Issue #101 Toward a More Navigable Field

Toward a More Navigable Field

Oraib Toukan

Oraib Toukan, When Things Occur, 2016. Film still, single-channel video, 28’00”

Issue #101
June 2019

Palestinian self-representations seemed to recognize the power and speed of the reproduction of images from very early on. This is evident in the photographs by Sulafah Jadallah and Hani Jawharieh of Palestinian refugees-turned-resistance-fighters in the 1960s; in Mustafah Abu Ali, Khadijeh Habashneh, and the Palestine Cinema Institute’s transnational network of films in the 1970s; in Sliman Mansour and Ismail Shammout’s paintings reproduced into posters, calendars, and book covers across the Arab World in the 1980s; and among many others.1 The years of the Palestinian revolution (1968–82) not only represent the heyday of international and student activism for and within Palestine,2 inter-revolutionary friendship films, and politico-aesthetic battles between Marxist-Leninist movements.3 They were also an overall moment of total faith in the power of the silver halide compound to name a struggle.

Every new image of Palestine may begin to appear “something-like,” though not quite, but rather “similar-to” the last addition to an inventory—now a pile—of “Palestinian Images.”4 And for every image that’s been created, a chain of image-fragments can potentially be found in many bits, on many hard drives all over the world.5 “It’s a very crowded place,” wrote Edward Said in 1986, regarding the space of representations of Palestine, “almost too crowded for what it is asked to bear by way of history or interpretation of history.”6 In fact, Said impeccably referred to Palestinians as “the image that will not go away”:

To the Israelis, whose incomparable military and political power dominates us, we are the periphery, the image that will not go away. Every assertion of our non-existence, every attempt to spirit us away, every new effort to prove that we were never really there, simply raises the question of why so much denial of, and such energy expended on, what was not there?7

This “pile” of “Palestinian Images,” which was propelled by collective Palestinian consciousness to devictimize the image of the refugee, was eventually replenished by cruel images dehumanizing the Palestinian into someone who is “telegenically dead.”8 In an essay on the 2014 war on Gaza, Sherene Seikaly proposed that Palestine is itself as archive: an archive and “the archiving of moments of destruction and uprising, death and life, of loss and accumulation.”9 Seikaly’s writing conjures a flow of repeating and continually reappearing images of colonization and decolonization in the Palestinian time-space since the 1930s. These are images that Ariella Azoulay has also instrumentally slowed down in order to advocate for the individual civil claims that these photographs actually contain—revealing a civil language of photography itself, one that begins to more valuably find the perpetrator that photographs of suffering so often conceal.10

But rather than crying out, pictures that emanate from Palestine increasingly point to a question: “What exactly can’t you see in what I am seeing?” (or, put another way: What the fuck can’t you see in this?). The Palestinian story is as much a story of decolonization, civil strife, and massive injustice as it is about how best to show an injustice that feels like it cannot be seen. And so here lies a quandary: a disjunction between what feels like overrepresentation of the Palestinian subject, and a genuine frustration with an inability to see that subject. A dark, nondescript woman keeps reappearing on our screens. She is holding her chest in pain over some extreme loss, and is somewhere under siege in Gaza, occupied in the West Bank, obscured inside Israel, or exiled in a refugee camp in Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan.11 The original Sontagian claim that “too many” images of suffering anesthetize viewership can help explain this paradox of being represented while also not being seen, but this assertion has been exhausted, and is in any case a theoretical dead end. The problem persists, no matter how many cruel images12 have been scrolled over: Palestinians have remained a people in struggle no matter how many systems of separation have been created to dissolve that struggle.


