Since the past two decades Ahlam Shibli’s photographic work has become one of the sharpest and most insightful of the contemporary art field. Her work has been presented in solo and group exhibitions internationally. Born in 1970, in Palestine, Ahlam Shibli has produced many different series of photographs whose main concern is the contradictory implications of the notion of home. To deal with these contradictions, Shibli’s work explores the urgent need of representing what is denied representation, taking into account, at the same time, that the photographic recording needs to be cautious not to objectify and victimize the subjects of state violence.
In 2013, you presented the largest exhibitions of your work, organized by MACBA (Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art), Museu de Serralves (Porto) and Jeu de Paume (Paris), under the title Phantom Home. On this occasion, you put together several works tracing the resistance against the loss of home and the efforts to find new ways to exist and survive. Could you develop this idea?
While my work deals with the loss of home and the fight against that loss, it also addresses the restrictions and limitations that the idea of home imposes on individuals and groups marked by repressive identity politics: both, deprivation and constraint embodied in the notion of home, call for specific efforts to exist and survive. For instance, the bodies of LGBTQT – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and transsexual – people from Oriental societies in the work Eastern LGBT (2004-2006) and the bodies of children in the work Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away (2008) become the primary home despite the precarious lives and the violence these groups are exposed to. Because of a lack of recognition, they employ their bodies to create conditions of existence that are opposed to the values and expectations of the majority.
Or a work concerned with a colonial conflict, like Trauma, shows monuments that commemorate members of the French Resistance against the Nazis together with French fighters in the colonial wars against peoples who demanded their own independence. The city of Tulle, in south-central France, is marked by celebrations that commemorate the victims of a brutal massacre under Nazi occupation as well as those who, immediately after the Liberation, fought against the independence of Indochina and Algeria. First of all, a contradiction is shown with this: this bears witness to claims for a home that are valid only for the French people but not for peoples in Africa or Asia; secondly, the fact that the French would accept the loss of their homes in the colonised territories only when it is levelled against winning back their home from the German occupation.
For the Palestinians, confronted by an overwhelming colonial power, the state of emergency is the norm rather than the exception. The work Death (2011-12) indicates that the Palestinians’ body has become their only means of production. To fight against negation, the “wretched of the Earth,” as the Martiniquais writer Frantz Fanon calls them, are forced to negate what is dearest to them, ultimately not only their houses but also their lives.
Six years after this show, is the idea of home still pertinent in your work?
Yes, I am still interested in the implications of the notion of home. In 2016-17, I made the work Occupation, whose foundation is the destruction of Palestinian livelihood in al-Khalil (Hebron) and the occupied territories by the Israeli colonial regime and the Zionist settlers. The work traces the ways in which the Zionist settlers and the Palestinian population live in an asymmetrical relationship in al-Khalil, bound together by the limited space of the Old Town and confined to an environment defined by physical borders and perverse regulations. The work records the signs of a disturbing duplicate inversion. On the one hand, the images indicate how the settlers – who have invaded the Palestinians’ territory, preventing them from using their property and disrupting their freedom of movement – create a prisonlike space for themselves. On the other hand, the photographs reveal how the Palestinians use the hardware of the separation implemented by the Israeli occupation – sheet metal, razor barbed wire, barrels filled with cement, fences, grids, nets, et cetera – to protect their own public spaces and their homes.
At the same time, I also made the work Heimat, which refers to two groups of people who migrated to Kassel in Germany and the city’s surrounding areas at different times, for different reasons, under different circumstances, and with different expectations. One group is composed of expellees and refugees of German descent who were forced to leave their homes east of the Oder-Neisse line and in Eastern European countries in 1945-46 as a result of the Second World War. Up to fifteen million people were displaced and hundreds of thousands of them lost their lives. The second group is composed of the so-called “guest workers” from the Mediterranean region who were recruited since the 1950s to facilitate the German “economic miracle” after the Second World War. These people went to Germany by invitation, which did not, however, spare them and their descendants xenophobic resentment and violence. The most apparent case of this nature is a series of murders committed between 2000 and 2007 by the National Social- ist Underground (NSU).
