But what do you see when you look at a picture you took?
I see the picture, Rora said. 1
The website text for the Regarding Spectatorship project calls for the critical exploration of ‘the distant onlooker’ of political events. This subject is a pressing concern for researchers interested in relationships between the ‘immediate and media-ted’ aspects of contemporary political dissent.2 It is also a pressing concern for people engaging in forms of activism. In recent years, digital cameras carried by both professional and non-professional image-makers have become an integral aspect of demonstrations and other forms of protest. This in turn has led to an emphasis in particular contexts on the image-generating potential of such events.3 Combined with these developments, the ease and speed with which images can be distributed through social media has resulted in the proliferation of opportunities for people to become spectators of revolts and struggles happening elsewhere. Academics have responded to these changes in the mediated nature of protest, by exploring the idea of the ‘citizen witness’, who both participates in and produces images of protest events.4 This notion of citizen witnessing has also been applied to the vicarious witnessing of events through the images produced and circulated by others. Consequently the on-line distribution and viewing of images appears to have opened up a new sphere of citizenship and potential participation that is particularly significant for thinking about the role of the contemporary spectator. As the Regarding Spectatorship project highlights, we seem to be living in a new era of political spectatorship that involves the possibility of ordinary people seeing events that in the past might have remained hidden, or only represented in limited ways.
However, the onlooker is not the only potential focal point for a discussion of spectatorship at a distance. Also of crucial significance are the images that mediate between spectators and the events they seek to view. This article aims to explore the issue of spectatorship by beginning with images rather than onlookers.5 The one subject is inevitably implicated with the other. However, by foregrounding the image, as opposed to the spectator, it is possible to develop a different approach to the subject of the distant observer. The ensuing discussion will also be concerned with instances where images are part of the immediate action of political events. Posters, placards, and street exhibitions involve the presentation of images to people present at demonstrations, occupations, or other instances of political action. These images often depict the political struggles in which their spectators are themselves participants. This form of proximate spectatorship has a different political significance to the spectatorship of someone who is spatially removed from a political event. Nonetheless, both kinds of spectatorship involve people viewing images that share certain characteristics as a particular kind of visual artefact. All images present appearances that derive from, but are distinct to the realities they depict. This distinctness is the fundamental ground of images, simply because they have to be distinct from the things they depict so that they can be shown to the spectator and used as visual records and metaphors. This is the case whether such images are viewed close to, or far away from locations that they depict. Approached from this perspective, spectatorship can also be thought about in terms of the distribution and use of images in different contexts, rather than simply in terms of mediated scopic relationships between viewers and events. This kind of approach also opens up the possibility of thinking about images of political events as objects that have a particular kind of presence and agency within the world.
The discreteness of images
The first point to be given further emphasis in this discussion of images and their role within spectatorship is that images are always discrete. This notion of discreteness is connected to, but not quite the same as the understanding of the ‘discrete image’ articulated by Bernard Stiegler.6 There is a long-standing and widespread belief in the continuous referential relationship between photographic images and the things they depict. Stiegler’s position is that this idea of the continuous photographic image is unfounded. In the case of digital photography this is because the images are constructed from binary code. But even in the case of the analogue photograph, decisions made by the photographer intervene between the depicted object and the resulting image. The notion of discreteness presented in the current discussion affirms this general sense of the separation between images and what they depict. But discreteness here also relates to the separateness of the image from the environment within which it is located as a viewable object. Images are distinct two-dimensional visual artefacts that are framed off from the rest of the world by the edges that define their pictorial limits. They are flat and framed visual forms that depict the world, but are not what they depict. These characteristics define the general discreteness of their presence in the world. This discreteness is also defined by a tension between the experience of images as things that appear to provide visual access to the world and the sense on the part of the spectator that the image is always discrete from what it depicts. In general, spectatorship seems to prioritise the former experience at the expense of the latter. Stiegler summarises this by observing: ‘The image is always discrete, but it is always discrete, as it were, as discretely as possible. If it were discrete indiscreetly (shamelessly as it were), its discreteness would have no effect on us.’7 Consequently the spectator experiences the discrete image as somehow continuous with that bit of the world it appears to show. This experience of apparent continuity can only occur on the basis of the discreteness of the image. This is most strongly the case with photographic images, but the point also applies to a lesser extent with other kinds of more obviously constructed images, such as paintings.
