Disappearing in High Definition: on Archival Photography and Palestinian National Imaginaries



Examining the dissemination of iconic Palestian photographs within the diaspora, Leila Abdelrazaq discusses portraiture and the politics of self-representation. In colonial context, photos originally thought as precious records of lives past and present can become limiting images and shrink political imagination.

“The Palestinians as commodity. Producing ourselves much as the masabih, lamps, tapestries, baskets, embroideries, mother-of-pearl trinkets are produced. We turn ourselves into objects not for sale, but for scrutiny… Do we exist? What proof do we have? The further we get from the Palestine of our past, the more precarious our status, the more disrupted our being, the more intermittent our presence.”
Edward Said, After the Last Sky, 1986.

My first real encounter with Palestinian archival photography was through the book Before Their Diaspora (Walid Khalidi, 1984). My mother took me aside one day and pulled the large photo book off the shelf. “I got this for your dad years ago,” she told me. “Back then it wasn’t like now. We had to order special books and magazines to get accurate information about Palestine. Now you have the internet.” The book captivated me. In it were hundreds of photographs of Palestine before the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing. Over the years, I developed various relationships with some of the more iconic and widely circulated images in the book. One of my favorites was a photo on page 59, captioned “Bethlehem women at home drinking coffee and smoking a water pipe.” In 2017, after having found a digital version of it online, I made it my Facebook cover photo, captioned it, “chillin w the grls.” A friend commented that she had a framed copy of the photo, quipped, “OG homies.” Another image in the book that is widely shared online is a portrait of a Palestinian woman in traditional Bedouin garb. She’s grinning, the edge of her scarf snatched between her teeth so as to cover part of her face, and she peers out playfully from behind the starch white cloth, a baby at rest in her arms. I’ve seen this image reposted on blogs and social media most often as a representation of the joy and power of Palestinian women.

While I was initially focused on the photos themselves, these days, what’s more interesting to me are the ways that these images are reproduced and shared digitally; how we, diasporic Palestinians, print them at home and tape them to our bedroom walls, or more often, post them on our social media profiles, rendering them key components of meticulously crafted online identities. Through these images, we not only understand ourselves, we construct a national history, project ourselves into that history, and by extension, project our history into the present. 

But when we look more closely at the origins of many of these iconic and widely shared archival images, problems begin to emerge. What was the context in which these photos were taken, and by whom? And if it turns out that these images are not what they may seem on the surface, how does that change the ways we think about and understand ourselves, our history, and ultimately, our future? Our readings of history, after all, have immense bearing on how we understand ourselves in the present, and by extension, on how we formulate possibilities for the future. If colonial ideas inform our readings of history, wouldn’t it then be very difficult for us to imagine truly decolonized futures? 

Abdelrazaq Funambulist (1)
Khalil Ra’ad’s “Bedouin woman and child.” / Artwork by Leila Abdelrazaq

Palestinian scholar Issam Nassar, who has done some of the most extensive research on early Palestinian archival photography, has written prolifically about the ways that photography first came to the so-called “Holy Land” via European Orientalist photographers seeking images that could be purchased by religious pilgrims or used in ethnographic projects. The visual regimes established by European photographers were later adopted (and adapted) by local ones when producing images designed to appeal to a tourist market. At studios run by Garabed Kirkorian (an Armenian Jerusalemite) and that of his apprentice-turned-independent-photographer, Khalil Ra’ad (widely considered to be the first Arab photographer of Palestine), elite urban Palestinian women would often dress up as Bedouins or Bethlehemites, themselves adopting and embodying European perceptions of peasants and Bedouins as exotic Orientals. I find myself flipping through Khalidi’s book, and return to the image of the supposed Bedouin woman holding the baby. I notice that she’s standing in front of a blank backdrop, which seems to indicate that this was a studio portrait, and check the name of the photographer: Khalil Ra’ad himself. Had I been projecting myself onto Orientalist, staged caricatures of my culture? What even was “my culture,” anyways?