The work is concerned with different ways in which members of both groups of migrants behaved when faced with the idea of creating a new home for themselves in a place they did not particularly choose for that purpose: finding success, ignoring the plan, resisting to it, or failing.
When you are talking about the contradictory implications of the notion of home, many terms come to mind: ambiguity, conflict, fragility and above all vulnerability. And I am using this term the way the American philosopher Judith Butler did: vulnerability as a practice of resistance, foundation of a politics of bodily resistance that does not reject forms of vulnerability. You have evoked such practices in many of your works. There is a certain strength, developed by the people you work with, in all your stories that is coming from different sources, but in many cases creates a kind of resilience. Is that true?
It is interesting that for Butler vulnerability is not something that needs to be overcome in order to achieve agency. Instead, she suggests turning vulnerability into the source of a new form of critical collectivity, a motor of shared political action.
I can say that, until now, the people in my photographs have been in a position of vulnerability. But let’s talk about the photographer here. My work in itself is an act of resistance. I make photographs that represent people who are denied the right to representation and recognition. Representing these groups of people is an act of resistance.
Such resistance refers to both sides: the ones how are considered heroes among their people (in the work Death) as well as the ones how are considered traitors among their people (in the work Trackers, 2005). Members of the first group are denied the right to representation by Israel and its forces: Israel destroys the public monuments that the Palestinians build for their dead fighters and keeps the fighters’ bodies so that the families can’t build a grave for them, again denying them the right to commemorate their heroes. What is left for the Palestinians is to create the least monumental form of memorials, posters recalling the killed fighters and presenting them as martyrs. While the posters deteriorate quickly – expression of vulnerability –, they are so numerous and can be replaced so quickly that the occupation forces had to give up eliminating them.
In this situation, what I could do as a photographer was, on the one hand, to photograph these posters and present them as reproductions of the original posters and, on the other hand, accompany them with captions acknowledging the killed fighters in the way they are acknowledged among their people, as martyrs. This was the only way not to again deny these dead people representation. At the same time, conceiving photography as a practice of copying images in the public and the private space was a way to avoid subjecting the martyrs to the power of representation, to victimise the victims.
Before that, another challenge I was facing was, with the work Trackers, when I photographed Palestinian soldiers in the Israeli army who are denied their representation not only within the Israeli society but also inside the Palestinian society. I chose to focus on the soldiers at their isolated places, the army camps created particularly for them. There I took pictures of those who just joined the army and still didn’t know how to use the different weapons. I wanted to show their bodies as fragile, scared and presenting their vulnerability.
You are Palestinian and the conflicts in this geographic area are very present in your work, of course. But you have also worked with particular social groups looking for a “home of their own,” like LGBT or orphans, for instance. I was wondering how you choose your themes or the people concerned and how you assess (if you have to do that, I don’t know) the legitimacy of their complaints and the different political and social contexts. In short, how do you evaluate the claims of a group, nation or state, in the face of another group, nation or state? How do you monitor your own feelings of compassion or complicity as a photographer?
Mostly my ideas come from reading and lectures I attend. Sometimes I have a question concerning the “notion of home,” then I search, by thinking and reading, for the correct group of people where I can find answers or challenges to my question. I see myself as a scientist in the laboratory; she initiates her research with a hypothesis and looks for evidence to prove that hypothesis. Therefore, I usually need ten days for a start to find out if there is evidence to trace.
A basic condition for my way of working is that everybody’s complaints are legitimate. That makes it easy for me to access any group. From the beginning I made it a rule that there is no judgment but discovery. This was for instance my approach with Trackers, photographing the Palestinian soldiers, citizens of Israel, who serve in the Israeli army and fight against their own people.