The second point to be emphasised in this discussion of the discrete image is that despite being ubiquitous and consequently quite normal, images are kind of strange. Mary Price describes photographs as ‘strange confined space[s]’,8 a phrase that can also be applied to other kinds of image. This phrase seems to get at something crucial about the curiousness of images as two-dimensional spaces that are unlike the others kinds of space that people physically inhabit. As spaces, images can be looked into, but not physically entered. They involve the appearances of material objects, yet these appearances are not material themselves (aside from the materiality of the pictorial medium). The confinement of these spaces within their two-dimensional frames means that images exist within the physical reality of their surrounding environment, but at the same time are also somehow separate from the world around them. The strangeness of this separation is generally neutralised in the conventional contexts where we expect to see images: in the museum and the gallery, or in the newspaper, picture book, and family photo album. This strangeness also gets lost through the everyday production and circulation of images on social media, where images are myriad and taken-for-granted. Images have become so easy to create and communicate that they seem of little consequence other than in terms of the sheer scale of their contemporary production, or in the particularities of their personal use. The strange discreteness of images also seems to be missed in the ways that some academics discuss the use of images on the Internet. In such discussions, images are addressed as if they actually constitute forms of connection between people enabled through the Internet, or as if they can be reduced to performances of witnessing as opposed to being images first and foremost.
The strange separateness of images under discussion here is given a pictorial equivalent through particular photographs by Kenneth Josephson from the 1970s. In these images people are shown holding photographs. For example, his New York State (1970) depicts a man’s outstretched arm holding a photograph of an ocean liner, or perhaps it is a photograph of a model of an ocean liner (it is not absolutely clear). This photograph is held in front of the ocean. Consequently the image of the liner is appropriate to what lies behind it in terms of subject matter, yet at the same time radically incongruous with it because it is a separate photographic image within the overall image. No wonder that Stephen Shore used this image on the cover of his book The Nature of Photographs to emphasise the discreteness of photographic images from the realities they picture.9 Something similar could be observed of Florence Paradeis’ staged photographic work The Images, from 1995, which presents a rear view of a woman sitting on a carpeted floor. The woman is using a pair of scissors to cut photographic images out of magazines and newspapers. These images, along with the magazines and newspapers from which they derive, are spread out in front of her. Also in this scene are two filing-systems into which the woman is placing the images. Consequently she is both a spectator and curator of images. The images are close to her; she handles and organises them, making them her own. Yet the things that these images depict remain separated and distant from the immediate reality within which she views them. The images exist as odd fragments of realities that are elsewhere. They are so close as images that they can be held, yet still so faraway when it comes to their depictive content. In terms of their physical medium, they are continuous with the material reality within which the woman sits. Yet as images they are discrete and discontinuous with it.
Something of the discreteness of images in these terms is also touched upon by Jean-Luc Nancy in his book The Ground of the Image, where he characterises images as ‘the distinct’. This phrase refers to the way that images involve a dislocation of appearances from immediate touchable reality. This process of dislocation allows the image to be set before the spectator as a separate viewable object. Nancy succinctly summarises this fundamental condition of the image when he states: ‘Such is the image: it must be detached, placed outside and before the eyes.’10 This statement refers to the sense that images carry appearances that have been detached from their original material condition and also to another kind of detachment that exists between the image and the spectator. The latter detachment is not a matter of spatial distance, for the image always has to be available to the naked eye. Rather it involves the particular separateness that defines the relationship between the onlooker and the space of the image that can be looked into but not physically entered. Nancy identifies this other kind of space as a ‘world’ that ‘we enter while remaining before it’.11 Crucially, this world ‘stands apart from the world of things’ where ‘all things are available for use, according to their manifestation.’ The image is not available in this way other than as an image and as such ‘has a completely different use’.12 This difference is obvious when we think about the difference between an actual pair of tin snips and Walker Evans’ photograph Tin Snips, $1.85, from 1955.13 The visibility of the image is, for Nancy, precisely a matter of its distinctness from the ‘domain of objects, their perception and their use’. Images are always mediated in the sense that they must be embodied through a medium. In these terms, they are always also material objects. However Nancy distinguishes them from the world of objects as things that exist in the domain of ‘forces, their affectations and transmissions.’14 Thought about in this way, images are not tools to be used in the way that other tools and devises have functions, instead they are visual forms that generate affects through what and how they depict, and through how and where these depictions are transported.
