Visual activism, including activist, protest or struggle photography, can be seen as offering a response to the radical critique that photojournalism and documentary photography faced in the 1980s by critics such as Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula. These critics argued that by focusing on victimhood, empathy, and compassion, documentary photography was complicit with liberal politics and completely divorced from any program of social reform or revolutionary politics. In documentary photography the focus was either on the “brave photographer,” or on the feelings of the spectator, but not on the subject of the photograph. This condition led to the constitution of a passive viewer and perpetuated existing power relations in which information about a group of powerless people was addressed to the socially powerful. In this way documentary photography failed to point out and address the economic, social, and political structures and conditions that enabled inequality in the first place.
Activestills collective work can be considered as part of this shift, from photojournalism to visual activism, and from the documentation of victimhood and destitution to the visualization of the social relationships and networks that underlie the activities of struggling and protesting communities. Activestills’ members see themselves as activists, photographers, and witnesses. They view their photographic act as tantamount to the act of protest itself, and not simply as a form of witnessing, the collective’s emphasis is not on “representation” of the “suffering of the other,” but on the enactment of political agency and the demand for rights—to mobility, livelihood, and protection from violence. As opposed to documentary photography, activist photography is intrinsically bounded within the communities and oppressive strategies it works to expose. Activestills’ work in Palestine/Israel is thus meant to address the struggling communities’ visual and material needs, while also working to emphasize the specific conditions of life under Israeli occupation and segregation policies.
Activestills’ photographs thus acquire their political currency not only because of what is seen in them, but also due to their operative modes of transmission, circulation and dissemination as integral components of struggles. One image that can be given as an example to the above is that of the late Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahmah, who was killed in 2009 by an Israeli soldier during a demonstration in the West Bank of Bil’in. A photograph taken of him by Activestills holding a kite near the Israeli separation barrier, appears in a poster commemorating his death. The poster was then hanged outside his house and around the village, and was used as part of a memorial monument marking the site of his death. The image was also turned into a shield protecting demonstrators from tear gas grenades during later protests. The photograph takes an active part in the continuous mobilization and propagation of the struggle through its appropriation by the community it makes visible. The image becomes an agent for transformation and political change, rather than a “fixed” representation of resistance, an object for passive contemplation.
This logic also underlines Activestills’ modes of public display. The collective frequently organizes street exhibitions in the spaces where the struggles for rights take place: in the streets of Bil’in; in the temporary tents that Israeli Bedouins’ built for themselves after their houses were demolished by the Israeli state as in the case of Al Arakib village; and in the spaces where asylum seekers and refugees live at south Tel Aviv or where they are held in Holot detention center. This mode of display allows protesting individuals to identify and recognize themselves as active political subjects thereby reinforcing agency and collective affiliation. Thus holding, touching and pointing to the photographs become acts of defiance. The act of looking, rather than been looked at, becomes a constitutive gesture through which oppressive power relations are challenged and redefined.
Here lies the power of activist photography, in its capacity to take part, rather than simply document, specific struggles for political rights by subjects that are defined as ‘non-subjects.’ To become an agent for political change and a necessary mean in struggle for equality within global visual culture.
Vered Maimon is a Senior Lecturer in the Art History Department at Tel Aviv University. She writes for October, Oxford Art Journal, History of Photography, Art History, Third Text and TDR. Most recently, she is the author of Singular Images, Failed Copies: William Henry Fox Talbot and the Early Photograph (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
Shiraz Grinbaum is a member of the Activestills Collective working in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel. She has been the collective’s curator and photo editor since 2012, and a photo editor with +972 magazine.
Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel is available from Pluto Press.
1) See Martha Rosler, “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography),” in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975–2001(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 152–206; Allan Sekula, “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation),” The Massachusetts Review 19:4 (winter 1978): 859–83.