Even though the French art critic Jean- François Chevrier, in the Documenta 14 Daybook, had pointed out that I had learned to be wary of the pathos of the victim “in order to better get at the confused reality of reactions to oppression,” I was still confronted with dilemmas, for instance, when I was invited to create a new work in Tulle, in France. I was struggling with myself to find a reason why to photograph the French victims of the German occupation of their land, their home. Their narrative has been told, has been written about and received recognition. So why should I invest my energy and time on a narrative that was easy to construct, because it belonged to the side of the power, France? Why should I leave Palestine and leave my Palestinian subjects to record recorded winners? Then I focused on my hesitation and went back to Tulle to find an answer for myself. That allowed me to actually see what is there; this tenderness and fragility opened my eyes to see the written texts and the names on the monuments and from there I built my own narrative around a notion of home, appearing as a notion of auto-affirmation and the exclusion and oppression of others who in their turn demanded the right to their own home. In this work, Trauma, it emerges that the notion of home has the potential to turn into a tool of political and social oppression – which takes me back to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian homeland.
I always thought that it is easier for the ones on the weak side to be ethical and moral, maybe because there is no power to lose. It is politically easy for me to identify with the people who are denied justice and with the people who need to preserve their dignity. Towards these people I feel sympathy and solidarity. But maybe I should say that my focus when I create a work, when I go out to photograph, is on how to build the question through the work itself. To that end, I look and search for the visual contradictions. For example, in the picture no. 48 from the series Death – which focuses on a limited range of means representing the martyrs and the prisoners in Palestine – we see two fighters holding their machine guns, but we are also confronted with the fragility of their gaze. Even though they are looking directly at us, neither their gaze nor their machine guns are threating us. Their gaze is soft and warm and their machine guns are pointed in the “unkilling” directions; one machine gun pointed up and the other pointed down. We also see the wedding ring on the fourth finger of the left hand of the young man, the fighter, on the right side of the picture. Besides, I found out that he also had children; he had a family. But we see that this wedding ring becomes a circle around him and the two men next to him. One may conclude that the freedom of the homeland can also be a trap that makes you lose your family and your own life. But, of course no confusion here about the responsibility and the reason for that destructive situation, which is the immoral Israeli occupation. There is rather the attempt to look and understand what is there.
I also look and search for the contradictory implications of the notion of home in each situation. For instance, in the case of the work I did with both LGBT and orphans, the withdrawal of a native home, even though involuntary and certainly painful, is revealed as bearing the potential of liberation and auto-determination.
I have always found intriguing the very high precision of your statements, of your captions as well as the exact editing and order of the images to be presented, the exact distance between frames, the exact position of each photograph in each single frame. One could say that you fear that the pictures say something you don’t want them to say, that they become independent from you as, in general, it happens very often with photography. But at the same time, you play with the ambiguity of the stories, their contradictions, and the ambiguity of the nature of images. I feel that your images tell precise things, often in an evasive way. It is as if you were outlining a drawing by leaving blurred perimeters and never defining a certain shape.
The idea of home – with its problematic, inac- cessible and evasive nature – is responsible at one and the same time for the urgent need to represent what is denied representation and for the impossibility to consider representation a straightforward act of uncovering – revealing, and exposing “what has been,” to allude to the famous formula of the French semiotician and critic Roland Barthes. Representation risks to subject the person photographed to the objectifying gaze of the agent of photography – one “takes” a picture and fixes an image. This process in itself is a process of victimization which gets even more aggravated if the people concerned are already subjects of submission. For example, in the pictures no. 16-20 from the work Dependence (2007), which examines the relationship between immigrant care workers and their employers in Barcelona, we see the invisible domestic workers only from their back or from their side, which will not allow us to recognize their faces or to get close to them. They are people who have already been pushed aside or to the back. The only time they become colourful and their faces come close to the lens is when they are celebrating a day-off, a Sunday but then they themselves cover their eyes with their sunglasses or they are asleep and we see only their closed That reminds me of the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli’s point in my book Trauma (2010): “Trauma honours, without the least discrimination, those commemorated by the monuments as well as those not commemorated […], the images present both the visible and the invisible, as if one were a reflection of the other.”
