The Ongoing Present: On Teresa Aranguren and Sandra Barrilaro’s “Against Erasure”

Tal Frieden reviews “Against Erasure: A Photographic Memory of Palestine Before the Nakba” by Teresa Aranguren and Sandra Barrilaro.

The Ongoing Present: On Teresa Aranguren and Sandra Barrilaro’s “Against Erasure”

Against Erasure: A Photographic Memory of Palestine Before the Nakba by Sandra Barrilaro and Teresa Aranguren. Haymarket Books. 240 pages.

IN THE CIVIL CONTRACT of Photography (2008), Ariella Aïsha Azoulay writes that photographs bring us into “an ongoing present that challenges the very distinction between contemplation and action.” A new book of photographs, Against Erasure: A Photographic Memory of Palestine Before the Nakba, immediately summons this ongoing present. The glossily printed, black-and-white images resemble the ones shared daily on social media, which threaten to wash past us in a rush of code. The book’s format—with thick paper, landscape-oriented, in heavy hardcover—demands that the reader sit, pore over, contemplate, even act. The foreword and introduction set the scene: the images show ordinary people living through unimaginable rupture. The first photographs, staged family portraits, invite the reader into the book almost as a family album.

The challenge of Against Erasure is that it requires what Azoulay calls the “civil gaze”—that is, the realization that the photographer “does not stand opposite the figure photographed on his own, nor does the spectator herself confront the photographed figure alone.” The photograph is an invitation into an event, a moment. The viewer becomes part of the moment. Through the careful presentation of its authors, Against Erasure widens the aperture to what is often out of focus.

Those who have followed Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza are familiar with the civil gaze. Like the often unnamed photographers in Against Erasure, contemporary Palestinian photographers have presented scenes of devastation and destruction that beckon the civil gaze. The viewer is invited to view themselves through the photograph, understanding the image as a mirror through which to understand their own place and time, their proximity to the subject, their complicity in the event pictured on-screen. Without a civil gaze, a viewer can only approach these photographs through denial of Palestinian humanity and of their own guilt.

A picnic in the countryside. Courtesy of Haymarket Books. Image has been cropped.

Soccer teams. Picnics. Families with their belongings, packed hastily for departure. A guard outside a barbed wire fence. These scenes from Against Erasure transport the viewer into a broader, more textured understanding of historic Palestine.

Against Erasure places scenes of violence and resistance side by side with those of leisure and labor, landscapes of destruction alongside documentation of early infrastructure, weaving the quotidian and the world-historic. Together, the photographs create a collage of daily life before the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when Zionist military forces displaced over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and massacred more than 15,000. The photographs stand in contrast with Zionist narratives cited in the book, as well as Zionist pre-1948 photography published elsewhere. These two lineages, of Palestinian and Zionist photography, are alive today in Palestinian photographers in Gaza and Israeli state photography.

Visiting the snow. Courtesy of Haymarket Books.

The photographs in Against Erasure, collected by the authors and Jafar Farah of the Mossawa Center in Haifa, are engrossing. In them, Palestinians display the steadfastness, or “sumoud,” that has come to define Palestinian identity and resistance. Israeli forces set the foundations of what would become the Nakba. Early Zionist infrastructure stands alongside pre-Nakba Palestinian political organizations. As viewers adopt the point of view of the photographer, they bear witness to the impending catastrophe as well as the effort to maintain and preserve human dignity in the face of colonial violence. Take, for example, a photograph of friends visiting snow-covered hills, with a note that Palestinians were able to visit the countryside in the snow because the Israeli curfew was partially lifted. As Mohammed El-Kurd writes in his foreword, the book dispels “the brutal revisionism on the part of the empires and mercenaries seeking to vanquish us [and] disrupt[s] the engineered cultural and political mystification of the Nakba that has, for generations, made its undoing seem impossibly remote.”

What defines the photographs is their chronology: all are from before or during the Nakba. The authors layer Zionist and British colonial enterprises alongside Palestinian labor and political organization, allowing the reader to draw a historic loop between the book and the Instagram feed—scenes of hollowed-out homes alongside Israeli conferences promoting illegal settlement in Gaza, Palestinian cultural resistance alongside acts of destruction.