The two quotations from Edward Said above come from After the Last Sky, a 1986 book comprised of text by Said and photographs by Jean Mohr (John Berger’s long-time collaborator). The book borrows its title from a line in a 1983 poem by Mahmoud Darwish: “Where should we go after the last frontiers / Where should birds fly after the last sky / Where should plants sleep after the last breath of air?”13 Both Darwish’s poem and Said’s book resonate with an image of sheer exhaustion that comes from not having been able to find an appropriate aperture opening, one that will need to find still more depth beyond the last sky. “The road forward is blocked,” Said writes, “the instruments of the present are insufficient, we can’t get to the past.”14

In photography, depth of field is the spatial distance between the nearest and farthest subjects that are perceived to be in acceptable focus. This image of sheer exhaustion, from not being able to find an appropriate aperture opening, that Said and Darwish engage and stir up, seems like a depth of field stuck between the nearest and farthest points of its subject: the erased past and blocked future. In 2017, the Palestinian collective Subversive Films translated, interpreted, and published instructional notes by the Palestinian revolutionary cinematographer Hani Jawharieh, handed over to them by Hani’s wife, Janet Jawharieh.15 Hani Jawharieh was a member of the Palestine Film Unit, a collective of image-makers that originally operated out of a kitchen-turned-darkroom in Amman, Jordan in 1967. Yasser Arafat was said to have once hid in this darkroom, and Sulafah Jadallah, one of the collectives’ key photographers—who is otherwise a little-known and almost obscured Palestinian photographer—was said to have paid its rent.16 Eventually the collective was instituted into the network of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Beirut, and Jawharieh died for its mission in 1976 while filming combat in Ain Toura, Lebanon.17 Looking through Jawharieh’s manuscript, one is reminded of how important focus and clarity are to the process of decolonization. Images of resistance strive for clarity in all its forms: clarity of status, clarity of message, clarity of focus. The aim of images of resistance is to be as evidentiary and as clear as one can possibly be with a sign. This remains the case even when the circumstances of filming (quick decision-making, unpredictable movement, night filming, etc.) provide for anything but precision, along with more modest technical capabilities that work against the grain of focus.18

Jawharieh coherently lays out the standard simple formula for increasing the clarity of an image when he writes: “Increasing the depth of field will increase the clarity of elements.”19 But more importantly, he specifies and warns: “Subjects that are nearer or further from the point we wish to focus on will appear entirely out of focus.”20 The precaution signals that anything outside of the nearest and farthest subject in view will fall into the circle of confusion—into a complete blur. However, it is exactly in this circle of confusion that awareness can happen. It is in the indecipherable, in the point of total abstraction of a figuration, where one can transcend representation altogether, into a sphere of political consciousness. And in turn, it is in navigating across the various planes of a micro, hyper-visual field at the level of the pixel-grain, in an almost haptic quality (when it feels like it can be touched and in tu­­­­rn becomes touching), where one can begin to fathom injustice.21 Grasp it, by finally understanding it as violent. It is only after I retroactively alter an image’s resolution and zoom in, that I can truly grasp just how organized and rigid its resolution is, and how harsh that grid can be. That is the point at which I begin to comprehend just how co-optable the picture of suffering can be, and how it can seamlessly turn into an efficient instrument of fear by the perpetrator—into a one-for-all deterrent—like a cruel trophy of war.

In a beautiful homage by the late painter and physicist Vladimir Tamari, written from Tokyo some forty years after Jawharieh’s passing, Tamari mentions that Jawharieh once worked in an optical shop in Jerusalem, where they both grew up. He writes that the shop had a white plaster bust of Mahatma Gandhi wearing glasses in its window, and describes how its owner, Elia Adranly, shared long-winded theories with them on the effect of the earth’s rotation on the wind.22 This is not far from the way in which Jordanian vocalist Yazan Al Rousan once recounted a theory in passing to me on the sound of the rotation of the earth, which can only be heard the second the earth stops spinning. It is much like the groan of a refrigerator that can only be heard once the fan stops spinning. This is not to say that cruel images can only be approached through analogy, but rather that navigating outside of the optical sphere, into the grain of a pixel, might be the beginning of filling in for a sight that we have yet to see, much like a sound we have yet to hear.23 It’s an intentional distortion of a visual field that outdoes representation altogether by moving the optical into the navigable, in order to reach what is beyond or after Said and Darwish’s “Last Sky.”

