“Few countries have been photographed as much as Palestine,” so begins Elias Sanbar’s The Palestinians: Photographs of a Land and its People from 1839 to the Present Day, an extraordinary and perhaps definitive photographic collection (published last year in a masterful translation of 2004’s French original). The 1839 invention of photography coincided with a Western Christian romanticism of the Holy Land. In the 19th century, Sanbar relates, there was a growing belief among Westerners that Palestine was ripe for a peaceful Crusade that would wrest the country out of “the dark ages.” And photography would play an invaluable role in visually documenting the very landscapes referenced in the Bible. Palestinians, Sanbar writes, “found themselves charged with the highly paradoxically mission of being dead proof of a world not only ancient bygone, but also invisibly alive.” From the mid-1800’s to the early 1900’s, Palestine and the Palestinians were photographed by Western photographers primarily to satisfy the devout Christian imagination back home.
From The Palestinians:
In order to be seen anew, then, Palestine now had to let its veil be lifted. And better than any other art form, especially painting, the new invention of photography was seen as able to reproduce the perfectly accurate, the true. This quickly earned it the status of ideal, preferred tool for the representation of the Holy Land and of Oriental and Palestinian time frames.
The 20th century arrival of Zionism, however, upended the erstwhile framing narrative. The landscape, panoramic photographs of Palestine were supplemented with photographs of Palestinians protesting, striking, and revolting against Zionism; and confronting and being apprehended by the occupying British authorities.
From The Palestinians:
The Palestinians were now living under the looming threat of “vanishing by replacement”: a foreign community, its ranks regularly swollen by waves of immigration from the West, was preparing to oust them from their homeland. The country’s future was their absence.
The British Mandate period (1920-48) also witnessed the emergency of photography centered around domestic Palestinian life (often photographed by Palestinian photographers). “The Palestinians,” Sanbar writes, “look at other people and themselves, photograph other people and themselves, fight, practice their beliefs, and live.”
The Mandate ended in 1948, and “Palestine disappeared . . . The Palestinians . . . fell victim not to a new occupation – Israeli this time – but to absence pure and simple.” And while the photographs of Palestinian refugees arriving in neighboring Arab countries are numerous, only nine photographs exist of the Palestinians being expelled.
From The Palestinians:
In 1948 a country disappeared, drowned. Within a few weeks, it was exile. Absence swallowed up the thousands who left their homes on foot or aboard trucks, boats, or other makeshift means of transportation . . . Alongside this monstrous act of plunder came an egregious narrative that accused the victims of the crime that has just been inflicted on them! The cry went up, “The Palestinians want to throw the Jews into the sea!” when the Palestinians had only just pulled themselves out of the sea into which they had actually been thrown. To refute the sinister allegations against them, the Palestinians cited the grim fate meted out to them. But how can the victim’s claims be proven while the victor trumpets his tale from the rooftop? By images of proof. But where are these images?
Many of the photographs from the refugee camps were orchestrated by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) and photographers often heralded back to the Biblically-themed 19th century. Here were refugees “while looking just like any other refugees, were not refugees from just any other place . . . the image of the Palestinian refugee – Man, Woman, Child – was that of the Holy Family, visualized most often through the prism of Gospel accounts of the Nativity or the Flight into Egypt.” [Italics in original.]
UNRWA also showcased “humanitarian” photographs to demonstrate that it was fulfilling its task of providing relief to a desperate people.
Other than the refugee photographs, the Catastrophe or Nakba of 1948 led to years of visual absence. After the 1967 War, however, the Palestinian liberation factions – “arising from a determination to become visible” – began to organize photographs of the fedayeen in an “age of decolonization.” Such public photographs of resistance fighters arrayed against a much stronger foe is quite odd: “Disregarding all the rules of secrecy . . . it was a form of public display that earned the fighters and the leaders a reputation as amateurs lacking in revolutionary seriousness.” But the Palestinians were done being faceless, “as if to shout from the rooftops that the Absentees were there and that from now on their opponents would have to reckon not only with them but with their faces too.” [Italics in original.] A “certain management of their image” took hold, most famously with Yasser Arafat’s white checkered hatta.
From The Palestinians:
From the 1960s on, Palestinian society was swept by a wave of rejoicing that was often misunderstood by its sympathizers. The Resistance, now recruiting on a wide scale, expressed the Palestinian’s pride in having taken their fate into their own hands again. It was also the heady joy of being visible once more. The absent ones were back, bringing with them the two denied names of Palestine and the Palestinians.
During the first Intifada (1987-93), Palestinian youth danced for the camera: “the photographs, the ones that are true illustrations, are all images of dancers improvising steps and figures in the face of an army which, despite (or because of) its equipment and the natures of its mission, absolutely could not dance.” It could not dance, but IDF army chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin ordered his soldiers to “break the bones of the arms and legs” of the youth. “What more frightful punishment can you inflict on a dancer?” Sanbar asks. [Italics in original.] The photographs of the Intifada brought back not only the Palestinian “but also and above all his place.“
From The Palestinians
An invisible baton was passed from the grip of those expelled from Beirut in 1982 to the hands of the children, women, and men living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The pictures also “crossed back” over the border: now, for the first time in many years, Palestine was photographs on its home soil. . . . could we not also look at the photographs . . . like a spontaneous, dangerous choreography – the dancers risking their lives all the time – unfolding its figures on the immense stage of a country that has suddenly become visible?
But while the Palestinians were once again visible, images of rock-throwing youth and Israeli soldiers atop tanks “repeated ad infinitum,” Sanbar cautions, can almost becoming numbing and “ultimately show nothing at all.”
Which brings us to the purpose of Sanbar’s gathered collection: To make us appreciate that what we are witnessing is not just a familiar narrative compelling us to quickly register the conflict and move on, but to pause and consider the human beings that stare back at us. In every page of The Palestinians, it is evident that Sanbar’s book had been compiled with an incredible and admirable humanity, and a noble and righteous mission: “the reclaimed visibility of my people.”
And, as a Palestinian, Sanbar is guided by his own personal story as well. “That passion is allied to another, tireless quest: for my own face as a child, erased sixty-six years ago when my mother, carrying me in her arms, passed through the border post at Nakura into neighboring Lebanon and exile.”
Sanbar, a historian and essayists who is currently Palestine’s ambassador to UNESCO, helped found Revue d’études palestiniennes, the French language journal of the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut. The Palestinians may be purchased at Yale University Press.