An Encounter with an Image

I teach first year art students and frequently in between lessons, during my lunch break, I watch the news on my computer. This time, the BBC World News header was followed by the story of a young Palestinian school girl, Iman Darweesh Al Hams, who was shot by Israeli Defense Forces on October 05, 2004.

My first encounter with her image was here:


Looking back I can’t even remember if the BBC subtitled the footage or simultaneously translated over the top. All I remember was that the video was rough in quality, perhaps taken from surveillance footage. It depicted a small section of the “no-go zone”, a highly guarded security border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. The poor quality of the original footage, coupled with the low resolution of the stream, meant the video was barely legible.

Within the Real Player frame, I saw a pixilated gray image, and in the center, moving erratically was a small dark spot. Over a static radio frequency, there was a dialog between soldiers. Through their words, I soon realized this cluster of darkness was the Palestinian girl, Iman Darweesh Al Hams.

As a viewer, you couldn’t see the soldiers, they were speaking out of frame, from the perspective of  surveyors.  And like the soldiers, I temporarily shared their bird’s eye view.  Their voices were broken with intermittent static across a radio wave, and I was a mute witness from another time zone.  Eavesdropping, I listened to their barely audible relayed messages:

Static… It’s a little girl. She’s running defensively eastward.
Static… and another soldier replies: A girl of about 10, she’s behind the embankment, scared to death.
Static… at the center of the image a dark cluster of pixels moves across the frame.  It’s the movement of fear, the frantic panic of being caught within range without recourse. The tension is only broken by a sudden sound of gunshots.  All movement stops, and the pixels collapse, condensing into themselves.  Then, the screen is uncannily still.
Again, the static returns and one of the soldiers in the watchtower radios: I think that one of the positions took her out...
Static… The soldier who fired the shots, radios back to the watchtower: static..I and another soldier… are going in a little nearer… forward, to confirm the kill… Finally, another round of rapid shots is heard followed by silence.  The image becomes an illegible surface of gray.

The footage was not aired as a report of the actual killing. It was in fact, released months later during the trial of the IDF commander (known only as Captain R), the man who allegedly shot her. The surveillance footage was aired on television, and many Israeli citizens were appalled by what they saw.

In the end, although Captain R admitted to emptying a magazine of bullets into Iman’s body at close range, his punishment would be limited to a suspension. After all, she WAS caring a backpack which evoked suspicion, she had also gone into the no go zone. Although later it would be found that there were only school books in her bag, the military tribunal did not find that the captain behaved unethically. However, they did acknowledge a failure of leadership on Captain R’s part which lead to his suspension.

Somehow, this story and its images stayed in my mind. Of course, we hear things like this all of the time, messages of traumatic events from afar are the constant fodder of 24hour news and broadband internet access. This is what media does; it serves up tragedy in the comfort of our own homes and even on the convenience of our own laptops. And I am what would be considered an avid consumer of their product.

But this was different. Her image clung to me, and uncomfortably so. First, there was the strangeness of viewing such poor footage. (through the academy network which made the stream unstable, then the re-mediation of surveillance footage) Maybe, unlike other images of war, which are either hygienically cleansed through the lens of technology, such as the infamous smart bomb images from the first Gulf War, or the ones which are sensationalized through their explicit depiction of violence, this image was vague, fragile, almost barely there. What was striking was the coupling of language and visuals, or I should say the absence of visuals. Actually, this was an image about what was not seen. It was about what was inferred. She was referred to as “it”, and “it” was a cluster of pixels, and “the kill” was Iman Darweesh Al Hams. The emptiness of the image, and the evocation of the language used, not only gave me a space for projection but also an empathy for that which I could not see. Sometimes, the most powerful images speak more about what’s outside the frame than what’s within it.

There was something else which struck me almost like a sort of aftershock. There was a proximity which I did not expect. There I was, sitting in a classroom, waiting for my next group of students to come in. Although geographically miles away, I couldn’t help but think that Iman Darweesh Al Hams’ teacher must have also waited. She must have looked at that empty seat. Did she think, … a cold or flu… or maybe a simple case of skipping school?

Or, and here is where my sense of relation collapses, after living under such conditions for years perhaps even generations, did her teacher immediately think the worst. I can only speculate. While I have lived in times of immense conflict, I have never lived within conflict. Here, I run against the limits of my own experience and have to reach out across a distance which is not only measured in miles but in something more intangible, having to do with empathy. This is the gap of incomprehensibility, the unquantifiable space of “not knowing what it feels like”, profoundly shapes the way I read or misread an image. Moreover, it dictates how far I can truly connect with an image of this nature, even when my best intentions are to do so.

