Thumbnail 1 horizontal charlottestuby

Charlotte Stuby. Fragment from the image contribution Passport Photo, published in rekto:verso, edition 102: neutral.

The neutral expression on the standardised passport photo turns the human face into a symbol of bureaucratic conformity, stripped of nuance, emotion and individuality.

Witnessing Violence

Editor's introduction. There is no photo that will be enough to put a stop to the genocidal violence in Gaza. But looking away from these gruesome images is not an option, Yousra Benfquih argues. It is precisely by facing and sharing such images that we can transform them into ‘emergency claims’. To look at them is to take civil responsibility.

Yousra Benfquih

20 jun. 2024 • 14 min

At the time of writing, the genocide in Gaza has been going on for 203 days. For months, I and many others have been watching the images shared by the people of Gaza. Images of unspeakable violence. As the sleepless nights accumulated, the question dawned on me: why am I watching? Or rather, how am I watching, how can I watch these images?

Images of the invisible

The image of the father carrying his children’s body parts in plastic bags. The image of the grandfather embracing his dead granddaughter with all his heart. The image of the mother holding her lifeless baby in her arms, of the boy carrying his dead little brother. Pictures of people hugging for one last time the remains of their loved ones, all wrapped up in winding sheets. Images, sometimes paired with a trigger warning, of the latest bloodbath in a school, orphanage or refugee camp, of the remaining children – limbless and with unprecedented fourth-degree burns – spread out over the hospital floor (before it was destroyed), of babies with shattered faces, of the remains of people who were summarily executed, of torture, of the bones of starved children. I looked at these photos, because the regular media didn’t show them. I looked and I shared, each time in the hope that this would be the image that would mark a turning point in the discourse, that would bring an end to the impunity of the pages-long list of war crimes. But more than half a year and thousands of images later the realisation has set in for me and many others that no photo will serve as ‘the photo’, no image will be enough to stop the genocidal violence.

This has everything to do with the preceding dehumanisation of the images’ subjects. In her article ‘Seeing Genocide’, Palestinian-Jewish thinker, filmmaker and essayist Ariella Azoulay writes: ‘Despite many noticeable differences between the myriad photographs, in almost all of them Palestinians are captured as disposable life, so that their killing is not a disruption but rather a validation of their disposability.’

It is precisely for this reason that various voices on social media called for caution in the handling of the gruesome imagery. The suffering and the disposability of brown and black bodies has been normalised by the dehumanising effect of racism, and sharing images of mutilated Palestinians would only further that desensitisation, leading to so-called empathy fatigue. The coverage in mainstream media is so one-sided that if such images are published at all, it is done as part of a racialised and political discourse that pre-regulates their possible meaning. Due to the invisibility of Palestinians as Others who have been demonised by racism, Islamophobia and Orientalism and who are therefore only (hyper)visible as imagined terrorists, there is no photo that will deliver the ultimate shock to the viewer: ‘Palestinians are expected to die,’ says US-Palestinian human rights professor Noura Erakat.

Furthermore, these images contribute to the idea of Palestinians as passive, powerless victims of violence – so-called perfect victims – who are expected to suffer occupation and genocide without resisting. According to Azoulay, the focus is on the predicament of the victims rather than on the colonial regime and the technologies enacting the violence: ‘Such captioning, which visually signals a call for humanitarian aid as opposed to denunciation of a regime that violates humanitarian law, normalizes the disposability of Palestinian life.’

The photograph as plea

However, unlike Susan Sontag, who in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) associated looking at war photographs with voyeurism or passive spectatorship, Azoulay does not urge us to look away. In her seminal book The Civil Contract of Photography (2012), Azoulay revisits the political and ethical status of photography and rethinks the civic space of the gaze and our interrelations with it. In thinking about photography, the role of the viewer is often overlooked, she says:

‘The existing common manual reduces photography to the photograph and to the gaze concentrated on it in an attempt to identify the subject. (…) The wrong users’ manual hinders the spectator’s understanding that the photograph (…) belongs to no one, that she can become not only its addressee but also its addresser, one who can produce a meaning for it and disseminate this meaning further.’

Azoulay understands the photography of violence and catastrophe as ‘a form of relations of individuals to the power that governs them, a form of relations that is not fully mediated through such power.’ In an attempt to understand her relationship to photographed Palestinians as someone born in Israel (she wrote her book during the second Intifada), and to do so beyond frameworks of guilt, empathy and compassion, she approaches photography through the lens of the ‘civil contract’. In this contract, the stateless can also become citizens as part of the ‘citizenry of photography’.

In this complex relational space of photography, the photographed, in this case Palestinian, subject uses the photograph of their injuries to address the viewer. For Palestinians, participation in the act of photography is often the only refuge, an insufficient alternative in the face of the institutional structures that inflict violence upon them. It enables them to make politically present the ways in which they have been dominated, the more or less hidden modes by which they are exposed to Israeli power. For the Palestinian ‘non-citizen’, it is a means of requesting recognition: ‘His stance is an insistent refusal to accept the non-citizen status assigned to him by the governing power and a demand for participation in the sphere of political relations within which his claims can be heard and acknowledged.’