In order not to objectify and victimise the subjects of state violence, I have developed from one work to the other strategies to improve and tie together, sharpen and correct the performance of the work, the construction of a sequences, the rhythm of a group of works. From my South African colleagues, the photographers Santu Mofokeng and David Goldblatt – both worked under the Apartheid regime in South Africa – I learned to appreciate the need of the text.
I acknowledge my failures and agreed with myself not to go back to previous work to correct it according to what I learned afterwards. I understand that it is more important for me to focus on improvements rather than the failures and so I can point out in each work the new understanding I was able to achieve.
Before I go out to photograph, I sit and plan and write what I want to photograph but also why I want to photograph this and that. I write down which elements I want to include, I make illustrations of the work before and while it is photographed. That helps me to keep focusing and be a ship at sea, not a duck on a pond, as the American artist Lawrence Weiner says.
I don’t like the method of “I don’t know” or “up to you.” What is important for me is to be clear, focused on what I’m doing and to lead the audience towards my narrative, my truth. This I can also achieve with the help of work statements and captions.
Since it is the nature of the image that it cannot reveal the meaning of what was there the story behind it – the captions intervene to complete what is So, I use the texts to adopt the language commonly used by the people I photograph. That implies the refusal to use the language of the colonial powers themselves. It implies the need to consider the situation of the people as it presents itself to them. It asks to acknowledge the complexity of the situation. The captions that accompany the pictures in my work request to consider the situation of the people who are forced by the hegemony to act as they act. The texts request to see an abominable truth that the hegemonic powers try to keep from visibility.
With all of that, it is still important to clarify that my position is not the moderator or arbiter. I don’t do the work of the audience. What I do is to go there to see and to report what is there, what has to be seen and recognized. And I bring back what I saw there, my narrative, my truth.
The German writer Ulrich Loock wrote, quoting me, in the Documenta 14 magazine South as a State of Mind (2017): “As al-Shaykh Ghūmah said, ‘Read the signs.’ The out-of-time quality of what is seen coincides with seeing what is not to be seen.”
That can be achieved again when there is ambiguity in the work. Then the audience can also trust the truth of the work. I consider ambiguity as important for preserving the photgraphed people’s dignity. ///
CAPTIONS p. 61: Series Occupation, no. 32, al-Khalil (Hebron), Palestine, 2016-17. House of the Samih and May Da’ana family, Wadi al-Nasarah neighbor- hood, al-Khalil, December 17, 2016. Samih, May Da’ana and their five children are living right next to the settlement KiryatArba. For security reasons the Israeli army cleared their land, turning it into a no man’s land only accessible to soldiers and security personnel of the settlement. After having been attacked several times with stones and rifle shots the Da’anas are not using the rooms facing the settlement any more. Soldiers of the Israeli army often come to the house and even stay there overnight. p. 63: Series Eastern LGBT, no. 16, 2004. p. 65: Series Dependence, no. 20, Barcelona, Spain, 2007. Carrer del Doctor Roux, Sarrià, Barcelona, July 27, 2007. Ms Eugenia, from Argentina, sweeping the sitting room of her employers, Ms Pilar Morales Vila and Mr Oleguer Galí Figueras. p. 66: Series Heimat, no. 18, Nordhessen, Germany, 2016-17.Türkan and Mustafa Defterli, Kassel, November 3, 2016. Dire need forced Mustafa Defterli to leave his hometown, Erzurum, in eastern Anatolia, at the age of thirteen. He went to Istanbul to start an apprenticeship as a painter. In 1961 he was married in Erzurum to his wife Türkan, and she moved with him to Istanbul. Out of curiosity and love of adventure he applied for guest work in Europe. In 1965 he travelled by train to Munich and later arrived in Kassel where he began to work for a painter. He ate pork for