Preliminary thoughts on a self-portrait by Hamdi Abu Rahma as an act of citizenship

In mid-August 2014 the Palestinian photojournalist Hamdi Abu Rahma made a photographic self-portrait (slide 1).

Slide 1: Hamdi Abu Rahma, self-portrait; posted on ‘Photography by Hamde Abu Rahma’, Facebook page, 14 August 2014.

This image depicts Abu Rahma against a wall holding a paper sign on which is written the following statement in English: ‘The Palestinian People know what mean to be shot while unarmed Because of your ethnicity’. The hashtags ‘#Ferguson’ and ‘#Justice’ are also written at the bottom of the sign and function as labels or captions for the message as well as for the image as a whole. The self-portrait was made in response to the mortal shooting of the unarmed Black man Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9 August 2014 and was posted on the Abu Rahma’s professional Facebook page — ‘Photography by Hamde Abu Rahma’ — on 14 August 2014. Abu Rahma linked his self-portrait to an article on the Ferguson shooting published on the New York Times website on 13 August, suggesting that the image was made between 13th and 14th of that month. Although these is nothing in the image to indicate that the photograph is a self-portrait, I know that this is the case, because Abu Rahma told me he had taken it himself, presumably using a timer.[1]

The format of the self-portrait is simple. Abu Rahma has positioned himself so that he looks directly at the camera-lens, while the sign is also held roughly straight on to the picture-plane. The frontality the Abu Rahma’s self-portrait is characteristic of a larger set of contemporary images distributed on social media that involve people holding signs directly to the camera. These images can be distinguished from other photographs that picture similar written signs, but simply as one more visible element of protest events. Such photographs are meant to document and report on the use of such written signs, rather than function as a means of communicating their political messages beyond the immediate location of the protest event. As an example of this type of photograph, we might take a photojournalistic image of a demonstration in Ferguson in August 2014 distributed by the picture agency Reuters (slide 2).

Slide 2: Demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, August 2014.

In contrast to this image, Abu Rahma’s self-portrait involves the integration of his written political message with the form and function of the photograph. Within this image, the person holding the sign, the written message, and the hashtags exist as a coherent whole that connotes and appears to enable a directness of address. The written sign itself is an example in a long line of do-it-yourself political communication that has involved the use of written language to give visibility to marginal voices in public contexts. Abu Rahma’s self-portrait involves an extension of this kind of do-it-yourself communication by transforming the hand written sign into an image that also contains the writer.

But unlike the use of written signs within the context of conventional political demonstrations, Abu Rahma’s self-portrait and the sign that this image contains was intended for distribution via social media. Images do not simply depict things in the world, they act upon the world, or more precisely they are made to act upon the world. Images have a kind of agency because they are produced by and are part of the performances of human agents. In general, the agency of images occurs on the basis of their depictive qualities — that they can show things and transport appearances. Images uploaded to social media platforms are no exception to this. They have performative effects as depictions as a result of the ways that they are moved within digital networks. Consequently, social media images need to be addressed in terms of how people do things with their depictive content through the internet. The self-portrait shows Abu Rahma holding the sign, giving words to an image of a person and at the same time giving an image of a person to words. But this conjunction of a person and his words did its work specifically through the relationship that was established between Abu Rahman as a user of Facebook and other social media users who saw his self-portrait and then did other things with it.

I am interested Abu Rahma’s self-portrait for two reasons. First, I am interested in the way that the image constitutes a departure from the classic construction of photojournalists as impartial witnesses. There are a number of significant representations of press photographers in the history of photojournalism, however they rarely represent photojournalists as people taking up explicit political positions, nor are they usually generated by the photojournalists themselves. Often when press photographers move from behind the anonymity of the photo-caption, they have been killed in the field, or have been identified by their employers as a good opportunity to promote news-based commodities.[2] In contrast to this, Abu Rahma’s self-portrait involves him presenting himself as a Palestinian living under occupation identifying with others subject to comparable kinds of state violence. There is nothing within the image itself that actually indicates that Abu Rahma is a photojournalist. However posting the image on a Facebook page dedicated to his photographic practice frames it as one that relates to his role as a press photographer. Consequently the self-portrait emphasises the role of the photographer as a journalist who has strong political views.