Using photos presenting their wounds, the Palestinian subjects call upon the spectator. For the latter, these grievances constitute a responsibility to respond by reconstructing the ‘énoncé of horror’ – the expression of horror embodied by the photo – so as to make visible the damage wrought on their citizenship, and to recognise and restore that citizenship through their gaze.

Viewer responsibility

Thus, for Azoulay, the viewing of an image is paired with a civic duty, a civic responsibility to disseminate the claim made by the photograph. When the subject of the photograph is a person who has suffered an injury, a viewing of the photograph that reconstructs the photographic situation and allows a reading of the injury inflicted on others becomes a civic skill, she writes, and not an exercise in aesthetic appreciation: ‘the civil spectator has a duty to employ that skill the day they encounter photographs of those injuries – to employ it in order to negotiate the manner in which she and the photographed are ruled.’

This responsibility requires us not only ‘to look at’ but ‘to watch’. Unlike the verb ‘to look at’, which is the more commonly used in relation to photos, the verb ‘to watch’ emphasises the need to reinscribe aspects of time and movement in our interpretation of the static, photographic image, which, as we have learned, does not speak for itself. This sort of viewing calls for the image to be reopened, for its meaning to be renegotiated and reconstructed beyond what is visible in the photo. In contrast with passive looking, this kind of watching is active, situated by Azoulay in Hannah Arendt’s vita activa rather than contemplativa. It is only through participation in the citizenry of photography, which exists by the grace of plurality and which seeks to rehabilitate one’s citizenship or that of someone who has been stripped of it, that one’s citizenship can take form.

Thinkers like Sontag, and also Barthes, base their view on the stable meaning of what is visible in the picture and limit the role of the viewer to making judgements, rather than taking up responsibility. By contrast, Azoulay’s citizen’s contract of photography shifts the focus ‘away from the ethics of seeing or viewing to an ethics of the spectator, an ethics that begins to sketch the contours of the spectator’s responsibility toward what is visible.’ Through this ethical spectatorship, the individual, implored to participate via the photograph, can engage in dialogue through those photographs and thus extend the plea to others: in this way, the spectator is said to transform the photos into ‘emergency claims’.

This is how I and many others approach the photos. We share them to reconstruct the ‘énoncé of horror’ they emanate and to turn this into calls for urgent action to halt the violence. We write texts to accompany the photos and place these in the historical context of colonial occupation and the first Nakba. With these photos – of murdered children, destroyed schools and mass graves – we draw attention to human rights violations and war crimes and we attempt to bring to the surface a meaning that has been smothered by the dominant discourse: this is not war, this is genocide. We share the photos as part of a wider social media campaign, in which we call into discussion our involvement and that of our governments, ministers and journalists, and call for solidarity and the acts of protest and boycotting. The images are also involved in the latter acts, on banners and signs during marches, such the images of the ten-year-old Yazan al-Kafarna, who died from starvation. The photos also influence the form that protests take, such as in the case of ‘die-ins’ or silent wakes, where people wrap effigies or their own bodies in white sheets painted in red. The photos and our gaze thus become a ‘civic space’, which is paired with speech and action such that we are not merely the addressees of the photographed wounds, but also the producers of their meaning, which we in turn pass on.

Azoulay is aware that the dehumanisation of Palestinians and the chronic, routine nature of the violence they are subjected to stand in the way of that transformation of their images into emergency claims. No photo will ever be the photo. However, this violent status quo does not exonerate the spectator from their civic responsibility. On the contrary, it calls for an even greater responsibility, with a view to transcending the banality and normalisation of the photographed violence and to close, in so far as possible, the gap between what is visible in the photograph and what remains invisible.

Bearing witness

Azoulay’s ‘ethical spectatorship’ also resonates with what the Palestinian subjects themselves ask of us while sharing their images, which is to bear witness. In her piece ‘Work of the Witness’, published in Jewish Currents, Palestinian writer Sarah Aziza elaborates on the particular meaning here of bearing witness.

A witness is someone who confirms or refutes the veracity of an alleged event, often in a criminal context. According to Aziza, it is also in this context that it is possible to understand what drives the Gazan correspondents, who risk their own lives every day to publish their reports (this is the most deadly attack on journalists in history, in which over 140 journalists have now been killed). The reporters provide us with evidence of the atrocities committed by the Israeli regime: ‘One hopes the day will come when this proof is used in trial.’

This also plays into the way in which I and others watch these images: not only do we share them in a broader campaign in which we attempt to translate the photos into emergency claims and call for disruptive action, we also save the images: on Instagram it is possible to save images in ‘highlights’ and thus prevent them from disappearing after 24 hours (if the images have not already been censored by parent company Meta). At the time of writing, I have ten ‘highlights’, each containing a hundred images. While I am aware that I will not be able to present these to an international court, there is a comparable idea of accountability behind this preservation of images. Preserving the images is a safeguard against oblivion, something to refer to when, in the near future, there rings a chorus of ‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’.