the first time and was at first hardly able to communicate. The Defterlis had two small daughters and in 1968 Türkan and the two children came to Kassel where two additional children – a boy and a girl – were born. Mustafa presents photos that were taken soon after his arrival in Germany, an envelope with wedding photos, and a pension insurance certificate. p. 67: Series Heimat, no. 34, Nordhessen, Germany, 2016-17. FC Bosporus Kassel, March 5, 2017. The soccer club FC Bosporus Kassel was founded in 1980 by Turkish guest workers. The name “Bosporus” is easy to pronounce, symbolizes the relation of the club to its roots, and refers to a bridge between Turkey and Europe. The Federal Ministry of the Interior supports the club within the framework of the Integration durch Sport [Integration through Sport] program. The players in the picture are: Ismet Yegül, Nima Latifiahvas, Ugur Kahraman, Abdullah Alidrisi, Omar Bayoud, MirkoTanjic, Nihat Cemali, and Kai Steinert. p. 69: Series Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away, no. 20, Po- land, 2008. Dom Dziecka [Orphanage] Na Zielonym Wzgórzu, Kisielany-Žmichy, September 27, 2008, Saturday afternoon. Anna Trojanowska is washing her delicate clothes by hand, while Magdalena Zubek and Roksana Jeronimiak are comforting each other. p. 70: Series Trackers, no. 13, Palestine/ Israel, 2005 p. 71: Series Trackers, no. 32, Palestine/Israel, 2005 p. 73: Series Trauma, no. 39, Corrèze, France, 2008-09. Argentat, June 5, 2009. Thuong Dang presenting his father’s first work contract in France, placed on top of the map of Vietnam. p. 75: Series Death, no. 48, Palestine, 2011-12. The Old City, al-Kasaba neighborhood, Nablus, February 5, 2012. In a vegetable shop, a poster showing the martyrs ‘Abd al-Rahman Shinnawi, ‘Amar al-’Anabousi and Basim Abu Sariyah from the Faris al-Leil [Knight of the Night] resistance groups which belong to al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. On the margins of the poster, a picture of Naif Abu Sharkh, the head of al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Nablus.The poster carries a sticker showing a raised fist with the Palestinian colors and reading: “We want the occupation to lose. BoycottTapuzina [an Israeli soft drink]. Palestinian National Initiative.” p. 76: Series Death, no. 21, Palestine, 2011-12. Balata Refugee Camp, March 6, 2012. In the family living room, a poster with the image of Ahmad Rashid Einab and his brother Rami. Rami Einab was a fighter and specialist in explosives, killed by the Israeli army on December 19, 2006. Ahmad was a paramedic who accidentally died on July 21, 2006 in front of his house when the Israeli army destroyed the neighboring offices of the Palestinian Authority in Nablus. p. 77: Series Death, no. 25, Palestine, 2011-12. Al-Dahiya neighborhood, Nablus, February 27, 2012. Memorial items in the family guest room commemorating Sami ‘Antar who died on January 19, 2006 during a “martyrdom operation” inTelAviv. He was a student in his second year of physical education studies at An-Najah National University in Nablus. His body was buried in an Israeli Cemetery of Numbers and returned to his family together with the bodies of other Palestinian militants on May 31, 2012. p. 79: Series Ramallah Archive, no. 2, Palestine, 2014. Ramallah Municipality Archive, Ramallah Cultural Palace, Ramallah, July 1, 2014. A photograph of a negative from the late 1950s or early 1960s, produced by Garo Kuftedjian, a studio photographer of Armenian origin, at Studio Venus in Ramallah.The father holds the photograph of another son, who may live in America, considering the emigration patterns of Ramallah residents at that time.
AHLAM SHIBLI (Palestine, 1970) is a photographer. Her most recent series were shown at the Jeu de Paume (2013) in Paris. She participated in Documenta 12 (2008) and in the 27th Bienal Internacional de São Paulo (2006), among other collective and individual exhibitions.
MARTA GILI (Barcelona, 1957) has a degree in philosophy and education from the University of Barcelona. She was head of the Photography and Visual Arts Department at the La Caixa Foundation, in Barcelona (1991-2006) and director of the Jeu de Paume, in Paris (2006-2018). She is currently the director of the National School of Photography in Arles, France.
Tags: Entrevista, Israel, Palestina