The second reason that I am interested in this self-portrait is that the image can be defined as an example of what Engin Isin has described as ‘citizenship without frontiers’. This is a form of citizenship that is premised upon the claiming of rights that exceed the delimitation of citizenship by sovereign power. Citizens conceived in these terms, are ‘claimant subjects’, who traverse the geographical boundaries that demarcate formal citizenship.[3] Thought about in this way, Abu Rahma is someone living under occupation without formal rights, but at the same time he is a citizen in that he claims the right to have rights, not only for himself, but also for those exposed to racist policies elsewhere. In the rest of this paper, I seek to explore these two aspects of Abu Rahma’s self-portrait and to tentatively consider how his self-representation as a politically active photojournalist is related to his role as a claimant subject.

There is a new generation of Palestinian photographers covering the Israeli occupation who have developed their photographic practices in relation to social media. Some of these photographers attempt to work within the mainstream news industry, distributing their photos via photo-agencies and wires, while also using social media platforms to gain access to different audiences and to have more direct control over their work. Others promote their work almost entirely through social media platforms, especially Facebook.[4] These photographers value social media because they understand it as a means of bypassing the limitations of mainstream news media that they believe to be biased against the Palestinian cause. They have much invested in the idea that photography has the capacity to show the ‘truth’ of the Israeli occupation. Yet, at the same time, they are generally not committed to the dominant journalistic discourse of impartiality.[5] Rather, these photographers mobilise photography in the service of their political concerns. This means that they see themselves as both photographers and activists, or more precisely as people who are activists through their photography. Key to this relationship between photography and political struggle is the desire to show the suffering of the Palestinian people to the world. As Lori Allen has argued, this has been an important concern for many Palestinians living under occupation, especially during and after the second Intifada.[6] Visual images in particular have been invested with a great capacity to reveal the ‘truth’ of this suffering and to persuade distant observers of the legitimacy of the Palestinian claim for both human and national rights. For these Palestinian photographers, social media platforms, like Facebook, offer them an opportunity to curate their own work and to make their practice a much more personalised affair.

Abu Rahma is a good example of these developments within Palestinian photojournalism in that he presents his photographs of the struggle against the West Bank Barrier in his home village of Bil’in as a form of participation in this struggle. Abu Rahma works as a freelance photojournalist for the Italian press agency Nurphoto, which has sold his photos through the image licencing company Corbis Images and through Associated Press (slide 3).

Slide 3: Hamdi Abu Rahma/NurPhoto, Corbis Images, October 2013.

In relation to this aspect of his practice, Abu Rahma can be viewed as a professional photojournalist in a conventional sense. Yet the way that he uses Facebook as a platform for his photography reveals how his roles as photojournalist and activist are strongly entwined. Abu Rahma also has a website and uses other social media platforms, such as Twitter and Tumblr, but he is most prolific on Facebook.

The photographs uploaded to Abu Rahma’s Facebook page include many that he has taken of events relating to the local struggle against the occupation. These photographs are identified by his copyright watermark and are the images on the Facebook page that most obviously relate to his role as a photojournalist. The images posted on this page also include ones made by other photographers that Abu Rahma wants people to see. Between early July and late August 2014, many of the latter images related to the Israeli attack on Gaza, a good number of which were of atrocious injuries inflicted upon Palestinian civilians. Abu Rahma’s use of Facebook therefore involves the dissemination of his own photojournalistic images and the curation of other images in line with his self-adopted role as a kind of media activist. Although Abu Rahma’s own photographs of the struggle against the occupation are more ostensibly related to the conventional role of the photographer as a reporter, in the context of his Facebook page, these images and the images he appropriates from others are framed by the political concern to make the occupation visible.

Amongst these two sets of photographs picturing the events of the occupation, Abu Rahma also presents images of himself. Some of these photos are self-portraits, including the occasional selfie (slide 4).

Slide 4: Hamdi Abu Rahma, selfie, posted on ‘Photography by Hamde Abu Rahma’, Facebook page, 11 March 2015: ‘When the army come to your house the first thing you must do is to take selfie before the fight start’

The rest were taken by other photographers and often show Abu Rahma in action, wielding his camera during a demonstration, or posing during a lull in the confrontation between the demonstrators and the Israeli military (slide 5).

Slide 5: Portrait of Hamdi Abu Rahma, photographer unknown, posted on ‘Photography by Hamde Abu Rahma’, Facebook page, 7 November 2014.

Other photos depict Abu Rahma in the process of being arrested by Israeli soldiers (slide 6).

Slide 6: Hamdi Abu Rahma being arrested by Israeli army personnel, photographer unknown, posted on ‘Photography by Hamde Abu Rahma’, Facebook page, 14 January 2015.

