I wrote a short piece for the Social Science Research Council competition. The prize, which is biannual, invites scholars to address one of Rachel’s images from the online gallery. The second component requires the entrant to submit a photo and a short essay for critique. The final submissions are submitted to the board of the ISA’s Visual Sociology Working Group.
Below is my response to one of Rachel’s images, and my submission. The site, with additional details and images can here found here.
Liquid Borders and Contested Spaces: An Israeli Street in a Palestinian City.
In 2013 I made a research trip to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The purpose of my visit was to conduct interviews and collect visual data. I visited the West Bank and specifically the Palestinian city of Hebron. One photo I took was at the entrance to Al-Shushda Street, an Israeli outpost in the heart of the Arab city.
The photo is clearly denotative of a middle-eastern space. The architecture and stonework, pastoral colours and blue skies are consistent with much of what we’ve come to know from that geographical region. What is less telling is the nature of the space. The school children on the left are entering a military zone. Equally, they are crossing a border that only they, as Israelis, can. The scopic regime that is afforded to Israel and the Occupied Territories is often limited to a number of clichéd journalistic and documentary tropes. Metonymically, the region and its inhabitants are all to often replaced by the icons of geo-political dispute; objects of separation such as walls and barriers, their scale and materiality reduces the occupation down to a simple dispute over borders.
Like my analysis of Rachel’s photo, ‘Two Cuban Kids Look Through a Window’, this image invites a curious spectatorship. The image was taken because I wanted to record what I saw. As Bourdieu notes, I deemed it ‘photographable’, predicating my decision on moral and aesthetic values. However, the image prompts an investigation of the social and formal arrangements within the field of in/visibility. Indexical to the political tension, the photo echoes the trace of an event (Bourdieu, 1990-6-8).
Against the geography of stable, static places and fixed sovereign borders exist deeply penetrative frontiers and elastic territories. These temporary lines are often marked by makeshift boundaries (Weizman, 2004). Such boundaries are not limited to the edge of political space; instead they blur the distinction between what is ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, or ‘us’ and ‘them’. As a British citizen I was afforded the opportunity to explore this makeshift boundary; I was both inside and outside at the same time while loitering sceptically on the boundary (Eagleton, 2004: 40). Revisiting the photo I could sense the atmosphere, more specifically a friction that isn’t overtly evident in the first instance. A definition of friction is ‘the resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another’ (OED, 2012). Looking back upon the image the friction of a geopolitical dispute is clearly evident. Stones on the ground, pitted dints on the cabin and pink paint splashed against the window all testify to the friction of one sovereign object moving over the surface of another.
Two Israeli flags bookend the cabin and lay claim to the contested space, the coil of barbed wire and improvised fence discreetly attest to its volatile nature.
Bourdieu, P. 1990. Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Cambridge: Polly Press.
Eagleton, T. 2003. After Theory. London. Basic Books.
Oxford English Dictionary. 2012. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Weizman, E. 2004. A Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. London. Verso
Commentary on Rachel Tanur’s Works: Cuban Kids at Window
Examining Rachel’s work and the responses to her images one can assert that a great deal of analytical attention is focused on zones of indistinction (Deleuze, 1987; Agamben, 1998). Adopting the more positive Deleuzion appropriation, these zones function as ‘loci’s of becoming’ and their becoming is multiple. Market places, stalls and transport terminals inform the spectator of the vitality of informal economies locally; those engaged in local market trading and sidewalk vending become visible through commerce and place. But these visibilities are also subject to Rachel’s (and others) inquisitive and touristic gaze that re-packages it for various modes of analysis and consumption. The point here is that each ‘becoming’ overlaps but also remains distinct from one another (Deleuze & Guattari, 1991:20-24). However, some images provide us with less overtly striking visual content, nevertheless, these images often carry accidental gestures or arresting detail that prick and bruise. Roland Barthes (1981) called this the punctum; yet, this prick or bruise can also be an emotive quality. In the following essays, I use the term atmospheres to signal how an image can be made meaningful through emotive readings. In ‘Cuban Kids at a Window’ two small children are seen to be looking through a window at what one suspects is an object of curiosity. As such, the photo embodies multiple layers of curious looking; first by children, then by Rachel who sees the image and takes the photo, and finally by us, the recipient of the image. The two children, immobilised by spectatorship are unaware of Rachel’s gaze. Their relationship to one another is evidently close and comfortable. In shorts and t-shirts both children peer through an open window, equipped with a fan and verdant potted plants that attest to the warm climate. The little girl leans in to her counterpart mimicking an informal, but warm embrace. This image reflects Rachel’s vernacular mode of address. This vernacular form of photography, be it touristic or documentary, forms part of the material with which we make sense of our world, helping us gain control over our surroundings and negotiate with the particularity of our circumstances (Holland, 1992:10). Examining the image further we can see that Rachel is across the road from the children, as such the framing of the image attests to its spontaneity; the top of the window frame through which the subjects of the photo gaze is out of shot, equally the children’s’ off centre positioning affirm that the image is of an unprofessional nature. While the photo is opportune, the narrative is slow. Rachel does not deal with what Henri-Cartier-Bresson famously termed the ‘decisive moment’, instead she trades in atmospheres rather than the proof of an event or an occurrence. Atmospheres cannot be shown; they can only be produced, prompting the investigation of social and formal arrangements in the field of visibility. As visual sociologists we understand that photography is inherently an analytical discipline (Shore, 2007). Every image is therefore a consequence of a chain of decisions, but also the result of an ethical or artistic judgements towards the object being photographed (professional or otherwise). As such this image underpins the logic of sociological enquiry; it reminds us that we are always looking in on something or someone with a curious gaze.