What’s more, the loss of figuration to the point of abstraction liberates cruel images from their impulse to be understood via resemblance and the colonial gaze. That is, the inclination of relating the image of a dead person of color to the white male body of Christian European art history—the outcry that results from pictures of naked, tortured detainees that get accompanied by “a shock of recognition” with the male body of a Hellenistic Sculpture as initially described by Eisenman in The Abu Ghraib Effect (or in Viennese Actionism as discussed by Boris Groys).24 Or, the shock of resemblance of a protestor raising the Palestinian flag at a certain angle at a border protest to escape Gaza’s “open-air-prison,”25 or Liberty herself holding the flag in Delacroix’s painting of 1830.26 (This is not unexpected, as resemblance or likeness is part and parcel of the definition of an image, but are, arguably, irrelevant).

The problem with this navigational field is that it can be limited to “pure-thought.” This is much like the way Daniel Buren explains color, in that the extent of its abstraction is not utterable.27 (Let alone illustrated herewith via two-dimensional pictures.) Consider color reproduction systems like the Pantone monopoly in categorizing what should be seen in any particular color as opposed to “actually” seeing, for example, Pantone 18-4334: Mediterranean Blue. But seeing from within that extreme proximity to an image, when colors begin to mesh into webbed hues, can propel a viewer into a field of knowing—via seeing a totality. This kind of seeing constitutes a visual literacy, a self-emancipatory type of knowing, that begins with grasping images by understanding them past their representational signs. This is not a call to abstract the image of violence incurred on a people—much like Facebook’s arbitrary and sometimes ridiculous warning blurs of videos with violent content28—but rather to understand cruel images by diving even deeper into their vertical extreme, and moving across them as grids. This is different from what Étienne Balibar calls “an extreme visibility of violence” in a global topography of cruelty.29 Or the performed, high-res, networked dimension of violence in Donatella Della Ratta’s Syria in Shooting a Revolution (2018). It is also different from Forensic Architecture’s practice of excavating images to tune into criminal evidence emanating from their “stratigraphic layers.”30

So, what is a knowing through seeing that which is indecipherable? In Kayfa Ta’s How to Mend: Motherhood and its Ghosts (2018), Iman Mersal considers the picture of motherhood from all its angles. She takes the hidden fetus in an ultrasound image as one such angle: “something like a butterfly, like a worm, a tiny beast” in a sea of oceanic waves, declared to be the womb.31 But what comes after viewing a “lone fetus” or “dark hole” is a knowledge by way of revelation—and a knowledge that comes without doubt. She notes that the mediator, the transducer in the ultrasound device, is known in Arabic as the misbar (مسبار): “the sounder, because ‘It sounds out, reveals, and makes plain.’”32 Mersal considers why exactly it is that we cannot “find” mothers on the flip side of this image, in portraits of them, in evidence of them. Put differently, and in a perspective that presupposes my original question on the Palestinian quandary, why is it that we cannot see a subject in an image of that subject? For Mersal, knowledge is a sheet, a curtain, or a drape: a veil of something that we often cannot see, don’t want to see, are unable to see (or care not to see?). “Isn’t knowledge—as per the dictum of early medieval Arab mystic al-Niffari—a veil?” she argues.33 Kashf in Sufism unveils knowledge in order to reach a consciousness (not unlike the English word dis-cover). But what ensues is subjective certainty: a seeing of that which was, actually, probably known prior to viewing.34 Though writing from an entirely different analytical space, James Bridle critiques, but also privileges, abstraction as key for thinking through computational opacity and complexity:

We don’t and cannot understand everything, but we are capable of thinking it. The ability to think without claiming, or even seeking to fully understand is key to survival in a new dark age because, as we shall see, it is often impossible to understand.35