These photographs are invested with a certain romanticism and machismo relating to the general cultural figure of the press photographer. There are also other kinds of images of Abu Rahma amongst the photos on his Facebook page that show him with his mother, posing with children, and making a victory sign while sitting amongst friends. These different images of Abu Rahma personalise the visual narrative of the occupation that he curates utilising Facebook’s narrative ‘timeline’ format, making the story of the occupation his own story. In this context, professional, political, and personal concerns are brought together as a relatively integrated narrative. In part this relates to the difficulty of separating politics from everyday and professional life under conditions of military occupation identified by the anthropologist Amahl Bishara in her book Back Stories.[7] In these terms, social media seems to be particularly apposite to the needs of Palestinian photographers who experience a challenge in terms of negotiating relationships between professional practice and political imperatives. Through Facebook Abu Rahma is able to represent aspects of the occupation and at the same time present himself as someone both subject to the occupation regime and who is part of the struggle against the occupation. He presents himself as an agent who reports the occupation as part of this struggle, but who will also suspend his role as a journalist when the struggle demands. This is something that is represented by the current title image to the ‘Photography by Hamde Abu Rahma’ page that depicts Abu Rahma running while carrying an injured boy during a demonstration in Bil’in (slide 7).

Slide 7: Title image for ‘Photography by Hamde Abu Rahma: Media/News/Publishing’ Facebook page; photo by Issam Rimawi.

Having discussed Abu Rahma’s photographic practice and his use of Facebook as part of this practice, let us return to the self-portrait with which we began (slide 8).

Slide 8: Hamdi Abu Rahma, self-portrait; posted on ‘Photography by Hamde Abu Rahma’, Facebook page, 14 August 2014.

Unlike the images of Abu Rahma taken by other photographers, or his selfies, this image pictures him performing an explicit political gesture. As already noted, this is an image that involves a strong sense of directness of address. As such, the self-portrait is like photographs discussed by Ariella Azoulay in her 2008 book The Civil Contract of Photography that involve Palestinians presenting objects and injuries to the camera in an effort to confront or generate empathy in the part of the spectator. The key photograph in this context is the Israeli photographer Anat Saragusti’s picture of a Palestinian shopkeeper in the West Bank city of Hebron in 1982, holding a broken padlock close to the camera lens (slide 9).

Slide 9: Anat Saragusti, Hebron, 1982.

The Israeli army cut the padlock to force the man to open his shop during a strike against the occupation. In Azoulay’s terms, the man in the photograph addresses the spectator directly and ‘presumes the existence of a civil space in which photographers, photographed subjects, and spectators share a recognition that what they are witnessing is intolerable.’[8] However, having made this comparison between Abu Rahma’s self-portrait and Saragusti’s photograph it is necessary to recognise that there are crucial differences between the two. The first difference is that Abu Rahma presents words to the spectator instead of an object, or an injured part of his body. These words articulate an injustice, but they do not show it directly in a pictorial sense. The second difference is that the injustice articulated by the words is one that is not exclusive to the pictured person and the specific community they represent. The point of Abu Rahma’s image is that it involves a sense of linkage and solidarity between Palestinians living under occupation and Black Americans experiencing police violence in the United States. This means that photographs encourage a different kind of connection between the photographed subject and the spectator. In the Saragusti image, the shopkeeper holds up the padlock to encourage recognition and sympathy for the political situation of Palestinians in Hebron at this time. Despite Azoulay’s argument that the photograph partook of a shared civil space, the recognition and sympathy was only intended to go one way. Whereas the words presented in Abu Rahma’s self-portrait establish the injustice of the occupation at the same time as they recognise the injustice experienced by Black American communities. It is in these terms that we might think about the self-portrait in relation to Engin Isin’s notion of citizenship without frontiers. In this context, the making and posting of Abu Rahma’s self-portrait on Facebook is an act of citizenship that does not accept the limitations placed upon citizenship by sovereign power, or the demarcation of space in terms of that power. Abu Rahma’s act traverses the frontier between the West Bank and the United States. In this sense, the self-portrait is an act premised upon a more fundamental kind of citizenship than formal rights. It involves the recognition of a lack of rights shared by two groups of people separated by considerable spatial distance and by the rule of different sovereign powers. Through this, the sign held by Abu Rahma also entails a demand for rights and more fundamentally for the right to claim rights for both these groups. In these terms, Abu Rahma is a claimant subject who refuses to accept the limitations of his own situation as an occupied person without formal citizenship and the demarcation of space in terms of separated sovereign territories. As a claimant subject, Abu Rahma traverses spatial boundaries and the division of populations that these boundaries enforce. In the context of Facebook, Abu Rahma also traverses the roles of photojournalist and activist, establishing a new photographic subject who is at one and the same time a claimant citizen subject.