Somewhere in that gap, that space of incomprehensibility, representation takes over. In Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt writes:

“Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent, that is I represent them… this is a question… of being and thinking in my identity where actually I am not.”[ref]p.241, Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, Penguin: New York: 1961 [/ref]

In the case of Iman Darweesh Al Hams, my mind not only has to compensate for the absence of others as Arendt suggests, but I must also represent absent experiences, and events. I must construct political, social and cultural contexts which are completely unfamiliar, if not alien to me.

Days passed after seeing the reportage, but I kept thinking about it. I spoke to different people about what I’d seen, but the story did not dominate the media, unlike Terry Shiavo or the Tsunami, it was a side story, which many around me had not seen. I went back to the BBC site to see the reportage again. Specifying video as the medium, I typed ‘Iman Darweesh Al Hams’ into the BBC search engine and received the following message: “Sorry, there are no websites that match “Iman Darweesh Al Hams”. Please try another search word.”

So, then I shortened her name, ‘Iman Al Hams’ and it also pulled the same message. While there were two stories on the site which referred to the case of the soldier, the streaming video had disappeared. Much to my surprise, Iman Darweesh Al Hams had already become yesterday’s news.

In a medium promising ubiquitous access to information, her story had been taken offline by a major news source. Clearly, it was not guaranteed in the annals of the great data repository.

After failed attempts to find the online footage, I decided to look further. I did a Google image search, trying different configurations of her name to see what .jpegs would surface.

Some were graphic, almost cold, showing the severity of her wounds. Others, like this almost classical Pieta representation, showed her family (in this case her father) leaning over her bloodied body wrapped in white cloth.

Of course as Sontag noted, in Regarding the Pain of Others, my instant association with the one of the most classical images of pious grief is a part of my own Western Christian heritage. It is a lens through which I, for better or worse, aestheticize suffering and draw points of connection or disassociation. [ref]p.80 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2003.[/ref] Or as Judith Butler writes, “these are the normative schemes which allow for compassion or disavow it.” [ref]p. 146, Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, Verso: London, 2003.[/ref]

There was also the above image, where her brother holds two pictures as evidence of the extent of the atrocity committed. More than a memento mori, crying “remember your mortality”, a genre of photography common in the West during the 19th century, these images held by familial hands, say: “remember what they have done, the consequences of this occupation and seek justice accordingly”.

Next to the more graphic pictures, the most commonly circulated image was one taken from a family photograph. It is now the image for her entry in Wikipedia. Scanned at a low resolution and radically cropped, the Iman_alHams.jpg filtered through various websites. In a sense, it operated as an icon for her story. It was quite striking that such a private image, normally kept safely within a family album was traveling across the world wide web and had become public property.

There is a brutality to the cropping, she has literally been amputated from the one who embraces her. As has happened to so many others, tragic circumstances made this private possession a public document. Once the analog had been converted into data, her image was no longer her own or even her family’s. It is a piece of evidence which can wielded to tell different even conflictual stories. As data in the space of flows and circulation, it has and continues to be downloaded to desktops, re-named, sometimes cropped, inserted into files, and manipulated.

For example, above is the same picture, now with the embrace of the arm photoshopped out, and converted into a Hamas martyr poster. All familial traces have been completely erased. A simple photograph, that was perhaps taken in a local photo-studio, or even at school, has lost its origins.

Of course this is nothing new, appropriation has been a key feature of photography since its invention. As Sontag writes: “The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.” [ref]Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, p.39[/ref]

Another Time, Another Setting: Mementos Versus Data

Over the summer, I went to Rimini for two weeks with my family. If you’ve ever been to an Italian pensione on the coast, you know it’s a cheap family holiday filled ritual. In the morning, there’s coffee and sweet cakes, followed by a stroll to the umbrelloni, where you bask in the sunshine in between subsequent meals.

The air was hot that day, but like all beaches, there was a light breeze that cools the body. My son was playing with his shovel and pail digging holes and filling them up again. I was laying on a reclining chair positioning myself in the shadow to avoid burning. Then, I turned on my side, where a rather well-fed hairy Italian man sat reading his newspaper. I didn’t have my glasses on, and it took a while for me to focus on the cover of his paper and its headline image. Then I realized, it was two young men having nooses placed around their necks. In shock, I turned to my partner and said in a low voice, can you read the caption under the image on that newspaper. He whispered back, giving a general translation: “It looks like two teenagers have been executed in Tehran for having sex with another younger boy. It says gay and human rights organizations are protesting.”