What does this discussion of the discreteness of the image mean for the consideration of the distant onlooker? For one thing, it highlights that images are always necessarily dislocated from what they depict and brought into close proximity to the spectator. At the same time, images are always viewed in terms of their relative discreteness from both the spectator and the surroundings in which they are observed. These are the basic conditions of visually mediated spectatorship. But the fact that images are always discrete from what they depict does not mean that they do not show spectators important things about political events occurring elsewhere. Rather the point is that they can only do this because they are discrete. Images by definition have to be discrete, transportable, and viewable visual artefacts that can be brought spatially close to the spectator. And it is these artefacts that the spectator views, rather than the actual events these images document. This is an obvious and perhaps banal point, but it is significant nonetheless simply because it points to a need to focus attention on the relationship between spectators and images as much as on relationships between spectators and the events that these images show.
These considerations apply to all images no matter how they are mediated and no matter how spatially close the places they depict are to the spectator. So far images have been discussed as visual artefacts that allow things to be viewed from a position of spatial distance. But the point needs to be emphasised that the detachment of images from both what they show and the people that see them also applies to images that are of and viewed within the same geographical location. Images are always not the things they depict. This separation between image and imaged is always present no matter what the image is of, who views it and where. The onlooker who is not at a distance from the things depicted in an image may feel more connected to what the image shows, but this image remains fundamentally detached from them as spectators. Consequently, in one sense, the condition of the distanced spectator also applies to the spectator who views images of things that exist close by. In Nancy’s terms, when an image, say a photograph, is made, it is detached from the reality it depicts, allowing for the image to be placed ‘outside and before the eyes’. This placing of the image before the eyes can happen in close proximity to the place where the image was made, or at a great geographical distance from this location.
How might we further explore such relationships between the condition of discreteness that applies to all images and the specific spatial locations within which images are produced and viewed? A way to do this is to look at a case where images were produced and used in the same geographical location as well as being transported elsewhere and viewed by more distant observers. An example of this is the production and distribution of photographic images of the ‘unrecognised’ Bedouin village of Al-Arakib, near Beersheba in the Negev Desert, by the photographic collective Activestills. On 27 July 2010 Israeli authorities destroyed Al-Arakib as part of a broader state policy of relocating Bedouin communities in the Negev. This act of demolition was preceded by the destruction of a number of homes in the village. It was also the first act in a sequence of actions and counter-actions through which the residents of Al-Arakib attempted to rebuild their village and the authorities responded with further acts of destruction.15 For the villagers, this repetitious sequence of demolitions has been an intense and violent process – not just in terms of the destruction of property, but also in terms of bodily injuries and more fundamentally the wholesale rupturing and displacement of their communal existence – to which they responded with remarkable collective will. Members of Activestills documented the whole process of destruction, beginning with the initial demolition of individual homes and continuing with the demolition of the entire village in July 2010 and its aftermath. This practice of documentation resulted in an archive of images that the collective used to support the villagers in their struggle against displacement. They did this by printing out images and giving them to the villagers to use. The first images of the demolition of individual houses were carried and displayed in a demonstration in Tel Aviv on 12 May 2010. After more images were made of the demolition of the entire village, these images, in combination with the earlier ones, were used by the villagers to create an exhibition within a protest tent on the village site established a number of days after the demolition on 30 July 2010. The villagers also carried the images in a demonstration against the demolition on the same day. This demonstration involved marching from the village to a nearby main road. The images were subsequently used in similar demonstrations on 9 August 2010 and a year later in July 2011. The use of the images within these demonstrations was premised upon their existence as portable material (paper-based) objects and at the same time as depictions that could be shown to co-present others.
The Activestills images were of the villagers and their village. Consequently, these images were of people, locations, and events directly related to the people who were using them. The images were also kept and used on various occasions. Consequently they became part of the material and visual environment of the village community as it struggled against the demolitions and displacement. Yet at the same time the images were marked by the detachment that defines the presence of all images. This necessary duality of intimacy and detachment, connection and separation is illustrated in an Activestills’ photograph of women from the village carrying images during the demonstration marking the first anniversary of main demolition of the village in July 2011 (figure 1). The women hold the images at chest height. The images are close to their bodies, but also separate, as all images are from the world of things. Their relative discreteness from their surroundings within the overall photograph is not unlike the separateness of the images depicted with the photographs by Josephson and Paradeis discussed earlier. Though the difference in comparison to Paradeis’ The Images is that the images held by the village women did not derive from an unseen elsewhere, but from the very place where the women are using them as props in their demonstration. If we think about this difference in terms of John Berger’s description of cameras as ‘boxes for transporting appearances’,16 then these images entailed the transportation of appearances primarily across time rather than space.