A crucial aspect of Isin’s understanding of an act of citizenship is that it invites response. Acts of citizenship are claims for rights intended for recognition and extension by others. The duration of such an act is therefore not limited to initial action of a claimant subject, but extends to its recognition by others. Thus Isin observes that ‘the duration of the act cannot be reduced to the moment of its performance, it must include its subsequent interpretation and description.’[9] It is through the extension of an act via recognition and response that what Isin calls the ‘performative force’ of the act is generated. The affordances of social media platforms enable the performative force of acts of citizenship to be developed in particular ways. In fact, it is apparent that claimant acts made through social media are premised upon the hope that such developments will occur. This is to suggest that it was Abu Rahma’s intention and hope that his self-portrait would not only be seen by others, including Black Americans, but also that these spectators would then do something else with the image on social media extending its reach and its performative impact.

After Abu Rahma posted his self-portrait on Facebook it was re-posted by other social media users on Twitter. This involved multiple acts of re-tweeting and re-uploading on this platform. The self-portrait also ended up on the Huffington Post website. However the most important response to this image in terms of visibility and reach appears to have been made by Reggie Bush, the US National Football League star, who re-posted it on his Instagram account on 25 November 2014 (slide 10).

Slide 10: Reggie Bush and Hamde Abu Rahma, Al-jazeera, 26 November 2014.

This was done in response to the not guilty verdict made on that day in relation to the shooting of Michael Brown. In the accompanying text, Bush used the hashtag ‘#JusticeForMikeBrown’, thus reinforcing the framing of Abu Rahma’s self-portrait in terms of the rights of Black American citizens, but he also framed the image in terms of a notion of the global right to have rights, stating: ‘No matter who you are, what color skin you have, where you live, we are all in this together! This isn’t a Ferguson problem it’s a Global Problem! We need change NOW! What happened to humanity!’ This linking of Abu Rahma’s image to a global issue dislocated it from the original link made between Palestine and Ferguson by extending the sense of citizenship without frontiers that it entailed to cover the entire world. However the initial linkage between Palestine and the United States remained present through the words depicted in the image and was forcefully reinstated through media and social media responses to Bush’s use of the image that focussed on whether or not it was appropriate to compare the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians to racist violence in the United States.

In this instance the networked nature of social media enabled just the kind of connection and response Abu Rahma appears to have hoped for, though he could not have predicted the consequences of his act. Nor is it really possible for us to assess the impact of this act. One should not overestimate the potential of social media images to contribute to a citizenship without frontiers that is substantive in its potential effects. However such images are clearly one contemporary means through which such an interstitial and transversal citizenship is being explored. Abu Rahma’s general practice on Facebook is aimed at making the conditions of the Israeli occupation visible to spectators beyond Israel/Palestine. This is why he writes in English. This effort to make the occupation visible can be considered within the frame of Isin’s notion of acts of citizenship in that Abu Rahma’s practice generally involves a claiming of the right to claim rights. However it is through those instances where Abu Rahma uses self-portraits to establish a sense of solidarity with other people in other places that his practice becomes an act in Isin’s sense in that it disrupts our expectations, making links that contest the given spatial order of things.

(Originally delivered at the ‘Selfie Citizenship’ workshop at Manchester Metropolitan University, 16 April 2015)

Notes:

[1] Personal communication between Simon Faulkner and Hamde Abu Rahma, Facebook, 16 March 2015.

[2] See David Levi Strauss, ‘Photography and Propaganda’, in D. L. Strauss, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, New York and London: Aperture, 2003, p. 35.

[3] See Engin F. Isin, Citizens Without Frontiers, New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

[4] See Liam Brown, ‘Photojournalism in the Palestinian Territories’, open Democracy, 14 February 2014: https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/liam-brown/photojournalism-in-palestinian-territories (accessed 17 March 2015); Eyal Sagui Bizawe, ‘Gaza war images you won’t see on Israeli TV’, Haaretz, 5 August 2014: http://www.haaretz.com/misc/iphone-article/premium-1.608931 (accessed 17 March 2015)

[5] See Amahl A. Bishara, Back Stories: U.S. News Production & Palestinian Politics, Stanford, Califonia: Stanford University Press, 2013.

[6] Lori A. Allen, ‘Martyr Bodies in the Media: Human Rights, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Immediation in the Palestinian Intifada’, American Ethnologist, 36:1, 2009, pp. 161–180.

[7] Bishara, Back Stories.

[8] Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, New York: Zone Books, 2008, p. 18.

[9] Isin, Citizens Without Frontiers, p. 135.

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