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December 5, 2004

Materials of an Inciting Nature

�The age of the photograph is also the age of revolutions, contestations, assassinations, explosions, in short, of everything that denies ripening.� -Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

y_29.jpg On January 14, 2004, Reem Saleh al-Riyashi, a Hamas suicide bomber, detonated herself in Israel�s industrial zone in the vicinity of the Erez crossing in the Gaza Strip. This is a digitally reproduced photograph of her martyr poster. Originally reproduced in the Hamas monthly publication Filasteen al-Muslimah (distributed from London the UK; February, 2004) I found this digital image on the right-wing Israeli website www.intelligence.org.il. That this same image may be mobilized at cross-purposes by publications whose rhetorical divides are so vast is the first of many paradoxes suggested to me by this photograph: so many that this essay could scarcely contain them. They multiply themselves faster than I can weight them with language, until adjectival boxes begin to drift, unused at the corners of my argument. Slim descriptors seem fragile and tenuous in light of these facts: the faintly smiling woman in this photo is dead. She is one of many. She will not be the last.

In his essay "The Body and the Archive," Allan Sekula argues that in its infancy photography suggested a system of representation that functioned both honorifically and repressively. �This double operation,� he writes,� is most evident in photographic portraiture.� The ceremonial presentation of a bourgeois self, which photographic representation facilitated, was enabled by the simultaneous use of photography to delimit the contours of a new criminal body. I contend that the genre of Palestinian martyr posters in general and Reem al-Riyashi�s photo in particular confound this binary by endlessly intermingling the opposing roles Sekula suggests. In other words this photograph functions both to perform self-hood and demarcate criminality.

Sekula argues that modes of instrumental realism operate according to an �explicit deterrent or repressive logic� and indexes the points of connection between the uses of photography for artistic self-representation and criminal categorization. Sekula writes, �A covert Hobbesian logic links the �National Gallery� with that of the �Police Act.� By invoking Hobbes to describe the current running between these opposite figures in the body politic he makes explicit his argument: photographic portraiture gave imaginal form to the hierarchical concept that some lives are worth more than others. Sekula writes,


Every portrait implicitly took its place within a social and moral hierarchy. The private moment of sentimental individuation, the look at the frozen gaze-of-the-loved-one, was shadowed by two other more public looks: a look up, at one�s �betters,� and a look down, at one�s �inferiors.� Especially in the United States, photography could sustain an imaginary mobility on this vertical scale, thus provoking both ambition and fear�


This early use of photographic portraiture in the United States is refracted by Palestinian exile and terrorism. The shadowy �looks� inferred by this photograph divide, multiplying like facing mirrors. In order to graph these we must consider the production of this portrait and its many uses.

The central element of this composite photograph�the image of Reem al-Riyashi holding a child in her left hand and a rifle in the other�was taken in anticipation of her death, as is customary in preparation for suicide bombing missions. It may have been arranged privately or through Hamas, although these distinctions become ever more minute on the ground. The important thing is that, as she sat for this portrait, Reem al-Riyashi knew that she was going to die. So we may imagine the first look suggested by her photo as a look inward, private, unknowable and merely suggested (but forever unconfirmed) by her outward countenance. Might outward signs of this inward glance be read in her face�the strangeness of living with the foreknowledge of ones own death that haunts the eyes and lingers at the corners of the mouth? What is she seeing I cannot help but wonder, with such wide-open eyes? Is she hungry for looking because these looks are among her last? In practical terms this may be considered the second look captured by this photo: a look outward, at the camera. This look is also a look through because the camera itself is a window into multiple futures. This lens reflects the inward, unknowable glance back at the subject. Twin silences meeting in the air, they co create this portrait. Although ultimately unknown, in this instance the camera�s lens is meant to capture an image of and for the Palestinian people. This may be thought of as the third look, into the eyes of fellow exiles. It is this gaze that gestures toward Sekula�s performances of self-making through portraiture. Although in this context we must ask, how do a people in exile perform self-hood? The violence prefigured in this photograph is a possible answer. If, as Terry Eagleton has suggested, the nation may be defined as realms of fellow feeling, then the promise of violence that haunts this photograph is a message passed back and forth between Reem al-Riyashi and the Palestinians who viewed her photo after her suicide. Since this look of criminal possibility is only achievable after her death it assumes the weight of a prayer, folding time and space into moments of fellow feeling, which reference Kracauer�s palimpsest sensibility. In History Begins at Home, Meir Wigoder writes,

The stranger resides in a space of �extraterritoriality.� (S)he lives either in enforced or free-willed exile that causes him to be severed from his roots and culture. The new and old identities reside together in a state of flux�The condition of being somewhere and nowhere and carrying one�s past identity into a new surrounding produces a palimpsest sensibility.


Once again, exile and terror complicate the themes suggested by Sekula who quotes Jane Welsh Carlyle on the socially palliative uses of portraiture, writing, ��even the poor can possess themselves of a tolerable likeness of their absent dear ones.� A use of this image as a remembrance functions to re-present her individual person-ness into a generalized representation of an imaginary state: Palestine.

Since the violence we are referencing is not merely self-destructive but is designed to function as an attack by killing as many Israeli citizens as possible in a single act we may consider the fourth look inferred by this photo as one directed at Israel itself. Once again, the conflation of individual lives with the faceless entity of a state is a necessary function of this gaze. A collapsing of the many into the one, this look is a reflected othering, another meeting of silences. which references Sekula�s second category: the criminal. However the criminal body on which so much of bourgeois identity formation depends (in Sekula�s frame) is, in the case of Reem al-Riyashi, utterly destroyed. Her exploding body, a reverse photographic portrait in which the flash that precedes it renders her utterly absent. The subsequent explosion, like the click of a camera removed her from the flow of time. It also left three Israeli soldiers and one civilian dead and ten more wounded. I do not have any further information about the other dead and wounded but their presence haunts this photograph (and this essay). What can they have been thinking as the Palestinian body of Reem al-Riyashi exploded, inverting time and space? Did they see her and she them? Sekula writes of the photographic portrait as a �shadow archive that encompasses the entire social terrain while positioning individuals within that terrain.� The radical, momentary deformation of this social terrain, and the �subordinate, territorialized archives� it suggests, flashed up in Benjamin�s �moment of danger� as Reem al-Riyashi�s body exploded and when it subsided five people were dead.

Meir Wigoder writes in his lovely essay "History Begins at Home" that �photography and death represent a complex relationship.� He writes, �Death turns the body into a shadow; into a representation that is removed from reality, as we no longer look at the real person we know.� It is this separation that creates the tension between photography�s capacity to negate history by dwelling on the moment and its capacity to �release the residues of nature that were previously invisible� opening up new ways of interpreting reality. The indexical nature of the Palestinian martyr poster seems to confirm this thesis. In Wigoder�s conception, when Barthes writes of the photograph�s ability to contain a �defeat of time� he is alluding to a double absence of the photographic subject�s death. The example offered by Barthes, of Lewis Payne in his cell waiting to be hanged, has a chilling resonance with al-Riyashi�s martyr poster. Both refer to an anterior future that declares both that the subject is going to die and that s/he is already dead. To this equation we may add the Israeli deaths implied by the very fact of the portrait�s existence. And, potentially, all the deaths yet to come.

Posted by at December 5, 2004 12:53 PM