Yet the images that the women are shown holding in the demonstration were also transported across space to be seen by spectators located elsewhere. This transportation of the images to distant spectators occurred in a number ways, through the posting of the images on the Activestills Flickr account, the uploading of them to the Activestills website-based archive, their distribution through activist websites and blogs, and their publication within an English language book, jointly published in 2011 by Activestills and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, entitled “We Never Finished 1948”: The Continuing Campaign of Internal Displacement in Israel/Palestine.17 Such distant spectators would in general have no direct relationship to the village, but could potentially view the images with a sense of outrage at the destruction of Al-Arakib. However it is also just as likely, depending on who they were, that such distant onlookers of the images of Al-Arakib would also be relatively indifferent and in some instances hostile to what these images show. For example, some of the images relating to the demolition of Al-Arakib were included in a street exhibition presented by Activestills within the protest camp established on Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011 (figure 2).18 This camp was created as a means of highlighting the difficulties faced by young Israelis trying the find affordable accommodation in Tel Aviv. The camp was also a significant element of the wider J14 ‘social’ protest movement against the Neo-liberalisation of Israeli society that emerged that summer. This movement was conceived and enacted in relation to an exclusively conceived Israeli-Jewish national community. This explained the ubiquity of Israeli flags on display in the Rothschild protest camp. Activestills presented images of Al-Arakib alongside other images of the destruction of Palestinian and Bedouin homes within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. As such, their display interrupted the focus of the protest camp on Israeli-Jewish concerns about housing to raise the question of who had a right to have a home and to belong within Israel/Palestine. Although it is difficult to gauge how people viewed the Activestills images, the display was both damaged and covered at different points during the life of the camp.19 This suggests that the spectators involved in these actions viewed the images in a very different way to the villagers in Al-Arakib. This difference in response was partly the result of the geographical distance between the village and Tel Aviv, but more importantly it resulted from the ideological beliefs of those who acted to damage or obscure the display. The point is that spatial difference is not necessarily the decisive factor in how the images are viewed. Tel Aviv is relatively close to Al-Arakib, yet in terms of empathetic spectatorship it might be more distant than say Berlin or Manchester. The discreteness of images allows them to be transported across space, but how far they are transported does not determine how they are viewed, or the effect they have. Spatial distance does make a difference in terms of spectatorship, but how exactly that difference works is context dependent. In this sense, it is not necessarily the condition of the distant onlooker that is crucial here. Rather what might be crucial to consider, as has been discussed here, is the interplay between the condition of images, as discrete visual artefacts and the conditions of distance and proximity under which they are viewed.
The distant, but affected onlooker
To conclude this discussion it is useful to turn to a painting by the Israeli artist Michal Goldman, entitled Online News (2013). This work depicts the artist’s desk in her studio in Tel Aviv, but also addresses her relationship to another place mediated via the Internet (figure 3). The desk is cluttered with objects: a computer screen and keyboard, a computer hard-drive, a mouse and mouse-mat, a modem, a glass, mugs, a knife, earphones, a smartphone, a book with Hebrew writing on it, a pen, a pencil, papers, a potted plant, as well as some other objects that are difficult to identify. Draped over the computer screen is also a donkey’s tail that is bloody at its severed end. This latter object is clearly incongruous with the other ordinary paraphernalia of the desk. However its presence in the painting makes sense in relation to the news website that is depicted on the computer screen. Although not clear from the painting, this website is for Hebrew edition of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz and presents an article on the planned removal by the Israeli state of a Jahalin Bedouin community, who although originally from the Negev, have been living in the West Bank near Jerusalem since the 1950s. This displacement is part of the E1 Plan that will involve the establishment of continuous Israeli settlement between East Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. Accompanying this article is a photograph that depicts a landscape with a Bedouin woman and a donkey in the foreground and what appears to be an Israeli settlement in the background. In her explanation of the painting, Goldman makes a connection between the knife depicted at the bottom of the painting, the donkey’s tail, and the image of the Bedouin camp on the computer screen. The violently severed tail was her way of giving pictorial presence to the violence that would affect the Bedouin if they were removed from their homes. But the tail also symbolised the anger Goldman felt when she read about the E1 Plan.20 Painting the donkey’s tail amongst a set of relatively ordinary objects was a means of showing the empathetic connection the artist felt to another place and other people through the mediating forms of a news article and an image. As part of the painted still-life scene, the severed tail is as much material as the other depicted objects and consequently expresses the real-ness of the emotional connection between Goldman as a relatively distant onlooker and what she was witnessing through the Internet.
