad Zatari considers a “perpetual, painful, daily historical consciousness…which we retrieve through exercising our right to narrate.”16 Referring here to Edward Said’s 1984 essay “Permission to Narrate,” Zatari points to the affect of documentary images that document Palestinian perspectives of Palestinian suffering. Halawani’s images ineludibly pollute the often-complicit practice of imaging atrocity with photographs that resist categorization through an aesthetic that refuses easy observation. The image in negative requires the eye to work harder and look closer.

In The Civil Contract of Photography Ariella Azoulay re-politicizes photography through its social ontology in a Palestinian context. Rethinking the civil space of the gaze through a construction of an alternative citizenship incited through photographic images, Azoulay identifies the recurring encounter between the photograph, photographer, and photographed as a moment of possible reconciliation between Israeli citizens and Palestinian non-citizens.17 Described as “a new conceptualisation of citizenship as a framework of partnership and solidarity among those who are governed, a framework that is neither constituted nor circumscribed by the sovereign,” Azoulay argues for a space outside of the nation-state’s domain of control where a social contract (via Roussaeu’s social contract) is naturally—albeit unofficially—inscribed through reciprocal recognition.18 When reading the social contract through the photographic work of Halawani, the encounter Azoulay describes is further complicated through a visible disruption achieved by the negative image. The comparison is perhaps a didactic one, wherein the non-citizen Palestinians are palpably obscured through their depiction in the unconventional tonal range of the negative image. The precariousness of their position outside of legal citizenship as defined by the nation state is heightened through the formal qualities of the negative photograph. Palestinian bodies alienated from universal human rights discourses appear alien in their reversed positive form.19 The non-citizen Palestinians are thus pictured in a hypervisible negative form that calls attention to their positioning outside of the discursive rights universally contracted through international human rights discourse.

Figure 2. Rula Halawani, Untitled XIX, Negative Incursion series, 2002, archival print, 90 x 124 cm, edition of 5. Photo courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

In Halawani’s Untitled XIX (fig. 2), one lone figure stands out atop a monumental pile of rubble and debris. The figure appears to be that of a young man barely out of boyhood. Dressed in an illuminated t-shirt and slacks, he appears like a white beacon amongst the grey matter of destruction below him and the blackened sky and clouds above. Some of the buildings remain intact in the background of the frame, but their impending doom is epitomized in the crumbled remains of the other buildings, those that used to stand in the foreground of the image, but are here pictured after their demolition. Satellites and wires perched on top of those remaining buildings are ironically ineffectual, proving useless in connecting any sort of empathy or inspiring any sort of action for the injustice befallen the Palestinian people pictured in this series; there were little to no human rights interventions during the Intifada. Instead there was international radio silence. An image of this photograph was included in the exhibition catalogue She Who Tells a Story (2013) for an exhibition that sought to provide a platform for emerging female photographers throughout the Middle East and Iran. Although all of the aforementioned artists similarly approach issues around militarism and conflict, gender and violence, Halawani’s series also targets the practice of photography in its artistic and documentary forms. In the catalogue, Untitled XIX is described by curator Kristen Gresh as reminiscent of a mountain illuminated by veins of volcanic fire.20 While Gresh suggests that this photograph evokes a visual representation of the “region’s underlying conflicts”—a lava-filled volcano ready to erupt at any given moment—she fails to acknowledge the haunting visual disturbance of the reversed shadows that are arguably more protuberant than the content itself. Sadly, there is nothing new about images of youth in war. Photojournalists have been documenting the suffering of young people since the medium’s earliest documented uses. That is not to say that such images should be disregarded. Rather, the point is to call attention to the figure in this photograph that hovers above the ruins like an iridescent shadow. The choice to develop photographs in their negative form alludes to both a symbolic realm of violence and an alternative history of photography that situates Halawani’s series in dialogue with the photographic medium in its earliest developments.

