Fillip 16 — Spring 2012

The Right to Share 
the Public Archive: 
A Conversation about Ariella Azoulay’s 
Different Ways Not to Say Deportation
Ariella Azoulay and Elle Flanders

Georgette told me she left on one of the convoys with her mother and aunts. Her father had been taken away as a prisoner with her uncles. “Huwaje,” her aunt said, “please stop, my niece is not with us. I must go back and get her.” In the chaos, the one-year-old child was left under a tree. “Huwaje is the name for a Jew,” Georgette explains. “My aunt was braver than my mother to speak with the driver—he waited.” They drove from Ramle to Latrun, where they were left, no shelter, no food. “We walked for many kilometres; some children died along the way. A mother left her child because she couldn’t feed her. We slept in a field for days until we found an old barn. Most slept under the olive trees. We only had nothing with us, just some clothes for the children; we thought we would be home in two weeks. Many weeks later the UN came, and the Red Cross. We didn’t have food. They set up tents.”

Elle Flanders – I look at your images and I imagine Georgette amongst the well-dressed deportees of Ramle. She is a tiny woman, maybe seventy. She is our neighbour in Ramallah. She hands me ma’amoul, date-filled cookies she baked for Easter, over our shared fence. She invites me in and tells me her story. “Bring your camera next time,” she says. “I can tell it again so it is recorded.” Her picture appears on page 140.

When I first saw your photo essay, I was stunned. The levels at which this all unfolds are astonishing. Your traces are indeed photographs akin to the first apparatuses. One cannot ignore the camera lucida inference on both levels in your work: the tracings that reference the mechanical source and the reference of course to Barthes’s text of the same name. The shading in your images reminds me of something the poet Mahmoud Darwish said in reference to the condition of Palestinian exile: “What remains of the garden behind us is the power of the shadow.” It also reminds me of course of the shadows cast in the camera obscura.

The stories embedded within the photos that have been kept from our gaze, allowing for a collective blindness, are here resurrected by you as tracings accompanied by a text about your interaction with the images that not only brings them to light but reveals the violence done twice. In its attendance at the deportation, its documentation of it, and then in its suppression of these photographs in relation to your work, the Red Cross exposes its complicity in the deportation, and, in effect, the transfer, of a civilian population.

In choosing to defy the Red Cross’s prohibition against using these images further, you enact a form of civil disobedience. Can you talk more about your choice to sketch, or what I prefer to think of as “trace,” these images? What did that act symbolize for you?

Ariella Azoulay – My act may be interpreted as one of “civil disobedience,” but that understanding of it mistakenly assumes that I recognize the constituent violence of the regime that acted against the local population as the law. While the violence of the law cannot be forgotten anymore and the legality of the law is rejected, we cannot speak anymore simply of a civil disobedience. Archives that prevent citizens from sharing their pasts preserve this same violence. The law of archives whereby pictures of our past are kept by others who exclude us is closer to a surrender declaration perpetuating unequal power relations, than it is to a common law that is supposed to protect all of the parties involved. Common documents are supposedly deposited in the archive for safekeeping, not to become its property. The handling by archives of common documents as private property contradicts a fundamental right that should be formulated as the right to share the public archive.

I therefore prefer to conceptualize my act of tracing the event of photography as the realization of a civil right, not as an act of disobedience. This is the right of each and every one of us to share documents kept in an archive. This right is derived from the fact that the documents at hand touch upon our shared life. In my work on the concept of the archive, I reject its commonplace description as an institution for the preservation of the past, and I begin my discussion of it from the physical apparatus that awaits us at the archive—from card catalogues through the gloves to be worn while handling the pictures. From this apparatus one can reconstruct this right of ours as inalienable. This right is written in this apparatus and recognized by it, and therefore the archive seeks to restrict it, attempts to curb our freedom of movement within its maze, making sure we stay on permitted pathways and abstain from wild historical speculation. Recognizing this right of ours, the public archive, then, including the state archive, tries to pacify the demons liable to awaken at any moment as a result of our encounter with the archive documents and break out in a menacing dance with us.

Flanders – Your texts challenge the images in an important way, speaking to them and through them and hence back to us. Would you say you are using these tracings as a way to enact and/or reverse the photographic violence done and challenge the spectator to become an active rather than passive viewer? Would this be an example of the “citizenry of photography” as you define it in your 2008 book The Civil Contract of Photography? Can you explain?

Azoulay – The photographs were taken in a violent reality, and I must emphasize that this violence is not over as we view them now. The viewing position plays a cardinal role in the way our relations with others—the photographed, the photographer, other spectators—continue to unfold. As we view the photographs in which violence has been inscribed, we are forever participating in the shaping of the power relations that would result from them. The archive tempts us to regard the formation of power relations already shaped—the strong imposing their will upon the weak—as the order of things, for “that’s how it was,” a past event. The way I conceptualize the event of photography, insisting upon the event that takes place as a viewer faces a photograph, we no longer view a completed past but are, rather, witnessing a continuous present.

Flanders – The Palestinians who are being expelled in these images could be considered those excluded from the juridical system in toto. In this sense they are identified as non-citizens. How does the tracing of them, the redrawing of the photographs, interact with or affect their status?

