Last time I met Michael in Cairo he was on his way to the West Bank for ethnographic fieldwork loaded with lots of lenses and a medium-format camera. I have always been curious about anthropologists and other social scientists that employ photography and other art related means in their research process. I thought Michael would be doing a series of portraits to accompany the oral histories, but when he came back from the West Bank, he was carrying a plastic camera instead and not a single portrait.

Ahmad: You have used photography for your ethnographic research in the West Bank. My understanding is that this was part of your mainly text-based dissertation. Why did you decide to use photography, and what were you trying to relay?

Michael: I need to first say a few things about the site I’ve been working on. My fieldwork is focused on the former al-Fara’a detention center, which was operated by the Israelis as an interrogation center and military base from 1982 to1995. In 1995, the Israelis turned the site over to the Palestinian Authority and it was converted into a youth center. The torture cells and interrogation rooms, although in extreme disrepair, have not been altered since 1995. In 2007, I began taking trips there with former detainees. I recorded and transcribed their interviews, but also photographed the spaces where they narrated their experiences. Instead of trying to ‘document’ the space of al-Fara’a and relay a type of factual knowledge to the reader/viewer, I wanted to explore an alternate set of questions intrinsic to the nature of photographic images and their relationship with narrative. For instance, if language fails to capture or convey the subjective experience of physical pain, can an image of the space where torture was inflicted serve as another way to bridge the gap between suffering and representation? Can such a representation be produced without digressing into a gratuitous and sensationalized representation of “child torture” that offers up decades old scars as only ‘tragedy on a platter’ for the viewer/reader – reducing, again, Palestinians’ existence to their proximity to Israeli oppression?

Am I, the ethnographer/photographer/writer, obliged to convince the reader/viewer of what it was like to be imprisoned at al-Fara’a (perhaps even what it is like to be tortured) to gain a fuller insight into the wider theoretical concerns of this ethnography? Finally, how can visual techniques lead to new and critical insights into the conflict?

Ahmad: Are you saying that the site itself dictated your choice to employ photography?

Michael: In some ways, yes. In general, I like exploring ruined, forgotten spaces and of course, some research projects are more conducive to photographic representation than others. This project happened to be a great mix of the two, but it came about organically.

Ahmad: Tell me about that.

Michael: In the last three years, my relationship to al-Fara’a has unfolded along a number of different registers. My first visit there was as a photographer, on an assignment of sorts. In August 2007, I met a journalist friend, Nora Barrows-Friedman, for coffee in Nablus. Pale-faced, she described the scenes she had witnessed at al Fara’a that morning:: torture rooms, remains of interrogation cells, 2×2 ‘refrigerator’ cells, and a man called Raed, a former detainee who now works at the facility and whose office is in his former cell. Nora asked if I would take photos for her story. I agreed.

Since then, I’ve used al Fara’a to guide my graduate studies in anthropology and activism around issues of political prisoners. As I have coursework during the year, I’m only able to visit the site during summer. This cyclical research pattern means I work from a set of materials during the course of a year, making room for long periods of reflection about a relatively static site not afforded to most photographers or researchers.

Ahmad: I am curious about the centrality of the notion of space in your work. Is it fair to say that you are doing ethnography of a spatial experience?

Michael: Space, or spatial memory, has a special place in the narratives of al-Fara’a. For the first two years of its operation, there were no interrogation rooms. Those detained in this period recall beatings in the cells at the front of the facility and were then released after a few days. As there were no prolonged periods of isolation, you might say their relationship to the space was less intimate than that of those who detained later.

After interrogations were introduced in 1985, detainees experienced a highly sophisticated, multi-spaced system of torture, interrogation and isolation. Those detained during this period have a deep physical relationship with the site. They marked it with their personal, village, and faction names, calendars, as well as political slogans, Quranic verses and other phrases intended to fortify detainees against confession (such as “Confession is betrayal” or “Stay strong”).