Goldman’s painting is being discussed here in part because it continues the theme of Bedouin displacement initiated through the discussion of Al-Arakib. But this painting is also appropriate to the on-going discussion because it can function as a pictorial representation of the condition of images as discrete visual artefacts that can make other places and people visible and through this enable the establishment of connections between people separated from each other by spatial distance. The image of the camp has come from elsewhere, but remains at a distance from the spectator because of its condition as an image. Yet at the same time, this image is an affective presence within the artist’s studio and as such has affected the artist. This affect was powerful enough to prompt the making of the painting. What Goldman’s painting shows us in a powerful pictorial way is that images are what they are. They are discrete visual artefacts that are part of our visual environment, but at the same time exist in a condition of relative distinctness to that environment. As discrete visual artefacts, images can transport appearances between locations and as such can themselves be literally transported in printed, painted, and digital forms. As discrete visual artefacts, images can also be used by those who are not at a distance to the things depicted in these images, as seen in the case of Al-Arakib. In these instances, the discreteness of images functions as a means of transporting appearances across time and of providing visual documents that can be held and shown. Such held and shown images can in turn be imaged and transported to spectators elsewhere. When the discrete image is transported to distant onlookers it exists in a paradoxical condition as something that is discrete and consequently distanced from the observer in particular ways, yet also exists as a presence that can affect the onlooker.
Images are what they are. They enable and at the same time limit distanced spectatorship. They are discrete visual artefacts that can be moved around and through this can move observers, but their discreteness as images also means that they cannot ever become fully present as the things they depict. They are always the distinct. This is just something people, as proximate or distant onlookers will have to live and work with. As such, it is not really a cause for concern. It is just the way of images.
[ + ]
Aleksander Hemon, The Lazarus Project, London: Picador, 2009, p. 76.
|2.||↑||Paul Routledge, ‘The Imagineering of Resistance: Pollok Free State and the Practice of Postmodern Politics’, Transcripts of the Institute of British Geography, 22:3, 1997, pp. 362 and 371.|
|3.||↑||See for example, Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples, ‘From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the “Violence” of Seattle’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19:2, 2002, pp. 125-151.|
|4.||↑||‘Citizen witnessing’ is a current term used by scholars interested in the use of digital imaging technologies and social media by ‘citizens’ to document and disseminate their experiences of political events. See Kari Andén-Papadopoulos, ‘Citizen camera-witnessing: Embodied political dissent in the age of “mediated mass self-communication”’, New Media & Society, 16:5, 2013, pp. 753-769.|
|5.||↑||The images that are directly discussed in this article are what might be described as ‘still’ images as opposed to the ‘moving’ images of film and video. Some of the more general discussion of images also appears to assume that images are ‘still’ visual artifacts. However much of what is articulated here could also be applied to ‘moving’ images.|
|6.||↑||Bernard Stiegler, ‘The Discrete Image’, in Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, Ethnographies of Television: Filmed Interviews, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002, p. 148.|
|7.||↑||Ibid., p. 156; emphasis in the original.|
|8.||↑||Mary Price, The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994.|
|9.||↑||Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs, London and New York: Phaidon, 1997.|
|10.||↑||Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, New York: Fordham University Press, 2005, p. 2.|
|11.||↑||Ibid., p. 5.|
|12.||↑||Ibid., p. 2.|
|13.||↑||See Gilles Mora and John T. Hill, Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye, London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993, p. 297|
|14.||↑||Nancy, The Ground of the Image, p. 12.|
|15.||↑||The village was recently demolished for the ninetieth time. See, Avi Blecherman, ‘Israel demolishes Bedouin village of Al Araqib – for the 90th time’, +972, 28 October 2015: http://972mag.com/israel-demolishes-bedouin-village-of-al-araqib-for-the-90th-time/113328/ (accessed 21 November 2015)|
|16.||↑||John Berger and Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling, London: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1982, p. 92.|
|17.||↑||ActiveStills and The Israeli Committee Against House Demolition,“We Never Finished 1948”: The Continuing Campaign of Internal Displacement in Israel/Palestine, Israel/Palestine: ActiveStills, 2011. For an online exhibition related to this project, see: http://activestills.org/node.php?node=exhibition_294 (accessed 9/4/2014)|
|18.||↑||For a discussion of this protest camp, see Simon Faulkner and David Reeb, Between States, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2015.|
|19.||↑||The author witnessed and photographed both the damaging and the covering of the Activestills display on Rothschild Boulevard during the summer of 2011.|
|20.||↑||Conversation between Simon Faulkner and Michael Goldman, 15 August 2015, Tel Aviv.|