As of yet, there is no built-in function in consumer screen devices that allows a user/layperson/amateur to truly navigate an image. One must save it, and reopen it in order to vertically dive into the tender cracks and fissures of a cruel image—of any image for that matter—to look into its resolution. It almost feels like an ethical imperative that such a functionality should exist. But the excesses of capitalism and its reciprocal relation from the onset to image-making has worked to override the details of cruel images.36 Precisely because it’s in the details that a revelation can happen. The scrolling function on phones, laptops, and tablets has perfectly propelled capitalism forward, and so stopping to try to navigate the close details of injustices from one meter or a thousand kilometers away nominally ruptures the flow of cruel images that are otherwise scrolled over, viewed in haste, or shared in despair.37 In and of itself, navigation changes the pace and manner at which single images are being viewed; think of it as an occupational break in thumb soreness from continually scrolling through content—a slight remedy for “texting thumb,” or what used to be called “Nintendo thumb.”

Departing from Harun Farocki’s remark before his passing in 2014 that “computer-animated, navigable images constitute the twenty-first century’s ‘ruling-class of images,’” and therefore demand a different kind of analysis,38 Doreen Mende formulates a crucial theoretical question. She asks: “What could be a political image-practice of the twenty-first century for questioning the principle of navigation that updates, calculates, and incorporates the frame excessively and continuously into the image-making process?”39 Navigation as paradigm acknowledges the collapse of a viewing and of an experience into one, but its theoretical appeal lies in the pressure navigation puts on the singular, static, representational frame.40 This is because navigation seemingly strides over the boundary of the single image, surpasses it. And so even when it undeniably feels like images—and their central place in the complex worlds we live in, as vitally revealed by Farocki—have seemingly walked out of themselves to map and model us in one,41 we cannot say goodbye to the representational frame until we step out of aspect ratio. Until then, the sealed and shielded, self-enclosed boundary of a single image will always be governed by the meeting of two lines. The single pixel, the smallest viewable element of a digitized image, epitomizes this, if it does not turn into the archetype of the sovereign, almost devouring character of the frame and the world it contains.42 And so, no matter how many image frames are rendered to make up ever more complex systems of the model-worlds we have come to inhabit—and that Bridle draws out—a perpetually supressed consciousness will always lie in that rim and in the world that it represents. As do the lips of history, and history as it has already been represented. Clarity of status, or clarity and its lack thereof, lies in that frame.


In 1917, the American photographer and educator Paul L. Anderson (who wrote and set a precedent for several books on the techniques of photography) criticized photographers who strive too much for clarity, concluding:

They have convinced themselves that they actually do see objects as sharply as does the anastigmat, though in point of fact this is a physical impossibility … many of this school, in their passion for extreme sharpness, stop down to F/45 or F/64—even, in some cases, to such absurd stops F/128 or F/256 believing that by so doing they are improving definition. But in this instance, as in the former, they are deceiving themselves, for it should be noted that stopping down to improve definition cannot be continued indefinitely.43

Anderson dwells at length on camera mechanics, interweaving his opinions on the size of a camera’s F-stop (aperture, as a measurement of the size of the lens opening in relation to focal length) or focal length itself (the distance between the lens and the subject in focus on a film or image sensor). He notes: “If a lens is of too great a focal length it will often be found difficult, by reason of the size of the studio or the configuration of the landscape, to get far enough away to include all that is wanted.”44

In April 2018, Yasser Murtaja was targeted and killed by Israeli forces while filming historic protests in Gaza not far from Israeli-established perimeters.45 Murtaja was a known drone enthusiast, who along with his childhood friend Rushdi Sarraj formed a film collective in 2014 called Ain Media, which pioneered top-down photography and videography over the Gaza Strip. When a lens is perpendicular to the plane of the subject it is filming, it is called a “God’s-eye view” in English, as if the ensuing recording is all-encompassing and devoid of a point of view. The word ain in Ain Media means “eye” in Arabic and resonates with this point of view, or a “bird’s-eye view,” but is also a play on the ever present, surveilling “eye” over Gaza.46 (The region’s residents reportedly live with the constant humming sound of Israeli military drone surveillance over what amounts to a forty-kilometer-long strip of land). The collective’s first drone was a hand-me-down from a visiting “left-leaning” Canadian digital media film crew, which left a Phantom 3 behind for the collective in 2014.47 Two weeks before Murtaja’s death, he posted an aerial shot that the collective took of Gaza City and wrote: “I crave the day I can take this shot from the air and not from the ground … I am 30 years old. I live in Gaza, and I’ve never traveled!” Following his death, moving condolences addressed him in the second person, making clear that he traveled, and traveled the farthest skies.


