Issam Nassar, Stephen Sheehi, and Salim Tamari, Camera Palaestina: Photography and Displaced Histories of Palestine (University of California Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Issam Nassar, Stephen Sheehi, and Salim Tamari (IN, SS & ST): The book project emerges out of two affinities. The first was our affection for and admiration of Wasif Jawhariyyeh’s seven volume photographic albums in Beirut and Athens tracing the modernity of Jerusalem and Palestine from the 1870s to 1948. Salim and Issam, of course, are well-known for publishing and commenting on the memoirs of Jawhariyyeh, first as a complete and full Arabic rendition and later on in an abridged version in English. The second reason is our friendship, which increased with our shared interested in Jawhariyyeh’s photographic archive. While his written and photographic collective generated among scholars, we realized Jawhariyyeh’s visual archive, particularly his photographic albums, have not been engaged themselves as a source to think about social life and social relations in Palestine at the end of the Ottoman Era and specifically the Mandate period. What started the project really was our shared questions: what do these archives make visible that still evades what we think we know about Palestine and Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem, during the Mandate?
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
IN, SS & ST: The book can be seen as an ethnography of Jerusalem, from the present to the past, examining the life of Palestinians in the city through portraiture, landscape and urbanscape images, the development of theater, the musical scene through concert halls, military bands, and street music. A fundamental issue that runs throughout the book is that of the archive, its relationship to photography, its relation to its production, deployment, and, perhaps most of all, its display and dissemination whether in the hardscape of Jawhariyyeh’s national “museum” or the pages of his “illustrated history of Palestine.” At the same time, we three are all concerned with, or whether, photography can help us demystify and denaturalize the colonial conditions under which Palestine was placed—starting in the Mandate and continuing until today. These colonial relations themselves saturate and structure the way we approach the photographic image. Together we think through Jawhariyyeh’s visual archive through three separate tacks. In doing so, we map how visual culture is used to narrate a national narrative under colonial conditions. This includes understanding that the nation-state form itself is a colonial legacy and expressed itself through photography.
But also, we unearth or allow Jawhariyyeh to re-narrate local native histories (even though bourgeois and male) from images that often were intended to document that very colonial project. Our three distinct inquiries reflect the multi-dimensional (non-linear) histories that colonial and even nationalist histories tend to flatten, especially in the case of Palestine, which is demanded to constantly provide a unified, unambiguous, un-conflictual, and linear narrative to stave off the onslaught of Zionist, imperialist, and Orientalist denials of their existence.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
IN, SS & ST: Indeed, all three of us have previously written about Wasif Jawharriyeh; Tamari and Nassar have been friends, publishing, editing, and commenting on Wasif’s acclaimed memoirs for many years. Camera Palaestina is a convergence of our past interest not only in Jawhariyyeh but also the social history of Palestine during the Ottoman and Mandate periods—especially the social relations within (and between) urban and non-urban that undergird this era. In this case, Tamari has an established record of interpreting historical events through often unpublished written sources and also photographic archives. Jawhariyyeh’s albums only built on his focus on social hierarchy in Ottoman and British Mandate Jerusalem and the role played by the political class at the time.
Sheehi and Nassar have shared a long friendship around mutual interest in the social and aesthetic history of Arab photography, especially in Balad al-Sham and Egypt. Jawhariyyeh’s albums naturally offered an opportunity for Nassar to consider how photography narrates a particular class and local histories within Palestine. It is this collection that allows him to consider the ability of photography to go beyond the visual spectacle and empower its viewer to see other non-self-evident aspects of the particular historical moments that images preserve. While Sheehi has critically approached Arab modernity through its indigenously produced textual but photographic collective archive, Camera Palaestina challenged him to think about what happens when an indigenous visual history is narrated through Orientalist and expatriate-produced images? In doing so, Jawhariyyeh guides Sheehi to identify an indigenous Palestinian “spectator” who reads these images in ways that exceed the Orientalist signification.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
IN, SS & ST: The book is open access—thanks to the work and encouragement of Beshara Doumani and Niels Hooper—so we hope everyone will read it! Undoubtedly, the book will find fertile ground among students and scholars of Palestine and Middle East social and cultural history and photography. We feel that photographic studies (and art history in general) remains thoroughly centered in Europe despite some of the most dynamic work coming from studies of photographic histories, for example, of the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, and East Asia. While Camera Palaestina theoretically engages photography and decolonial studies, we feel the book would be valuable to the field writ large as we begin to rethink the prevailing view that photography was an Orientalist European import into the Middle East and, in fact, to challenge the “ownership” of and “license” to images taken of Palestine. With that said, we would like this book to be a contribution to Palestine studies and all those interested in Palestine and in how we understand that all commentary of Palestine is always a commentary on the present. Consequently, while we investigate the multitude of Palestinian history and understand that it is a combination of contradictory and “dissensus” (as we say, following Jacques Rancière) formations of modernity (as is the case anywhere), we also hope to communicate that every work on Palestine is a work in commitment to its liberation in the not-so distant future.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
IN, SS & ST: Tamari is working on Ottoman police records and records of criminal investigation during the late Ottoman period. Nassar is writing a history of divided Jerusalem in 1949, the year after the city’s partition, based on diaries and memoirs from the time. Sheehi is working on a book project, Guerilla Intellectuals and Slutty Methodologies, exploring imminent intimacies within photographs of militant revolutionaries that offer possibilities for radical potentialities of our lived Arab present and futures.