John Tagg positions a history of early photography in the nineteenth century within an analysis of power that problematizes the documentary mode in its earliest manifestations. According to Tagg in The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, photography is “historically implicated in the technology of power-knowledge, of which the procedures of evidence are part, must themselves be the object of study.”21 For Tagg who cites Foucaldian power dynamics extensively, photography is inextricably bound to knowledge-power productions. Photography is posited here as a medium impartial to its subjects, its content, and its uses, and therefore easily appropriated by the state. Tagg writes that: “The camera is never merely an instrument… It arrives on the scene vested with a particular authority; authority to arrest, picture and transform daily life. This is not the authority of the camera but of the apparatus of the local state which deploys it and guarantees the authority of its images to stand as evidence or register a truth.”22 Through a historical analysis of the reductive praxis of physiognomy deployed through the photographic medium in the nineteenth century including the documentation and institutionalization of punitive portraits of prisoners, asylum patients, and other “degenerates,” Tagg problematizes the inception of the camera into documentary projects that use the camera as a tool for exposing social and political injustices. Tagg’s critique of the social ontology of documentary photography is situated within the limitations of the disciplinary framework of an epistemology that decrees that the documentary mode is too far implicated in the history of “observation-domination” to subvert this order.23 The observation-domination to which Tagg refers is exemplified in the tactics of surveillance, identification and incarceration utilized by the Israeli prison system. However, Tagg revises this tautological approach to documentary photography in 2009 with The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning. This more recent reflection on the documentary mode points to the contingencies of photographic images to sometimes operate against the “apparatus of discipline.”24 In the hands of a Palestinian artist, the images captured and displayed by Halawani exemplify the subversive potential of the documentary mode to function outside of the dichotomous power relation Tagg lays out in his earlier argument. In abandoning conventional documentary modes in favor of the disorienting negative, Halawani simultaneously challenges the legibility of the photograph as a descriptive conveyer of truth and the function of the camera as a tool enshrined as an apparatus of discipline.

Figure 3. Henry Fox Talbot, Latticed Window, (with the camera obscura), August 1835.

During the same historical period that Tagg identifies as the crucible moment for understanding the documentary mode, occurs another pivotal moment in the history of photography. In 1835 Henry Fox Talbot took the first known negative image on paper, now housed in the Science Museum in London as an artifact of the history of the photographic image (fig. 3).25 It measures approximately one square inch, and was taken from the inside of a casement window in Lacock Abbey in such resolution that originally, with a glass, would have rendered all 200 panes of the window legible. It is the oldest known negative in existence. An inscription on the image in fine handwriting reads: “Latticed Window, (with the camera obscura) August 1835.”26 Henry Fox Talbot is a quintessential figure in the history of photography, who was intrigued by the negative image, the initial image, or what he called “photogenic drawing.” This form of photography is explored at length in Kaja Silverman’s book The Miracle of Analogy, or, The History of Photography, Part 1. In it, she repositions Talbot’s place within the history of photography. Prioritizing his particular interest in the negative or what he refers to as the “laterally reversed” image, Silverman’s book follows the trajectory of the negative as an already reversed image, the positive as a reversal of this reversal, and most pointedly the negative as an image in its own right.27 According to Silverman, Talbot “saw the negative as a full-fledged photograph, and not merely as the template from which to produce one.”28 Through Talbot’s negatives, Silverman repositions these images as photographic interpretations rather than duplications of the real, while simultaneously elevating the status of the negative as an already complete image worthy of thorough investigation. In other words, the negative is positioned as a complete image of potential incompleteness. The disjuncture between positive and negative is therefore not sequential but rather formal.

For Palestinians, whose historic homeland continues to endure colonial occupation pressurized under impeding Israeli borders, the symbolic reversal of belonging demonstrated by the chiasmus is both ominous and ironic. Despite having cultivated their native land from as early as the seventh century, the symbolic violence of the Jewish homeland has taken precedence and become a form of systemic violence (infringing on international law first established at the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949).29 Despite the obvious and undeniable violations of international law, many countries, including Canada and especially the United States, vehemently defend Israel.30 Halawani’s evocative images in negative offer the possibility to invert the settler-colonial ideologies that perpetuate systemic violence by demanding that the viewer look closer. The disorienting form of the negative photograph is paradoxically overcome by its ability to make visible the structure of the conflict as a colonial occupation.31 Thus Halawani’s choice to use the negative is not solely aesthetic, but also registers symbolically. It presents viewers with the opportunity to enact the reversal process necessary to render the images into metaphorical positives. In doing so, to a certain degree, Halawani’s series incites a desire in the viewer to see the images in positive form. This revivification of an active gaze, however, treads carefully away from redemptive and reductive politics by challenging the structures of photography—and in doing so, the structures of colonial occupation—calling for reconceptualization, revisualization, and refutation in both instances.32 Choosing to develop the images in their negative forms situates the images in a sort of purgatory between complete and incompleteness. They are perpetually unfinished finished images that actualize Silverman’s conceptualization of reversals, wherein photographs behave like chiasmuses. Appropriating this rhetorical device to describe the precarious relationship between a negative and positive image, Silverman’s analysis of this relationship resonates with an infamous nineteenth and twentieth century chiasmic example of Zionist propaganda advocating for the development of a Zionist Jewish state in Palestine. The phrase, “a land without people for a people without a land,” echoes in the chambers of the Palestinian collective memory and further entangles Halawani’s series, the content it addresses, and the medium of photography with the ambivalence of the negative form.