A few images of business operations pre-1948 are presented without much context: the propeller planes of Palestine Airways Ltd. and Imperial Airways Gaza, the boats of Palestine Potash Ltd. While these seem at first to be “evidence” of Palestine’s existence before the state of Israel, they actually tell the early story of extractive economies during the British Mandate. The British colonial regime granted Zionist businesspeople extractive rights to Dead Sea minerals, and the companies employed local Palestinians to build the needed infrastructure. Imperial Airways was operated by the Royal Air Forces, and Palestine Airways was founded by Zionist entrepreneur Pinhas Rutenberg. Viewing these photos does not offer inalienable proof. Instead, the act of viewing spawns questions—who was profiting from Dead Sea minerals? Who was working in the processing plants, and why? The material histories of the photos, sometimes elided by the authors, are sought in the civil gaze.

The history of Zionist photography is built on removing the Palestinian subject from view. While the photographs in Against Erasure were being taken and archived, militias were using photography to create “village files,” used to scout Palestinian towns in advance of raids. Rona Sela outlines how these collections were composed of aerial photographs and pictures taken from scouting excursions into Palestinian towns. Many of the images show Palestinians out of focus and uncentered in the frame, because the purpose of these photographs is to map a strategic target, not to document its inhabitants.

Palestine disturbances during summer 1936, Jaffa: effects of dynamiting, heaps of tumbled-down houses. Courtesy of Haymarket Books.

Today, Israeli soldiers post photos of carnage, torture, and looting on social media. Their photographs—with Palestinians out of frame, blindfolded, or otherwise detained—are an alternative civil contract. The viewer is forced to reckon with the ties between the scene depicted and the moment of viewing, of gazing.

On February 29, 2024, Israeli forces opened fire on Palestinians seeking food aid in Gaza. Bullets and tank munitions killed at least 118 people in what became known as the “flour massacre.” Shortly thereafter, the Israeli military released drone footage purporting to show a “stampede” surrounding aid trucks (the BBC has since confirmed that the video was doctored). The video pans over indiscernible black-and-white figures, and is overlaid with crosshairs, meant to dehumanize Palestinians systematically denied food aid by the Israeli government.

Plestia Alaqad, Bisan Owda, Motaz Azaiza, and other Palestinian photographers charge their viewers with complicity and regularly demand that we act, explicitly invoking the civil gaze. They tell the viewer, often in videos posted on Instagram, “You are responsible for what you see here. Help us change what we see.” They usher the viewer into what Azoulay calls the “ongoing present,” or what Adam Hajyahiah deems the “Palestinian past-present.”

Adam Rouhana, a contemporary Palestinian photographer whose work takes the viewer through the West Bank, aims to create “a contemporary Palestinian visual language, inscribed with an ethic of self-determination.” Of the tension between Zionist visual histories and Palestinian ones, Rouhana writes:

Some have argued that Zionism is built on the myth that Palestine was a land without a people for a people without a land. My photography subverts this myth: Palestine is our homeland. Photographing Palestinian life stands against forces of erasure.

Images like these can help reorient us toward a just future—a Palestine where we can all live together with equality and freedom. A home where I can one day sit with my granddaughter. A place where she has a past and a future.

The visual language of Against Erasure is echoed in the work of these contemporary Palestinian photographers who are heralding a contemporary civil gaze, one that directly charges their viewer to act—to envision a different future, and to help usher it into reality. Both Against Erasure and the contemporary Palestinian photographers operate in a Palestinian past-present, structured around the rupture of the Nakba and working towards return.

In the absence of port facilities, people from beach camp, Gaza Strip, attempt to reach boats waiting in deeper water to be carried. Credit: UNRWA photo no. RG-Beach Camp-10(H) by Hrant Nakashian, 1949. Courtesy of Haymarket Books.

The digital landscape of Israel’s attack on Gaza is framed by two competing compositions: one from an ongoing present destruction, one from the post-fact above and behind. While Palestinian photographers provide constant updates of the horrors unfolding on the ground, Zionist photographers capture the empty moments after: the raids on empty schools, universities, and homes; demolitions from afar; aerial videos that aim to distance the viewer from the subjects below.

The gaze wielded by Alaqad, Owda, and Azaiza is an accusatory, documentarian, and demanding one. The Zionist photography is triumphal, violent, and removed. When viewing these photos, the viewer must either detangle themselves from the viewpoint of the photographer, asserting their distance from the site of violence, or be conscripted to the Zionist project.

Against Erasure invites us into a past before the rupture of the Nakba, and invites us to bear witness in the moments that created this catastrophe. Through viewing the photographs, we can read ourselves in the historical context that created our present, and imagine something different.

Renée Germain Abbyad with Anis and Raymonde. Courtesy of Haymarket Books. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

Tal Frieden is an organizer in Brooklyn, New York.


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