J: When it comes to Palestine, what does the visual archive offer that the written archive and textual sources may not?
IN, SS & ST: The current reality of Palestine is a settler colonial reality. This means that the primary condition that undergirds the lives of Palestinians (whether inside 1948 boundaries of the state now known as Israel, in occupied Jerusalem and the Occupied Palestinian Territories) is, as both Patrick Wolf and Fayez Sayigh have taught us, the struggle against a series of historical and contemporary structures intent on their elimination. For this reason, the visual archive remains of paramount importance. For us, the Palestinian visual archive, writ large, becomes a space to re-assert the irrefutability of the presence of the Palestinian people. But also, the photograph is itself contingent (for example, it frames what is seen and unseen). One original contribution of this book is that our three contributions do not find that the contingency of the photographic image is debilitating. Nor do we assert certainties of the image itself. Rather, we approach these images as projecting fields of lived spaces and the social relations of Palestinians themselves. We understand these images as offering multiple codes, multiple experiences, that may defy the initial intention of the image itself. In other words, we allow these images to return to Palestine to assert an unbroken reality of social relations in Palestine that exist until today despite the attempts of Israel and Zionist settler colonialism to erase them.
Excerpt from the book (from pp. 1-4)
The photographic oeuvre of Wasif Jawhariyyeh (1897–1968), if one may call it that, is no longer unknown. His albums, ostensibly titled Tarikh Filistin al-musawwar or the “Illustrated History of Palestine,” have been explored by a number of different scholars in an array of venues, largely focusing on representing historic Palestine “before the diaspora.” With a large handful of notable exceptions, most of the images themselves, as we will see in this book, were produced by marquee indigenous and expatriate studios and, therefore, can be found elsewhere. As such, the photographic bricolage that structures these albums (individually and if approached as an oeuvre or an archive) makes us ponder both the “history of photography in Palestine” and “the history of Palestine through the photograph.” Whether an oeuvre, an archive, or an individual enunciation, we are compelled to consider photographic collection and visual narration as an act, as a document and as a testimony. Rather than consider the “history of photography in Palestine” and “the history of Palestine through the photograph” as separate fields of inquiry, we posit that Wasif Jawhariyyeh’s albums allow us to seek the confluence, overlaps, departures, tensions, and interplay between the two.
The most fundamental assertion of this book is that the juncture between the history of photography in Palestine and the history of Palestine through photography offers us evidence of the unbroken field of material, historical, and collective experience that constitutes an uncontestable continuum of what is Arab Palestine, from its living past to its living present. Here, we would argue against a nostalgic reading of Jawhariyyeh’s photographs, a reading that suggests the loss and erasure of Palestine as a historical and present fact. Certainly, as Tamari’s contribution shows, particular forms of melancholy may haunt these images or play a role in organizing their selection. “Haunting” is relational, however. Therefore, we indubitably acknowledge that the Zionist settler-colonial ethos is built on the erasure of the Palestinians from their homeland. This ethos has translated into a coordinated, sustained, and targeted program to forcefully remove Palestinians from their lands as readily as from history books and the visual field of the “Holy Land” itself. In this way, a melancholic reading or the invocation of haunting may do nothing to disrupt settler colonial futures.
The three readings presented here, while historical in nature, locate the meaning of the social life of photography in living Palestine. A reading and close examination of Jawhariyyeh’s seven photographic albums that affirm the social life and material reality of Palestinians inevitably interrupts and denaturalizes the logic of Zionist settler colonialism. Camera Palæstina, then, hopes to contribute to the body of scholarship that witnesses the history of Palestine that settler-colonial ideology, economy, and state power relentlessly work to erase. In this regard, our engagement with Jawhariyyeh is both an “archaeology of [indigenous] knowledge” and an exercise in Arab knowledge-production whereby we three scholars engage with the empirical and social ways the living history of Arab Palestine intersects, informs, and emerges in the living present of Palestine. We, therefore, explore a historical Palestinian visuality, identifying that it is inextricably entangled within a hegemonic Orientalist, Zionist, and colonialist visuality. But also, like Arab modernity itself, we mark Palestinian presence in the construction of this visuality and amplify how that presence grows from and is riveted to Palestine, historically, geographically, socially, and culturally.
