Discussing, for example, photographs made of Palestinian detainees by Shabak (the Israeli General Security Service), Azoulay observes how “torture photographs” need not necessarily depict literal torture.
These photographs do not show torture, but serve, themselves, as a mode of torture. . . . The testimonies [collected by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel] indicate two types of photographs. In the first, relatives or someone who is dear to a detainee under interrogation are photographed in harsh conditions of detention or of severe abuse, and these photographs are placed in front of the detainee during his interrogation. In the second use of photography in the service of torture, the detainee himself is either photographed or threatened that he will be photographed in such a way as to be potentially incriminated within and by his social environment, based on his appearance in the photo.
Although this latter use has to do with threatening the detainee with a spurious identification as a collaborator, the more important point is that the oppressive instrumentalities of photography exist on a continuum and can be deployed in numerous ways. Press photographs of a Palestinian stripped to his underwear, like the enforced nudity photographed at Abu Ghraib prison, operate to produce humiliation and abjection, but the censorship of such imagery, Azoulay argues, is complicit with the acts themselves.
Meanwhile, we, as American citizens, have consented (or not) to wars that afflict citizens of other states far removed geographically and, as many have argued, of no immediate threat, militarily or otherwise. But for both the U.S. and Israeli citizen, as well as for the occupied Iraqi or Palestinian, the global culture of photography has itself become a stake in the conflicts. The publication in 2004 of the photographs made at Abu Ghraib established the evidence of torture (a.k.a. “abuse”) of detainees in U.S.-run prisons. Although we have not seen comparable photographs made at Guantánamo or other military installations, such images may well exist. The legal battles now taking place over the threatened release of the previously withheld images, and indeed, the related question of what is accomplished by making them visible, intersect constantly with Azoulay’s impassioned arguments about the ability of photography to spur ethical response, and the corollary necessity of fully disclosing what photography gives us to see (regardless, it seems, of the cost to some of the individuals depicted).
Given the relevance of so much of Azoulay’s book and its devastating indictment of the Israeli occupation, it is regrettable that she did not make it more accessible to a larger audience. Her discussion of the medium, and of individual photographs, is embedded within a broad intellectual context. Citations include works in philosophy (Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard), political theory (Carl Schmitt), critical and social theory (Etienne Balibar, Adi Ophir), feminist theory (Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, Carole Pateman), and photography history and theory (Roland Barthes, Geoffrey Batchen, Susan Sontag). Certain of the authors, such as Agamben and Ophir, are major influences on the book, while others figure more tangentially.
The extensive sources are not in themselves a problem; one arises, however, through the mode of presentation. Although I cannot pronounce on the quality of its English translation from the Hebrew, this is an extremely taxing book to read—exceedingly dense, often repetitive, excessively footnoted and daunting in its often cursory use of theoretical reference. It would have profited from greater editorial attention and more accommodation of the nonspecialist reader.
That (regretfully) said, the book makes an important contribution. Given the modest production of serious critical work on photography, the continued U.S. support of Israeli policies condemned by most of the world, and, needless to say, American involvement with military occupation, torture and their photographic representation, Azoulay’s ethical and political interrogation of her circumstances as an Israeli citizen should be taken as a challenge to produce our own accounting.
Photo captions: Oded Yedaya: diversion demonstration, Harbata, 2004.
Musa Al Shaer: arrest campaign, refugee camp, Daheisha, Mar. 11, 2002.
Alex Levac: Hebron, 2000.