An image of direct violence is presented in Halawani’s Untitled XIII (fig. 4), wherein a woman ridden with grief stands in the ruins of her home, which was demolished moments after witnessing her daughter being shot, point blank, right before her. The devastated woman has one hand outstretched while the other clutches onto her daughter’s fourth year university notebooks.33 Her illuminated figure looks ethereal against the backdrop of the only remaining wall of her home where a curtain appears to sway in the light breeze. Everything else around her is in ruins. Brick and stone rubble pierced by cable wires erupt around the grieving mother. Her face is framed by her scarf in contrasting black, standing stark against the lighter grays of the chaos and forms that envelop the image. After the Second Intifada, the accessibility of education would become increasingly difficult for students in Palestine faced with timely detours, checkpoints, and routine harassment from Israeli settlers on their routes to school. After gaining control of the West Bank, Israel was able to prevent Palestinian students there from attending university in Gaza and vice versa, and still frequently denies permits for scholars wishing to teach at Palestinian universities.34 This strategic limitation is foregrounded in Zionist policy, specifically the ‘Quiet Transfer’ plan designed to “encourage” Palestinian migration. More overtly, this plan reveals a long-term prerogative that seeks to transform the demographic of annexed East Jerusalem through the removal of Palestinian Jerusalemites.35 This operative strategy for erasing Palestinians from their homeland through elusive yet effective long-term aggressions is indicative of ethnic cleansing. Despite Israel’s refusal of accusations of genocide, the devastation caused by the Israeli incursion into the West Bank in 2002, no matter the official designation of the violent act, caused the most suffering to non-military, non-threatening Palestinian families and refugees. The absence of the young student in Halawani’s photograph is replaced by the image of her ghostly mother, whose languishing is tangible even in the unfamiliar aesthetic of the negative image. Tragedies like these have been providing the field of documentary photography with material since its earliest days. The close relationship between atrocity and documentary photography is at times indistinguishable, both relying on each other in different ways.

In The Civil Contract of Photography Ariella Azoulay includes a photograph by Anat Saragusti taken in Hebron in 1982 of a Palestinian man who holds his hands up to the camera lens. Pinched between his fingers, the man displays a broken lock that was forced off of his storefront door, destroyed by Israeli paratroopers who were sent in to disrupt and suppress a strike.36 Azoulay connects this willing participation with the imagining of a civil space that exists outside of legal sovereignty, able to grant alternative citizenship to Palestinians like this merchant, who suffers under the institutionalized violence of the Israeli state. Like the woman in Halawani’s image who holds her daughter’s books to the camera, the man holds out his hands in a similar gesture. With the broken lock he offers the broken promises of safety and security, demanding that the spectator look and recognize his vulnerable position outside of statehood. Roberts uses Azoulay’s conceptualization of an alternative citizenship as a springboard for his discussion of the ambivalence of visibility, which he considers “the affective truth of photography: its unrivaled capacity to reveal the fact that what we see is not convergent with what we know to be true, and therefore what we know about what we see we are unable to freely assimilate – there is a fundamental gap between representation and truth.”37 Halawani situates her images within this lacuna—a gap that materializes as the compromised position of a Palestinian existence. Tellingly, the images in her series are all untitled; perhaps it is a gesture to the inconceivability of the actual lived experience of the military invasion she records. The photographs in Negative Incursions resonate between truth and representation, both revealing and reframing a highly photographed conflict that continues to devastate Palestinian lives with little repercussion for the colonial power responsible for this oppression. But as Roberts argues, the ambiguous position of photography lies in its ability to move between the seen and unseen, what we know to be true and what we know we have seen. In Negative Incursions, Halawani attempts to capture the fluctuations between visibility and invisibility, knowing and not knowing, through the formal rejection of the documentary mode in favor of the negative image. Although the eye does not see in negative, the negative more realistically depicts the severity of the devastation caused by settler colonial violence. The choice to develop large format negatives as full-fledged photographs is a violating act, one that renders visible the violation it depicts, which has typically remained unseen in plain sight—lost amongst other documentary photos that have in many ways standardized atrocity.

