At the outset of her trenchant work on the relationship between photography, citizenship and power, A Civil Contract of Photography, the Israeli critic and theorist Ariella Azoulay recalls a memory from her childhood when the seed of an image of Palestinians was first planted in her head:
“My mother wouldn’t allow me to go to the beach on Fridays. That’s the day the Arabs go. “They go in with their clothes on,” she muttered. Ever since, I’ve carried around in my head an image of Arabs half-submerged in the middle of the sea, struggling to get up, with the weight of their wet clothes pulling them down. While I remember this image as if it were a photograph I actually saw, I know it was planted in my brain, courtesy of my mother’s tongue as she tried to embody her warnings. When I was a bit older, in high school, and I went to the “territories” with Peace Now to demonstrate against the occupation, I saw only Jewish Israelis with crisp white shirts, equipped with a vision of how to wipe out the occupation. Even then, toward the end of the 1970s, the image from the sea remained the only image I had of Palestinians.”
Over the course of that book Azoulay analyses the relationship photography has with those who are unrepresented and unrepresentable before the law, because they are not enumerated in its founding democratic principles. She notes that our laws bequeath rights to citizens, whilst our political power governs citizens and noncitizens alike, but never equally. She observes that those people who are subject to powers that do not recognise their existence are invariably prey to unchecked aggression, and victims of disasters that prompt no urgent response. The invisibility of those who are left outside of the terms from which we derive our freedoms is the pretext for their own oppression and subjugation. Moreover, that invisibility is necessary in order for us to be able to reconcile the justness of the law with the pitilessness of our economic progress.
“In democratic countries the violent character inherent in the economy doesn’t show itself; in authoritarian countries the same holds true for the economic character of violence.” – Bertolt Brecht, Journals 1934-1955
Arguably the signal figure of contemporary economic life is the illegal immigrant. Their labour and their lack of rights are the invisible balancing factor in the equation that maintains stability in a drastically unequal economic system. In the forty-nine years from 1960 to 2009, the UN estimated that the number of migrants globally increased from 75 million to 195 million. Annual remittances (monies wired back home) now represent a greater inflow of capital than is invested by foreign governments and corporations in the developing world. As the art critic John Berger wrote in his essay Wanting Now, “On a world scale emigration has become the principal means of survival.”
Whilst necessity creates migrants for a number of reasons, and whilst many become migrants in the hopes of forging a better future for themselves and eventually their families, they exist as an inevitable byproduct, or as economists often call it an ‘externality’ of the free flow of capital. As Brecht’s observation suggests, the unrestricted movement of capital in search of a profit owes no obligation to justice or morality, and encourages violence just as often as it underwrites or legitimates its use. It bears recalling that the largest proportion of migrants worldwide are fleeing an economy of violence, whether internally — as in the millions displaced in Colombia and Sudan — or externally — as in the tens and hundreds of thousands fleeing Iraq, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and so forth. Very often the most efficient allocation of resources for profit is bloodshed, however merciless the equation. The history of the slaughter of the Jewish people has its roots also in an economic calculus.
We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear. Again we’ll enter
our last world, the first that vanished
in our absence from the broken city.
We’ll tear our shirts for tourniquets
and bind the open thorns, warm the ivy
into roses. Quick, by the pomegranate—
the bird will say—Humankind can bear
Will we follow the horned lark, pry
open the back gate into the poplar groves,
go past the search post into the cemetery,
the dust still uneasy on hurried graves
with no names, like all new ones in the city?
If the signal figure of contemporary economic life is the illegal immigrant, the symbolic figure of contemporary political life must be the border: that intangible construct which materialises in order to separate those with rights from those without. J’s wonderful first book, Elementary Calculus, is swarming with borders: they contain that which is at once beautiful and distant, harbour symbols of peace, absorb within them the etched hopes of the nameless, prop up those with little support and less freedom, demarcate territory, decry the indifference of chance, police access, are incessantly traversed by animals indifferent to their symbolism, provide respite, serve as message boards, clarify a ritualised separation, offer hope, labour, contrast and poetic metaphor. The story of the plight of the subjects of this book could be read in an inventory of the walls that it depicts.
There is an intentional brutality to the irony that is uncovered and illuminated in J’s photographs. These are images made in a country whose founding was precipitated by millennia of brutal separation and violent marginalisation, all of which was legitimated through the construction of the image of the Jew as Other, as lesser, suspect, conniving and unclean – an image that laid the grounds for a slaughter of such epic and industrial proportion that even its name has obscured the long and bloody history of other such mass killings. Israel was an embattled idea long before it ever was a nation; its creation was born of violent separation, and that violence persists in the rubric of its landscape, and in the battlement brickwork of its cities. That this book begins and ends with walls is not accidental or incidental to the nature of that history; the circumstances in which we encounter these immigrants echo plaintively and bitterly back to the beginnings of the nation in which they now drift, without standing before the law and nevertheless subject to it – victims of a necessity that has led them to a point of profound vulnerability.