If we understand nations as “imagined communities” of people with shared fictions of history and culture, as scholar Benedict Anderson proposed in his groundbreaking 1983 book of the same name, then archival photography, often viewed as representative of objective historical truth, can be understood as a foundational building block of nationalist projects. So if a reading of Palestinian archival photography changes with the knowledge that the images themselves are produced, we are also forced to rethink the histories that they represent and corroborate, and, by extension, reconsider imaginaries of the future that are afforded by the historical narratives that those images encompass. As I wonder what it means to write an indigenous history of anything on the foundations of European traditions of ethnographic analysis and photographic evidence, I also begin to wonder how a liberation movement that seeks to contribute to and participate in a world order built on European ideas of borders and nation-states can be considered indigenous, much less revolutionary. 

In any national project, archival photography is often mobilized in didactic ways. For Palestinians in particular, photographs come to represent irrefutable proof of our historical and continued existence in the face of Zionist ethnic cleansing and erasure. When the photograph begins to stand for something beyond the subject itself — as a representation of an entire nation, a people, a culture, or a particular reading of history — the photograph as a discrete object takes on a new meaning, becoming fundamentally detached from its original subject. Likewise, the digitized photograph divorces itself from the original printed photograph. The digital image is retouched or remastered, in full color and in high definition, depicting life more vividly than life itself, and can be reproduced endlessly, without loss of quality. While the materiality of the print photograph as an object invokes the presence of a photographer who produced the image, the digitally reproduced photograph puts image content front-and-center. In this way, digital reproductions of photographs implicitly emphasize what Edward Said has defined as the mythic “Origin” of an image, as opposed to its man-made “Beginning.” The digital image belongs to everyone and no one, taking on as many meanings as there are virtual reproductions. In this way, the photo of the women smoking the water pipe contains infinite didactic interpretations, from “Bethlehem women at home drinking coffee” to “OG homies.” Both serve to unify history and the present moment in the service of a national narrative. 

It is from this pool of digitized images, carefully curated and brilliantly rendered in high definition, that we learn to understand ourselves, that we constitute the parameters of our visual archive, that we draw the boundaries around the possible ways that one can be Palestinian. We collect and corroborate these images in a collective obsessive attempt to locate for ourselves the mythic Origin of the nation. The cruel irony of our efforts to preserve our history is that it is through the infinite grasping at an ever-elusive “Origin” that we continue to disappear, becoming, every day, less and less able to pinpoint where, exactly, we Began. 

I’m not trying to claim that there is some ultimate historical truth that we’re neglecting to acknowledge. What I’m concerned with is that we deal in fiction, but treat works of history and photography as though they were cold hard facts. By treating our mythologies and historical narratives, national or otherwise, as if they were static, we fail to afford ourselves the liberty of imagination that is required to envision the future. When faced with the possibility of altering or reconstituting certain images and narratives, we often react by clinging to them more profusely, fearing that we might unwittingly fulfill the dark Zionist prophecy that “the old will die and the young will forget.”

Abdelrazaq Funambulist (2)
Khalil Ra’ad’s “Bethlehem women at home drinking coffee and smoking a water pipe.” / Artwork by Leila Abdelrazaq.

Yet, if we hope to survive, if we desire to imagine for ourselves a multiplicity of possible futures, we must be able to conceive of different kinds of images and, by extension, historical narratives. We must be bold enough to constitute new archives, to produce narratives that go beyond colonial modes of thought and ways of being, to envision liberatory futures that are more expansive and fluid than the nation-state framework. What becomes of the archival photograph when it no longer functions didactically, in the service of a nationalist historical narrative? What other potential stories, meanings, and readings does it contain? The artist Suhad Khatib, who is a dear friend of mine, creates surreal renderings of Orientalist archival photographs of Palestinian women, offering new readings of the images. Khatib’s works ask the viewer questions more often than they provide us with concrete answers. Through this act, Khatib reconstitutes the archive, suggesting more inclusive, less nationalist visions of Palestinian liberation. I wonder how scholars and researchers might imbue our work with this same ethos, the ethos of the artist, in order to embrace our role as storytellers, in order to use our work to ask questions rather than providing answers, to use our work to open up new possibilities for radical imagination.

We are not a static people, frozen in time. We are as ever-changing as the world itself. That is what makes us alive. The danger is not that we may forget, but that we may forget that we are resilient enough to endure change. Unless we are brave enough to imagine new images, to discover new meanings and readings of history, we will continue to dissolve ourselves into the infinity of copied-and-pasted high definition photographs, ever more detailed and ever less accurate. ■