Susan Sontag examines this normalization and the manner in which war and atrocity is imaged and imagined in her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others. Following an epistemological approach that considers different ways through which atrocity is represented and perceived, Sontag re-evaluates the predicament articulated in her arguably most pivotal publication On Photography in 1977. She amends her initial conclusion—that the oversaturation of war images in the media has irrevocably calloused a modern viewership no longer capable of moral or ethical empathy—in favor of a more constructive position in the later publication. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag correlates the tireless consumption of violent news images as a symptom of TV and broadcasting medias that are in their very commoditized contexts meant to be flipped through, stripped of context, unabsorbed. The only alternative to the preponderance of war images in our highly digitized and globalized world would be their censorship, which Sontag insists is of course not a feasible option. For Sontag, images of atrocity exist because atrocities exist, because humans are capable of vile acts. These vile acts should haunt us, so let the photographs, videos, films, and accounts circulate whether they are in print, on screen, or on a gallery wall. She concedes: those who have not experienced the trauma, the sounds, the stench, and the loss caused by war will never truly understand the systematic infliction of violence through an image, nor can they imagine it.38 Fittingly, Halawani challenges the ubiquity of war images in the media by mimicking a television screen with the thick black borders on her photographs.39 The disruptive large-format negative prints incite an image that is beyond the visual limits of a descriptive, positive photograph and resist immersion into news and media circuits because of their ostensible illegibility. How else can an image of the protracted occupation and military invasion endure by Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem be understood by those who have never been subjected to this extreme condition?

Palestinian-born American artist Emily Jacir pursues a similarly problematizing documentary approach through a different methodology in her photograph series Where We Come From (2003). Using her American passport to travel between Israeli borders, Jacir was able to access occupied Palestine territory to grant the wishes of Palestinian exiles. She asked in a public forum, “If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?”40 Responses ranged from such mundane tasks such as paying bills, drinking the water in a certain village, watching the sun rise from Haifa’s beach, and playing a game of soccer, to more emotionally riveting requests such as one that reads, “Go to my mother’s grave in Jerusalem on her birthday and put flowers and pray.”41 In his 2003 essay on this series, “Desire in Diaspora” T.J. Demos makes an amusing observation on the allusion between Jacir’s process and the Orientalist cliché of the genie in the bottle, who emerges to grant three wishes.42 If this were the case, Jacir’s access-granting American passport is the magic lamp from which she emerges. Using her mobility to cross over checkpoints restricted to the twenty-three participating exiles who could not, and documenting what they had asked of her, Jacir sometimes barely had to cross the threshold of a cement barrier implemented by the Israeli government, to access the site denied to the inquiring participant.43

Jacir’s artwork is divided into conceptual panels of text in English on one side and Arabic on the other, quoting the written request of each Palestinian as well as their names, their citizenships, their parent’s citizenships and their date of exile. The English-speaking viewer is invited into the discourse through the bilingual text beside which Jacir includes a documentary photograph or short clip of herself completing the desired task. Jacir’s shadow often falls across the image emphasizing the absences of the exiled persons whose tasks she performs. Although these requests signify disruption and displacement typical to Palestinian suffering under colonial occupation, they also retrace and recreate those individuals’ presence through their memories, desires, imaginations and images. Displayed in documentary photographs and short clips, Jacir’s images visualize the implicit violence of the occupation by alluding to the absence of the Palestinian’s who have requested Jacir to fill their places. Juxtaposed ideologically and visually, Jacir’s series of written wishes and images of unfulfilling fulfilment reveal a dis-orientalism that evokes an instrinsic violence in occupation. Jacir focuses on the infuriating disruption of narrative through individual desires and the enactment of impossibilities. She explores Palestinian diaspora as both a condition and as a fragmented aesthetic, using her performance photographs to emphasize the absence of Palestinians prohibited from completing even the most mundane of tasks in places they used to belong to and call home. Halawani’s series differs in that it deals directly with the physical threat and violence endured under occupation at the point of its rupture, documenting the inevitable suffering of Palestinians at the moment of the inevitable outbreak of the Second Intifada. History tells us that oppression always leads to resistance. Halwani and Jacir are simply documenting different moments in this cycle.