It is a form of archiving and, for Azoulay, an archive is just that: ‘a tool to make accessible the otherwise ‘liquidated’ narratives, suppressed by sovereign regimes that serve the archive’s sovereign.’ In short, for the spectator-witness, archiving becomes an act of resistance. This is especially true when you consider that the national archives in Israel are being used to manipulate the official narrative, thus constituting part of the colonial discursive apparatus.

Yet according to Aziza, the English, penal connotation of the witness is not as appropriate as a lens through which to understand the verb ‘to bear witness’ as the Arabic word for witness. The verb ‘to witness’ shares etymological roots with the word often translated as ‘martyr’: شهيد or shaheed, which Palestinians use to describe those killed by genocidal violence. For Aziza, as a member of the Palestinian diaspora, the dilemma of whether or not to watch and share images of loved ones must be unimaginably heartbreaking. She emphasises that the word shaheed bears many layers of meaning. It has not only the connotation of seeing, but also that of presence and proximity. Bearing witness in this sense means making contact, being touched, and bearing the marks of that touch. Despite the many misinterpretations in the Western media, which associates the word ‘martyr’ with a glorification of death, for Aziza the martyr as witness thus refers to the truth attested to by the abused bodies: ‘Their flesh, marked by colonial violence, makes visible the wild injustice they endured. Which is to say, their martyrdom tells us the truth about our world.’

In Aziza’s view, the work of the witness is to be ‘marked’, to not remain unscathed. ‘We must make an effort to stay with what we see, allowing ourselves to be cut.’ Again, I think of Azoulay’s ‘watching’, a deeper form of ‘looking at’ that seeks to transcend the mere identification of what is visible, a form of looking that is anchored in commitment and responsibility. Echoing the thinking of Levinas on the face of the Other, Aziza continues:

‘This wound is essential. Into this wound, imagination may pour—not to invade the other’s subjectivity, but to awaken awe at the depth, privacy, and singularity of each life. There, we might glimpse, if sidelong, how much of Gaza’s suffering we will never know. This is where real witness must begin: in mystery.’

As with Azoulay, frameworks such as empathy (fatigue) and shock are not central to that ethical observation. Aziza writes:

‘This commitment does not require constant stoking by grisly, tragic reports. Rather than a feeling, witness is a position. It insists on embodiment, on sacrifice, mourning and resisting what is seen. The world after genocide must not, cannot, be the same. The witness is the one who holds the line of reality, identifying and refusing the lie of normalcy. Broken by what we see, we become rupture incarnate.’

Today, I’ve stopped watching. The violence I have witnessed in these past months is taking a toll. Something in me has been irrevocably broken, and I, like Aziza, want to embrace that brokenness, not as a martyr, but as a witness. However, to remain in the position of witness, to continue to bear all we have seen, it may be necessary to not look for a while. This not-looking, accompanied as it is by a deep-seated survivors’ guilt, differs substantially from the looking-away that stems from the illusion of innocence, from a perceived lack of involvement and responsibility, an illusion perpetuated by Western media, politicians and educational institutions. Self-care may be a necessity for everyone, but for racialised people – whose lives are shaped by the same dehumanising mechanisms of Othering underlying the genocide, and who, together with other marginalised people, often head up acts of resistance – self-care is more urgent. Not the commodified idea of self-care, but the care that is necessary in order not to collapse under the pain of the witnessed suffering and the intergenerational trauma that is triggered by this viewing. If we do not survive, we can no longer function as the wounds – the ‘ruptures incarnate’ – that bear witness to the violence. Or as the writer and professor Refaat Alareer instructed in ‘If I must die’, the poem written a number of weeks before his murder: ‘If I must die / you must live / to tell my story’.

Furthermore, my responsibility and work as a witness continue even without my watching. In my daily actions and consumptions. In my writings and my speech. In the form of prayers. In my relationships. I bear witness by reflecting on what I have seen in the last months, by letting the images and their meaning work their way into my mind and body, and making space for the rage, the pain and the sadness – alive, but broken by what I have seen.

This essay was originally published in Dutch in rekto:verso, edition 102: neutral, and is co-published online. For Trigger, it was translated by Jonathan Beaton.

Yousra Benfquih (born 1988) is a writer, poet and spoken word artist. Since winning the txt-on-stage competition Naft for Word in 2017, she has been a regular guest on Flemish stages.

You can read her work in Kluger Hans, DW B, the Poëziekrant and De Revisor, among others. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Joost Zwagerman Essay Prize. In 2021, she was selected for the Slow Writing Lab and in 2022 for Fresh from the Knife and Lonely Adventures.

Yousra is part of Rekto:verso's regular author pool and teaches Spoken Word at LUCA School of Arts' Writing for Performance course.