Azoulay – Their status has been officially fixed by the regime that governs them or has turned them into the non-governed, as in the case in question. The non-governed is a category I elaborated upon in one of my early essays1 on those named “refugees,” and it is meant to point out the connection between those whom Israel expelled from their land and the Israeli regime that decided their fate, turning them into people it does not wish to govern and therefore expels. The official status of the refugees has not changed; nor will it change as a result of reading photographs. But if we understand political regime not merely as a collection of institutions but as the way in which we are governed alongside others, in the world that I redraw one layer on top of the other, the Palestinians and I myself are governed on the same plane, by the same regime, and the form of violence called deportation or expulsion appears insufficient to create separation—quite the contrary is true. The tracing of the photographed persons enables me to reconstruct violence as a bond of sorts rather than of separation. Once we recognize the bond, we are called upon to transform its nature.

Flanders – You bring your own history as an Israeli and very much as a woman (categories often on different ends of the citizenship spectrum) to these images. While much of my own photo-based work about Palestine is meant to give voice to alternative narratives and to debunk central mythologies of the Zionist dream, as a Jew who grew up in Israel and who participated in that Zionist dream, I often think of my work as public acts of contrition. Your insistent text, your questions of the people in the images and to those who took them, almost feel like questions the Israeli public should be asking but are not. Can you speak a little more about the almost incantation-like feel of the texts that accompany your drawings?

Azoulay – I like to spend much time with photographs until the recorded scene comes to life and the specific point of view from which they were taken ceases to dominate the event of photography that I participate in. When I began to draw the photographs, I was surprised to discover that in spite of my careful observation, many details had escaped my attention. Only upon tracing the photograph that opens this series, for example, did I realize I was much too taken with the girl resolutely marching at the head of the line. Having always followed the procession in her footsteps, I had forgotten the other girls. The act of drawing exposed to me the girl who was having difficulty walking, the one whose legs were buckling under her, who had not the strength to do what was now required of her and march erect. She needs the comforting hand not only of her mother but of another woman as well. The hands of the two women walking beside her are full. One holds a baby, the other carries a heavy sack on her head. Neither of them is having an easy time, but their hardship pales in view of this girl’s need of two hands to hold her, to reassure her, pressing her little palm to let her know she is safe, that two hands would forever hold her, even while ordered to walk many miles in the sand, thirsty, tired, sad, lost.

Flanders – When I began photographing the Palestinian villages of 1948, or rather the villages that no longer exist, I would often tell people, of course somewhat facetiously, that I had been taking photographs of “nothing” for fifteen years. But I was interested in what the images could hold and what the spectator could see. Several years ago, I decided that, as an act of solidarity, I would photograph these villages for my exiled Palestinian friends: the homes of their imaginations, of their parents and grandparents, mostly a generation who had never seen these places and likely never would. The results were of course difficult, complicated, and often unexpected. Here is a response my friend Fady Joudah, the poet, wrote after I sent him a photograph of Isdud, his father’s village: The daisy flock in the photo reminds me of a line from Palestinian poet-laureate Mahmoud Darwish that he wrote for his father. As for my words, I don’t know what to say: That Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai fought there while my father at fourteen walked back alone in the night to collect his school papers because his illiterate mother was not sure that the new schools for refugees would recognize his schooling, while Amichai rested, and fatigue rested in his memory for years in order to come alive again in a poem about the three most exhausting times of his life. It puts poetry to shame. He probably, or at least one would hope, would be ashamed of himself and his poems had he known or even thought of the child my father was that night.

Azoulay – The denial of 1948 and the silencing of the expulsion are a part of the ongoing crime of 1948, committed not only against the Palestinians but also against Israelis, accomplices in a crime that does not appear to them as such. One of the things I tried to reconstruct out of the photographs from which I created an archive of that period—From Palestine to Israel2—was the disaster’s becoming a non-disaster, or a disaster from the point of view of the Palestinians. Photography played—and continues to play—a significant role in this. Our habitual viewing gesture, saying “this is X,” namely “this is a refugee” or “this is an infiltrator,” is part of that which grants recognition to the criminal political categories that turn citizens into the embodiments of regime perversions. The spectator affirms or rejects the validity of these categories not due to a specific mindset or any incidental ignorance. At hand is the orchestrated, uncompromising state construction of a civil flaw, doing everything to hinder the Israeli citizen’s ability to recognize the 1948 disaster as such. Therefore, the belated discovery of the Nakba [the Palestinian catastrophe] is laden with seething pain and shame for every minute of one’s previous unaware, oblivious existence.

  1. Ariella Azoulay, “The Governed Must Be Defended: Toward a Civil Political Agreement,” Sedek (special translated issue), 2008,
  2. Ariella Azoulay, From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947–1950 (London: Pluto Press, 2011); this is the English translation of her book Constituent Violence 1947–1950 (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2009).
About the Authors

Ariella Azoulay is the director of Photo-Lexic Research Group at Minerva Humanities Center, Tel Aviv University. Among her recent books are Civil Imagination: The Political Ontology of Photography (forthcoming, Verso, 2012), From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947–1950 (Pluto Press, 2011), and The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008).

Elle Flanders is an award-winning filmmaker and artist based in Toronto. She was raised in Montreal and Jerusalem and holds both an MA in Critical Theory and an MFA from Rutgers University. Her work has been exhibited at museums and festivals internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, and the Berlin International Film Festival. She directed the award-winning feature documentary Zero Degrees of Separation (2005), which has screened worldwide and has been broadcast on the Sundance Channel, the Documentary Channel, and MTV. Flanders is a PhD candidate in the Visual Arts Studio Program at York University, where she also teaches.

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