Photographs that Refuse to Stay Silent on the Palestinian Catastrophe

What stands out in Wissam Nassar’s photography of the current conflict in Palestine is the intensity with which certain bodies are articulating their task, refusing to perform disability, instead exuding capacity.

Wissam Nassar, Palestinian Saber al-Ashkar, 29, hurls rocks during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on May 11, 2018, as Palestinians demonstrate for the right to return to their historic homelands in what is now Israel (photo by Wissam Nassar via Instagram)

A massacre in Gaza occasioned by the US includes 60 dead, and at least 2700 wounded. The photographs are astonishing, appalling, apocalyptic. Many say they have no words. Spectacular violence is designed to silence. State violence intends to suppress speech and even intellect.

But refuse the intent to break the connection between the visible and the sayable. Let’s gather ourselves and refuse not to speak.

For the photographs are not silent. They resonate with revenant pasts that are once again walking the earth. 1948. 1917. 1848. These are at once specters of past defeats and echoes of victories, almost, but not quite, attained. They provide no lessons, only questions.

“Oh my body, make me a person who asks questions!” Frantz Fanon


These two astonishing photographs were taken by Palestinian photo-journalist Wissam Nassar. Above is a picture of Saber al-Ashqar taken May 11, 2018. The photograph is now his memorial, as he was reported killed by Israeli occupation forces on May 14, 2018. A new catastrophe for Nakba Day.

In a second picture, Nassar captures a young woman (unnamed by him, preserving her anonymity) counterbalancing her crutch and a slingshot. Paired, the pictures evoke David slinging a stone toward the giant Goliath. In the Western tradition, David has been mostly pictured with a sword, despite the Bible story. Only Caravaggio showed Goliath’s head with the impact of a stone, a queer indentation into power.

Wissam Nassar, Palestinian protesters hurl stones at Israeli troops during a protest on the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, Monday, May 14, 2018. On the border with Gaza, at least 58 Palestinians were killed, marking the deadliest day of the demonstrations since late March (photo by Wissam Nassar via Instagram)

What stands out is the intensity with which these bodies are articulating their task. Concentration, focus, and co-ordination in the service of political work. It is likely they are targeting not a giant but one of the drones used to deliver US-made tear gas. Form expressing meaning in space: these are history paintings for the time of catastrophe, the Nakba.

Needless to say, the drama is enhanced by their refusal to perform being disabled, despite al-Ashqar having lost his legs in a previous Israeli drone attack and the young woman being bandaged. Far from debility, they exude capacity. The photographs depict in full the ways in which the regime’s claim to the right to maim Palestinians does not destroy them.

“The purportedly humanitarian practice of sparing death by shooting to maim has … the logic of ‘will not let die,’” Jasbir Puar


The two young people act in a landscape that mixes World-War-One tactics of smoke and barbed wire with Israeli neo-colonialism in the ruins of the Ottoman province of Palestine that became the British Mandate with the formalization of foreign colonization of the Levant in 1923. Never say empire’s histories are over.

Together, these actions demonstrate what Jean Genet called the Palestinian “will to live, even at the cost of life itself.” It is that capacity that many in the West find so alien and strange, the consent to see your own life as expendable in the service of life. For some, these pictures will show monsters, inhuman in their failure to attend to the primacy of the individual.

For Frantz Fanon, decolonizing was the work necessarily adopted by the unemployed and destitute in colonial regimes, those he called the lumpenproletariat, adopting the Marxist term. Far from criticizing,  as other Marxists might have done, he saw them as the only force that could challenge and overturn coloniality — precisely because they had nothing to lose. Israel has devoted many resources to producing Gaza as a city of the damned (damnés). And so, in these photographs, the decolonial class appears again.

The photographer Nassar is no amateur. Born in 1984, he attended a now-destroyed university in Gaza and took Reuters classes. For his work in the 2014 Gaza war, he was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. He has worked for the New York Times and dpa (Deutsche Presse-Agentur.) His work has all the quality of the professional and he is actively aware of mainstream global image standards. He has said: “I never worked for Hamas or Fatah. I work for international magazines and organizations, and I do respect their laws on the objectiveness of photojournalism.”

Despite this professionalism, the photographs can no longer do the work of Civil-Rights-era imagery and create change by appealing to the conscience of the state. The people who happened to be on the land first have no standing in the eyes of the settler colony and its allies. To even be understood and then to help make change, the pictures need to be considered in intersectional and relational terms.

Image of the welcome letter written by Mayor Bill de Blasio for the guests of the American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center’s 35th annual dinner (screenshot by the author of the commemorative publication created after the event)

From the US, you can use the pictures to see what the euphemism “gentrification” actually means: violent displacement here finances and enables violent displacement there. The slow violences of poverty, homelessness and segregation in the US enable hi-tech murder at the so-called Gaza “border.” At the opening of the Jerusalem Embassy, Ivanka Trump stood as the emblem of real estate power next to Steve Mnuchin, Treasury secretary and avatar of financial capital. Colonization is not a metaphor.

US ambassador David Friedman, who pushed for the embassy move to Jerusalem, is a New York lawyer based on Long Island. In addition to working for Trump, his firm has represented Enron. His organization, the American Friends of Bet El, donates millions to illegal settlements, supported financially by the Kushner Foundation — represented by Jared at the US embassy opening — and endorsed by NYC mayor Bill de Blasio (see letter reproduced above). John Bolton, now a National Security Adviser, spoke, as did Israeli Minister of Justice and hardliner Ayelet Shaked. The theme throughout Bet El’s recent annual dinner event was “Jewish sovereignty over the land,” meaning the West Bank. That’s colonialism — funded from New York.

In Wissam Nassar’s photographs, the horizon of decolonial possibility becomes briefly visible. Embrace it. These photographs will soon be forgotten if we allow it. Display them, teach them, make art with them, write about them.

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