See Nadia Yaqub, Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution (University of Texas Press, 2018), and Dan Walsh’s personal collection, digital archive, and life-long interest in Palestine Poster Project .


See Rasha Salti and Kristine Khoury’s remarkable research, project, and publication Past Disquiet: Artists, International Solidarity, and Museums in Exile that departed from the 1978 International Art Exhibition for Palestine in Beirut.


For now, notwithstanding the spectacular televised hijacking of five aircrafts to a small landing strip in Jordan in 1970, aka “Dawson’s Field.”


The title of a 1976 publication by the Palestine Cinema Institution of Hani Jawharieh’s works of Palestinian Fedayeen following his death; similarly, the book title subheading Palestinian Lives of Edward Said’s photo-book After the Last Sky; or, simply, a 2019 Google Image search of the same search words: “Palestinian Images.”


This paragraph revisits a forward I wrote in the catalog for the exhibition “Palestinian Political Posters” from the collection of George Michael Al Ama and Saleh Abd Al Jawad, curated by Inass Yassin, December 2013: Political Posters, exh. cat. (Birzeit University 2014).


Edward W. Said, After The Last Sky (Faber and Faber, 1986), 4.


Said, After The Last Sky, 42.


From Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous wording to CNN during the 2014 war on Gaza: “They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can. They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead, the better” . See also Ozge Ersoy and Bikem Ekberzade with Thomas Keenan, tel·e·​ge​n·ic (PRODUCE 2, 2014) .


Sherene Seikaly, “Gaza as Archive,” in Gaza as Metaphor, eds. Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar (Hurst and Company, 2016), 228.


Azoulay has arguably contributed to finally writing the Palestinian struggle as a civil rights movement. See Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008).


Iman Mersal has positively analyzed that same mother (the oft-discussed “Palestinian women” in the region), calling her the “instrumental” mother but one who turns into a “standardized mother” precisely because she keeps reappearing in images. This is the point at which she argues that “all Palestinian mothers become a single Palestinian mother,” in Iman Mersal, How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts (Kayfa Ta and Sternberg Press, 2018), 66.


See my “Cruel Images,” e-flux journal, no. 96 (January 2019) .


Cited in After the Last Sky, 2. The poem is “The Earth Is Closing In on Us,” and was published in Darwish’s magazine Alkarmel in November 1984.


As quoted in the Palestine Poster Project archive .


Subversive Films, The Syllabus (2017), 2. An art project in the form of printed matter that was commissioned by Tirdad Zolghadr for the 5th Riwaq Biennale, and later co-commissioned and expanded by Lara Khalidi. Jawharieh’s notes were most likely written sometime in the 1970s. Subversive Films writes that though the manuscript is seemingly devoid of “revolutionary context,” its fascination lies in its use as a teaching tool-set.


Interview with Salah Abu Hanud in Amman Jordan by artist Ala Younis, January 2012, when we found the earliest works of this group among discarded and newly categorized reels that belonged to a former Soviet cultural center in Amman.


Supplement to Subversive Films, The Syllabus.


Subversive Films and the Egyptian collective Mosireen cowrite and expand on such circumstances in a printed collection of their respective syllabi.


Subversive Films, The Syllabus, 10.


Subversive Films, The Syllabus, 33.


Impelled by Laura U. Marks thesis of the haptic in The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (Duke University Press, 2000).