We, as authors of this book, have three different disciplinary backgrounds. Our friendship and collaboration came together precisely because of our shared interest in and affection for photography, Wasif, and Palestine. Each of us approach the Jawhariyyeh albums from different perspectives: cultural, political, and social history. Our contributions offer varying, albeit not conflicting, readings of Jawhariyyeh’s albums. We offer three intertwined perspectives on the position of these albums vis-à-vis the social and political life of late Ottoman Palestine, without assuaging, displacing, or glossing over the antagonistic and agonistic difference(s) within that very counter-history we seek to highlight. Indeed, Jawhariyyeh’s albums are eclectic. The diversity of methodologies and disciplines that we offer in this book uniquely equips us to creatively approach Wasif’s multifaceted albums through a number of different disciplinary lenses, namely through the study of photography, history, and historical sociology. Jawhariyyeh’s oeuvre, in fact, demands such an approach, channeling us to deliberate the overlay and relationship between history, space, politics, written narrative, and photography.
The challenge in writing this book, therefore, lies not in disputing the framing, the organization, or the representational register of photographs cast by hegemonic narratives, whether they be nationalist, Orientalist, or Zionist. We are not overly concerned with whether or not a character-type of a coffee-seller or shoemaker is true or false, or even if Jawhayyireh exaggerates or downplays a particular event history of twentieth-century Palestine or a comprehensive knowledge of social use of photography in the Arab world before World War II. However, if we are not offering a comprehensive history of the Mandate or photography, we do actively seek to locate contexts: of Arab modernity in Palestine, political activism and aspirations of independence during the British mandate, of social relations within Jerusalem (al-Quds) and Palestine (Falastin) in the wake of the Ottoman Empire and rise of new sorts of ruling classes, and, of course, of Zionist settler colonialism which foreshadowed mass, organized, and calculated Zionist violence against the Palestinian people that would result in their dispossession. Considering these multiple, coinciding contexts, the challenge in reading these images, individually, and these albums, collectively, arises from all the ways the images and albums communicate. To whom are they speaking, and how do they communicate to us within their multiple contexts? What is the discursive, class, gendered, and political work that each of these photographs do, individually and collectively as albums?
It is in the living cross-section of these contexts that the photography exists and that we find what we might call the “Palestinian spectator,” or, more simply, the Palestinian agentic subject. This subject or “spectator,” we will show, is not a passive Palestinian onlooker, a lost subject of the past, or a unified nationalist and historical (male) actor. Indeed, our critical approach to this collection is that the Palestinian subject of photography is far too often represented as passive and one-dimensional, with few exceptions. Indeed, it is not coincidental that among those exceptions are the images produced by photography units of the PLO and PFLP, who portrayed Palestinians (fida’iyin, fellahin, and refugees alike) as actively maintaining Palestinian identity along with a claim to all of historic Palestine.
In other words, the starting point for this study is rejecting a nostalgic framework that erases social relations within the Palestinian polity and sees Palestinians in photographs as one-dimensional, frozen, lost, and tragic objects of the past. On the contrary, we see in the active presence of Palestinian subjects in the photographs the precedent to the counter-visuality offered by the Palestinian Resistance. To understand the Palestinians themselves as subjects of their own visual field is to see an indigenous visual understanding (or visuality) that stands opposed to dominant hegemonic regimes, whether they be Orientalist, British colonialist, or Zionist settler colonialist, that negate their presence physically, historically, and visually. To be clear, Palestinians always simultaneously co-existed, contested, and, at times, collaborated with those colonial regimes and visualities. What we are saying, however, is that they did so as visual, willful subjects, who populated and belonged to the Palestine.
We approach Jawhariyyeh’s seven albums as a rare opportunity. They provide us with a chance to collaboratively examine an indigenously-composed visual compendium to Palestine during the late Ottoman and Mandate period. It is a visual compendium composed as a documentary project and a self-consciously—and at times, self-reflective—historical project. Therefore, we have an opportunity to encounter a Palestinian spectator. It may be rightly observed that Jawhariyyeh’s images of the “Palestinian” was saturated with his own class, gendered, and geographic prejudices and assumptions. Compressing Jawhariyyeh’s prejudices into a national subject, however, may be productive in revealing a composite of the “Palestinian spectator,” who functions as a compendium of a number of subject positions (male, female, peasant, bourgeois, Christian, Muslim, etc.) just as these albums themselves are multifaceted, allowing many competing subjectivities to emerge. Despite the differences in our own approaches, in our journey through Jawhariyyeh’s albums each of us encountered the Palestinian as an active and mindful national, class, and gendered subject or “spectator,” not as a displaced subject of history whose relationship to the photograph is one of nostalgia and passivity. We found a complex transhistorical subject, who cohabitates temporalities of a regime of visuality (now and then) that understands Palestine not as a historical bygone but as a lived and living social fact. More simply put, this book offers a popular history of the Palestinian subject, of Palestinian photography, and of Mandate Palestine (especially centered around its historical capital, Jerusalem) as emerging through the visual archive that connects them. It is a popular history that writes Palestinians back into the history, as Amilcar Cabral would say, back into the history of Palestine and the photography of it.