As the book begins we are separated by fences and barbed wire from a tree in full bloom, lit by the unchecked warmth of the sun. The brightest point in the picture is that beautiful thing from which we are withheld by the rusted iron of a dilapidated barrier. We are drawn toward something we are forbidden to reach.
This image is followed by the title page, an epigram by poet Mahmoud Darwish, and then a two picture spread in which a picture of a payphone is paired with a white dove, perched atop an immense brick slab in a bright cream-white wall, punctuated by a smattering of Hebrew etched in the stone. The cream-white brickwork is part of the Wailing Wall, a centuries-old barrier that once lined the perimeter of the Jewish Temple in Old Jerusalem, and that has become a site for the observance of prayer, and the completion of religious pilgrimages centred upon humility before God, and a celebration of the long history of faith. The payphone, which also carries Hebrew text upon it, is an object that has rapidly come to symbolise or delineate the economic misfortune of those compelled to use it — it is a public utility for which the pubic, increasingly, has little use. The white bird of peace looks out across the fold at an obsolescent technology upon whose use depend the least fortunate among us. The three images interweave the history of the diaspora of the Jewish people with the immigrants who now walk the streets of Israel, and at the same time point up the recurrence of the habit of segregation that first blighted the Jews, just as it now blights the immigrants who have attempted to settle in the promised land.
The photographs build up a pictorial grammar that is consonant with the instability of the lives of these subjects, honing in on ephemeral moments, illuminating partial views, speaking everywhere of distance, flight, impermanence and arbitrary anachronism. Cats, doves and pigeons seem to prowl the length of the images in the book, darting up alleyways, perching on walls or atop hills, resting on telephone lines, slinking through grilled windows – moving with a seemingly haphazard freedom denied to the immigrants we see all around. What is no longer useful or desired is simply abandoned underneath barbed wire fences, on top of breeze block and stone walls, or in the middle of the street. While telephone lines abound, and while payphones are clustered together in shuttered groups, the images in fact allude to disconnection, to distance, and to distress. What accumulates through the maze of nooks and walls and side-streets is an architecture of isolation, impermanence and separation — one that is analogous both to the existence of these immigrants, and their standing before the law that governs them.
—“If we don’t stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state” – Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel “In his remarks Sunday to Cabinet, Netanyahu said that construction of a fence along Israel’s southern border will be finished “in the coming months.” Until then, any migrant who is caught crossing the border illegally will be detained “immediately,” with Netanyahu noting that “holding facilities” are being built to “to house tens of thousands of infiltrators until they can be sent out of the country.”” – CNN, June 17th 2012 “Why should we provide them with jobs? I’m sick of the bleeding hearts, including politicians. Jobs would settle them here, they’ll make babies, and that offer will only result in hundreds of thousands more coming over here” – Eli Yishai, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs of Israel “I want everyone to be able to walk the streets without fear or trepidation … The migrants are giving birth to hundreds of thousands, and the Zionist dream is dying” – Eli Yishai
In the drawer of the cedar stand,
white in the verandah, we’ll find letters:
When the post offices died, the mailman
knew we’d return to answer them. Better
if he’d let them speed to death,
blacked out by the Autumn’s Press Trust—
not like this, taking away our breath,
holding it with love’s anonymous
scripts: “See how your world has cracked.
Why aren’t you here? Where are you? Come back.
Is history deaf there, across the oceans?”
Quick, the bird will say. And we’ll try
the keys, with the first one open the door
into the drawing room. Mirror after mirror,
textiled by dust, will blind us to our return
as we light oil lamps. The glass map of our country,
still on the wall, will tear us to lace—
We’ll go past our ancestors, up the staircase,
holding their wills against our hearts. Their wish was
we return—forever!—and inherit (Quick, the bird
will say) that to which we belong, not like this—
to get news of our death after the world’s.
The epigram to Elementary Calculus, a quotation from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, reads: “And your visions are your exile in a world where a shadow has no identity, no gravity. You walk as if you were someone else.” His words point toward the first dispossession of those who have been exiled from their home, which is the dispossession of their own personhood, their history, their continuity with their dead, their families and their unborn. A majority of those immigrants depicted in this book have made the dangerous and lengthy journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean in flight from war and persecution. They have fled countries whose governments have collapsed, whose military run riot, and whose economies no longer function. Upon arrival in Israel, they are dubbed a “cancer” by the Prime Minister and referred to as “infiltrators” – a term that enlists its addressees as members of an armed militia in a state of conflict.