Vladimir Tamari, “Remembering My Friend, Hani Jawhariyyeh,” Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 67 (Autumn 2016): 19–27.


Or, like the exact moment the stage curtain falls and crashes on the ground in René Pollesch’s recent play Cry Baby. Here, a long white bedroom drape forms the background of the entire play until it crashes and falls, and one realizes the copious depth still left to the Deutsche Theater. The farthest visible point to us as spectators is now a black sheen drape hung in folded layers with ever more dimensionality.


Eisenman sets out to inquire why exactly this is so, why his anger at Abu Ghraib’s image of torture and suffering was “accompanied by a shock of recognition” with “treasured sculpture’s and paintings from a distant past,” in Stephen F. Eisenmann, The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion Books, 2007), 11.


Ilana Feldman, “Gaza: Isolation,” in Gaza as Metaphor, eds. Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar (Hurst and Company, 2016), 95-101.


As picked up by many on social media, news agencies then chose to screen-grab Laleh Khalili’s Twitter post: “Holy shit what an image: ‘13th attempt to break the Gaza Blockade by sea.’ Photo by Mustafa Hassouna (Andalou Agency for Getty)” .


Buren states: “For me, colour is pure thought, and therefore completely inexpressible, every bit as abstract as a mathematical formula or a philosophical concept” (italics my own), quoted in Anna McNay, “Daniel Buren: Comme Un Jeu d’Enfant / Like Child’s Play, Work In Situ,” Studio International, September 2014 .


Which would be to depoliticize them, or to kill them as images, per social media’s arbitrary offshore decision-making on what it deems as imagery too violent to be viewed. See Norman Finkelstein and his battle with YouTube over removing a tribute to Yaser Murtaja, which the site deemed as inciting violence .


In Étienne Balibar, “Outlines of a Topography of Cruelty: Citizenship and Civility in the Era of Global Violence, ” in We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton University Press, 2004).


From Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of Foucault’s Archaeology of the Present (1969), which forms a crucial foundation for Forensic Architecture’s work.


Iman Mersal, How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts (Kayfa Ta and Sternberg Press, 2018), 82.


Mersal, How to Mend, 80.


Mersal, How to Mend, 88.


Or “that which is implicitly known,” as put by Ridade Öztürk, “Sufism in Cinema: The Case of Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul,” Film-Philosophy 23, no. 1 (2019): 55-71. Thank you also to Haytham El-Wardany for an email conversation with me on Kashf.


James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (Verso Books, 2019), 6.


From the earliest assertions in Walter Benjamin’s writing, to Ariella Azoulay and Hito Steryl among others.


See also Doreen Mende’s decisive analysis on the slowing-down of images via navigation in her lecture “The Navigation Principle: Slow Image” .


Announcement for “e-flux journal and Harun Farocki Institut present: ‘Art After Culture: Navigation Beyond Vision’ at Haus der Kulturen der Welt” .


Doreen Mende, introduction to “Art After Culture: Navigation Beyond Vision” conference, HKW, Berlin, April 2019.


e-flux journal and Harun Farocki Institut present: ‘Art After Culture: Navigation Beyond Vision’ at Haus der Kulturen der Welt.”


As argued by Bridle in New Dark Age.


In other words, it’s actually that singular image frame that is hosting us in its womb.


Paul L. Anderson, Pictorial Photography: Its Principles and Practice, first published 1917. Quoted in Anderson, The Technique of Pictorial Photography (J. B. Lippincott Company, 1939).


Anderson, Pictorial Photography, my italics.


The protests were dubbed “The Great March of Return,” leading up to Nakbah Day in May, which annually commemorates the Palestinian expulsion. See .


As told to me by Rushdi Sarraj in conversation; see also Atef Abu Saif’s diary The Drone Eats With Me (Beacon Press, 2016).


As told to me by Rushdi Sarraj.

Image, Photography, War & Conflict
Palestine, Middle East
Return to Issue #101

Image courtesy of the author.

Oraib Toukan is an artist and Clarendon Scholar at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford.


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