Figure 5. Rula Halawani, Untitled XVII, Negative Incursion series, 2002, archival print, 90 x 124 cm, edition of 5. Photo courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

In Untitled XVII (fig. 5), a group of Palestinians gather together under the folds and crevices of a tattered tent. In various states of grief, their seated figures are huddled together. One man in the group runs prayer beads through his fingers.44 The image of the tent evokes the refugee status and lifestyle that many Palestinians have been reduced to, living under intolerable conditions in historic Palestine and in surrounding Arab countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Similar to the previously discussed images in the series, the buildings in the background symbolize fragments of life that are left over after war, arguably, as the figures in the foreground do. They have yet to be demolished but a lone standing building appears to be close to collapse, as what can be presumed to be black smoke, bright white in negative form, escapes out of the windows. This is one of the few images in the series where Halawani takes a group shot rather than a centralized portrait or landscape. The individual identities of the Palestinians in this image are not only obscured by the visual disruption of the negative form, but also by the poster board stuck into the ground to the left of the tent where the images of martyrs are plastered; it is difficult to differentiate between the actual living people and the images of those on the poster who have already died. Curator Kristen Gresh equates the indistinguishable visages of the subjects and the posters of martyrs on the left with a television screen referencing the lack of media attention on the Palestinians victims to Israeli military invasion.45 However, the ability to distinguish martyrs from living Palestinians appears as an intentional complication. After all, the images in Negative Incursions, only address one specific military invasion into the West Bank. It is only one instance in a series of confrontations typical of the prolonged occupation. The subjects in the images are elsewhere, as in outside of the temporal frames of Halawani’s photographs, always positioned on the precipice of disaster. That has been the ongoing reality of Palestinian life, especially since the Second Intifada.46 Though the argument is often made that there are not enough photographs of Palestinian suffering, that the international community turns a blind eye to the injustices of the occupation, the larger issue is that the dissemination of photos of Palestine fails to evoke a response. As Susan Sontag proclaims: “War was and still is the most irresistible—and picturesque—news.”47 Quantity has never been the central issue. Images of suffering have been in wide circulation since the invention of photography as Sontag reveals in her discussion of the circulation of photographs of lynched black men dating back to 1880. In this regard, little has changed in the circulation of images of suffering since the 19th century. The media just as vivaciously consumes images of Palestinian suffering. Halawani responds to this perversity by targeting the desensitization of traumatic images by developing them in the negative form. Halawani’s series releases its aggregative potential by challenging the global saturation of images from “conflict zones” with photographs that resist categorization.

Observably, strictly labeling photographic images as “documentary,” “commercial,” or “artistic” has little purposefulness in comparison to what Roberts describes as their “overwhelming embodiment as a social relation between photographer, world, image, and user, in an endlessly englobing and organizational process in which representations of self, other, ‘we,’ and the collective are brought to consciousness.”48 Such distinctions became especially irrelevant after the televised visualization of the Vietnam War. The term “New Photojournalism” was subsequently introduced to describe the substantive practice of documentary photography that had since moved out of its sole reproduction in magazines and journal articles and into the gallery space, as Halawani’s images have.49 This move away from news outlets and into a more ubiquitous and dispersed circulation could also be caused by what Tagg and here Hito Steyerl discusses poignantly: the fact that documentary images are complicit to the mechanisms they circulate within, and “are historically intimately linked with forms of policing, surveillance, and normalization… especially in colonial surroundings.”50 The relationship Steyerl identifies between photographic developments and military technologies are endless, and the relationship between the photographer and the photographed, nuanced. Alternatively, Diana Taylor considers photography as an essential element of modern memory in her article “Trauma in the Archive,” especially in situations where the very existence of the subjects being photographed is threatened, as is the case in Palestine. Taylor suggests that “Trauma, like performance, is always experienced in the present. Here. Now.”51 The “indelible sample” that photographs of atrocity provide, are hence both illustrative and corroborative.52 However, direct violence is not solely derived from the atrocity taking place in front of the lens, but also behind it.

