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

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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?