When I saw the man get up and start to throw his paper in the trash. I asked if I could have it, and he kindly obliged. Fetching my scissors from the bottom of my bag, I clipped out the picture and placed it in a book I was reading with hopes of finding more about the story from an English resource.

Several weeks later when I arrived home in the Netherlands, ironically, I realized I had placed it in a short story by Borges called Funes, His Memory. It’s about a man who remembered everything to the tiniest of detail, so much so, he was condemned to live in the dark, unable to bear the constant registration of his surroundings. It’s interesting to note, that rather than leading to a richness of experience as one would expect, his gift to remember everything, only led to enumeration, in other words, data.

On a material level, the newspaper clipping will remain in this chapter where I placed it that summer. Unlike images online, which take on a life of their own, the clipping is frozen between these pages, until something happens.  Perhaps  the book is loaned to a friend, or maybe it eventually finds its way to a secondhand bookshop where someone else, might think: “What a morbid image… wonder why this is here?”  In other words, this clipping stays put, like a strange reminder or memento.

However, Iman’s image is different.  As data, it can continually re-flow into other forms of information, historicization and propaganda. Again, to use Sontag’s words: it can be “blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.” But in this case, context is multiple.  Not only is the image embedded in different narratives, but it is also viewed from various points of reception.

Nicholas Mirzoeff in his book Watching Babylon: the war in Iraq and global visual culture, elaborates on this notion. In his research on how images from the second Gulf War are being understood, he takes on what it means to “watch” in the context of the American suburb of Long Island. He talks about a kind of “vernacular watching”:

“Based on the work in feminist media studies and cultural studies, vernacular watching refers to the divergent and diverse act of looking in everyday life by which individuals become situated as visual subjects.” [ref]p.30, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Watching Babylon: the war in Iraq and global visual culture, Routledge: New York, 2005.[/ref]

In other words, in thinking about the nature of online images, not only is a geography of distribution to be taken into account, but also a geography of reception. When I am in Rotterdam waiting in the classroom, I am a very different viewer than when I am at Rimini on the beach.  Although the net is often seen as a-spatial or a-geographical, it is in fact, a place of multiple geographies.  Those sites or viewing conditions can potentially be mapped to reveal something about the way images operate online, and how their meanings shift in circulation.

In the Kitchen: An Unexpected Reunion

Sitting at the table with my laptop open, I try to reconstruct my first encounter with her image. Then, as I have done so often before, I type ‘Iman Darweesh Al Hams‘ into Google. Much to my surprise, it pulls a photograph, I’ve never seen:

It’s the original image from which the Iman_alHams.jpg was cropped.  Most likely, it had been online all along, hidden by an obscure tag or simply labeled in another language.  Clearly, someone  downloaded the j.peg and gave it a new name which suddenly rendered it visible to Google’s web crawlers.  For the moment, she is reunited with her brother, at least in image. This has been yet another bifurcation in the rhizomatic archiving or un-archiving of her story.

My encounter is one amongst many in the multi-authored, multi-user space of the web.  And this  text, is a narrative attempt to trace that history.  However, I have to admit, in tracking her image and melding it with my own biography, there is an uneasy if not uncomfortable alliance.  Like so many on the net, I too have appropriated her image to speak of other agendas.  After all, this is a real story, about a girl who went to school in a conflict zone and was ultimately the victim of a senseless act of violence.  And sadly, the circumstances of her death are not unique.

Although not as politically urgent, the currency of her image reveals nonetheless, other socially relevant issues that are crucial to understanding how the net constructs cultural memory and history.  Not only users decide the content of the web; search engines and the way they filter, dictate the narrative existence or non-existence of many.  Furthermore, there are those who are not online due to their remoteness or economic circumstances.  They are unsearchable and unseen in every respect, and no script or code will make their images visible.

I try to imagine what will happen in ten or fifteen years when I enter the name of ‘Iman Darweesh Al Hams’ into Google. Will her image be embedded into an infinite number of narratives, inscribed into a history conceived as a chorus, rather than a singular authoritative voice?  Or, will there be only fragmentary traces of data left on un-maintained sites.  I can only speculate about the future of her image.  While history is woven from data, data does not necessarily guarantee the existence of history.  Like Borges’ character Funes, illustrates, data can be overwhelming.  It can, in its staggering abundance, make significant things invisible while hiding them in plain view.  To my mind, these issues of representation are of critical importance.  As Walter Benjamin noted: “For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns, threatens to disappear irretrievably.” [ref]Theses on the Philosophy of History, Illuminations, London: Fontana, 1973.[/ref]

(This essay was originally published as a part of Weak Media by CARGO publications, 2006)