Documentary film and photographic artist Richard Mosse often pursues vulnerable regions and despairing peoples for his technically advanced documentary projects, daring to go where other photojournalists and documentary artists might not. Thematically, Mosse’s interests include militarism, precarity, and vulnerability. In his recent series Incoming, newly shown at The Curve, Barbican Art Gallery in London in 2017, Mosse engaged with an aesthetic that rendered bodies and landscapes into negative. The resulting images are visually similar to Halawani’s images in Negative Incursions. Made in collaboration with electronic composer Ben Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, Mosse’s 52-minute film installation narrates a haunting visual account of the refugee crisis in Europe, accompanied by a visceral soundtrack.53 Altering high grade military surveillance technology, which can detect the heat of a human body from 30km away, Mosse’s work records striking images of bodies in exile, in ghostly forms and alien landscapes that merge and mend without revealing any sort of site or subject specificity.54 Mosse’s Incoming defines a paradigmatic shift from Halawani’s work that Roberts might describe as moving “from what is being ‘pointed to’ as the promise of rational assimilation (the incorporation of the world of appearances into our systems of knowledge) to what is being pointed out, triggering the beholder’s engagement with and resistance to what is known (the notion that the photograph, in its secondary ostensive form, as a representation of a fundamental ‘wound’ in the subject’s reality).”55 While Mosse’s stunning visuals do point to the issue of the refugee crisis as a global catastrophe, Halawani’s photographs point out a specific military conflict that is defamiliarized and reconceptualized in a negative reversal, rather than aestheticized by an overtly militaristic lens that titillates rather than agitates the spectator. In doing so, Halawani’s photographs have the potential to challenge the neutralized reception of documentary photographs that collect and homogenizes conflicts, subjects, and atrocities.

In conclusion, Halawani’s series Negative Incursions challenges and subverts the role and understanding of documentary photography, exploring the form and content of the negative photograph and challenging the history of documentary photography and photographs of atrocity taken in regions subjected to colonial violence. Returning to the poem by Mahmoud Darwish that opened this essay, Halawani’s negative photographs are situated “before the opening of the eras, before the pines, and the olive trees, and before the grass grew.” Mindful of the fact that these photographs were taken in 2002, they resonate within a larger narrative of resilience and resistance pictured by photographers working within Palestine. The large format prints recall a specific moment within a Palestinian history of occupation, but also a larger discourse that contests the consumption of calamity through the medium of photography. In doing so, its status as an impartial recording device is complicated. Halawani reveals the subversive capabilities of photography and its simultaneous, contradicting ability to reveal what Roberts considers the invisible despoliations caused by symbolic and systemic violence. At the beginning of this essay, I interpreted the negative photographs as metaphorical documentations of the Second Intifada. From this perspective the negative is an unfinished, bare form that emphasizes the devastation caused by the Israeli Defense Forces. However, when the negative is considered as an already reversed image, and a full-fledged photograph in its own right, the effect on the viewer is structured by the ambivalent position the photographs take, between the reversal, potential for positive development, and acknowledgement of atrocities committed against Palestinians on a daily basis. More than a metaphor for an apartheid regime and complicit global community that enables its crimes, Negative Incursions reveals the violation of photography that has been both complicit and necessary for evoking a response from spectators that avert this issue or deny its severity. A negative is at once a complete and incomplete image, and as such, interrogates anew the modern spectator of calamities who must face the visualized representations of Palestinian subjects rendered in negative form as a reflection of their status as non-citizens. In doing so, Halawani presents the opportunity to reverse this reversal, and bring Palestine into the positive.


Sherena Razek is a second year Masters student in the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at the University of British of Columbia. In 2017, she was Co-Chair of the 40th Annual AHVA Graduate Symposium “Under Super Vision,” a conference that invited scholarly discourse on the naturalization of contemporary and historical surveillance practices in visual culture. She was co-curator of the associated art exhibition of the same title held at the AHVA Gallery. She is the recipient of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Graduate Scholarship to support her thesis project on the establishment of the first Middle Eastern women’s photographic collective entitled Rawi’ya. Sherena is a member of the Critical Racial and Anti-Colonial Studies network at UBC where she participates in conferences and workshops. Her research interests include the intersection of gender studies, critical racial and anticolonial frameworks, and the history and theory of documentary photography and its dialectical capacity in the Middle East and Palestine.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?