In a nation at once founded from the ashes of a diaspora forbidden freedom of movement and equality of rights, a nation whose foundation was premised upon the expulsion of another group of people, this language, and the imagery it evokes carries with it an especially bitter sense of remorse. That refugees from conflict should become ‘infiltrators’ in a nation that trumpets its status as the only democracy in the Middle East is a barbarous kind of irony. Barbarous, in the sense of its incitation to violence and its justification of indifferent neglect. This language is calculated to arouse anxiety toward the threat of violence from precisely the people whose lack of legal status leaves them most vulnerable to it, and in its displacement of a physical threat it elides aggression toward immigrants with defence from harm. The image of the immigrant as imagined in this kind of discourse is that of a viral menace to health, purity and freedom.
“The animated, lifelike character of images has been recognized since ancient times, and that is why the first law concerning images is a prohibition on their creation, accompanied by a mandate to destroy them. If the relation of the law to migration is mainly negative, a mandate to block the movement of living things, then the relation of the law to images is exactly analogous. The prohibition on images is grounded in an attempt to sequester a political and religious community from contamination by images and to extirpate those alien forms of imagery commonly known as idols. The image is thus always involved with the other — with alien tribes, foreigners, invaders, or conversely, with native inhabitants who must be expelled. Because other people, both kinfolk and strangers, can only be apprehended by way of images — stereotypes of gender, race, ethnicity, etc. — the problem of migration is structurally and necessarily bound up with that of images. Migration is not a mere content to be represented in images but is a constitutive feature of their life, central to the ontology of images as such.”
In the images we see of immigrants in J’s book we find them huddled, perched, squatting, stretching, traipsing or trudging. They are anxious, distracted, intent, dejected or uncertain – often obscured by the payphones to which they travel, or disguised by their own clothing or their own bodies, unwilling even to obstruct the intrusion of the photographer’s lens. He has sought them out and presented them to us as such, without negotiation or apology, and even in proximity they do not confront us through his lens. Their spectral menace is nowhere evident in these images, but the abject nature of the environment in which they live speaks to the threats that they face. In consonance with the discord that is intrinsic to their circumstances, even the colours in palette of the images rarely sit comfortably along side each other, and are either in stark harsh contrast, or subsumed beneath the heavy edge of lengthening shadows and ruddy sunlight. There is an irregularity both to the palette, the composition of the images and the photographic formats that mimics or parallels the stuttering nature of the daily lives conducted in the spaces in which J has photographed. The photographic language here serves a metaphorical function that displaces written argument for pictorial allusion, and leaves room for the imagination to populate the empty spaces.
The photographs point everywhere to the irrepressible presence of separation, to the overarching influence of distance on the most intimate and everyday of gestures, and never duck the obligation to invoke the prospect of the violence to which their subjects have been, or might yet be exposed. The pictures allude to, and in a certain sense depict the kind of poverty of means, or profound and existentially dangerous illegality of status that can make of each week a calculated gamble in survival, that can turn the most commonplace decisions into an elementary calculus in which error can result in catastrophe. They are courageous enough not to seek our affections with a beauty that is inconsistent with the nature of the place in which they are made, and the moment in history to which they owe their meaning. They make a forceful case for the continual need to interrogate the justness of our freedoms irrespective of our ideals, and speak to the need for doubt while accommodating a tendency toward faith that looks beyond the inequities of the present in anticipation of a better day yet to come.
It seems to me that we need to find a language to evoke and confront the realities that these images contend with, one that can point to the hardship and the inequity, the irony and the neglect — if we are (still) of the view that photography can bring the complexities of our world to the surface of the image. We know that what is true and abject about a political norm in Israel is true also of France, Spain, the US and the UK — is true of a multiplicity of nations each in their own idiosyncratic ways. We know that the bright promise of democratic freedom extends only so far, and that where its interests end there is only permanent instability, risk, and the pitiless comfort to be found in the shadows of a wall. J’s photographs address themselves to an injustice we ourselves produce, one in which we each participate – however heedlessly. They seem to me to argue that powerless freedom breeds a kind of desperation, is born of a fundamental neglect, and can find redress only in an insistence on making what is difficult visible for all to see.
After the wind lifts the beggar
From his bed of trash
And blows to the empty pubs
At the road’s end
There exists only the silence
Of the world before dawn
And the solitude of trees.
Handel on the set mysteriously
Recalls to me the long
Hot nights of childhood spent
In malarial slums
In the midst of potent shrines
At the edge of great seas.
Dreams of the past sing
With voices of the future.
And now the world is assaulted
With a sweetness it doesn’t deserve
Flowers sing with the voices of absent bees
The air swells with the vibrant
Solitude of trees who nightly
Whisper of re-invading the world.
But the night bends the trees
Into my dreams
And the stars fall with their fruits
Into my lonely world-burnt hands.
— Ben Okri “An Undeserved Sweetness”