As you might expect, recollections about what happened, in which rooms, and for what purposes varies wildly from one detainee to the next. But I’m concerned less with trying to pin down ‘real’ spatial experiences than with looking at ‘how’ these spaces are remembered. In order to tease out some of these nuances, I asked former detainees to draw maps in the rough form of blueprints where they would identify whatever they felt was most relevant to their experience. Read against the text of their interviews, the spaces and events chosen for demarcation reveal a lot about spatial memory.

“The x’s are where they put us in a sort of confinement – we were ‘put away’ for an indefinite amount of time. We went away and didn’t know when we were coming back. The x’s are about 12 rooms, each one 4 feet by 12 feet, and a tiny window. I stayed there, everyone stayed here at some point, for months at a time, with six to eight even 15 other boys in one room. No toilet, just a bucket that would regularly get tripped over and spill its fetid contents. Every day, if we were lucky, we had one minute to empty the bucket and return back to the x. When a boy would come back from being tortured, we would crowd to one side of the room so he could sleep. We could hear the sounds of the generator outside. We could hear the sounds of the adan [call to prayer] from the local mosque. We were disoriented and couldn’t breathe in the x’s. There is still the heavy iron door. This sound we still can’t get out of our heads. This was the sound of the x’s.”

Ahmad: You photographed the spaces where memories were recollected and it seems that your interviews instigated those recollections. Did you conduct the interviews on site? How do you see the role of your ethnography, and for that matter the employment of photography, in the resurrection of those memories? Or is this series of photographs the result of an encounter with memory? Where they ‘gleaned’ from memory, so to speak?

Michael: The role of ethnography, I think, is to place the subjective act of (re)membering within its cultural, political, and personal fields; to focus on the politics of interpretation rather than attempting to verify content. There is that which happened and that which is said to have happened, to borrow from Michel-Rolph Trioullout. A researcher must wade through the epistemological murk created by this dissonance.

Photographs play a somewhat dubious role in the animation of memories. There is what happened, what was photographed, and what is viewed. There is the site of al-Fara’a – and the myriad of experiences that culminated in producing the “place” – and there is the photograph: an invitation to speculate “what” al-Fara’a was. This conjecture is secured by its juxtaposition with the story of someone who is recalling an experience in the space where it happened. The researcher/photographer is then faced with a choice: to give this narrative a degree of authority in verifying the content of the photograph or posit them both as equally contestable and open for interpretation.

My intent is not to construct factual artifacts for a complete representation of al-Fara’a, to say, “This is what al Fara’a was.” Instead, I want to offer only the fragments of memory and traces of experience that can whisper to the reader/viewer: “This is the al-Fara’a I remember.” These images, maps and narratives offer only an encounter with a particular retelling.

“I’d been in al-Fara’a for six days. He dragged me off to the bathroom and told me to take my cloths off and go under the water. I did as he said. It was nearly midnight and the water was extremely cold. After this, he ordered me to masturbate until I ejaculated. This I refused to do – I couldn’t – and when he insisted, I tried, but wasn’t able to do it, so he brought an elastic band and began to beat my penis until I screamed so loudly that he stopped. He told me I had two minutes to get dressed. I started putting my clothes on and was just getting the last thing on when he said: ‘You’re too late, take your clothes off again.’ It went on like this for more than an hour, and when it was nearly morning he left me in the cell.”

Ahmad: I think of your images—those vortographs, if I may call them that—and I wonder, ‘Whose memory really is this; who is the ‘I’?’ Those images seem to distort the integrity of memory somehow. There is something infantile about them. Are you working out a ‘post-memory’ of some sort?

Michael: When I first began, I tried,naively perhaps, to recreate the gaze of the narrator in a few frames. The vortographs, as you call them, reflected some of the thematic refrains of a feeble, perhaps infantile disorientation that most detainees referenced.

You raise a critical point: The “I” who remembers is an editorial decision made by myself, the ethnographer. There were many people who had experiences between the walls of al-Fara’a: Palestinian detainees, Israeli torturers, Israeli objectors and Palestinian collaborators – just to name a few. It is I who decides which narratives are represented here and which are silenced. Through these inclusions and exclusions an authored product is created.

The project would take on a wholly different political and ethical life should I be able to interview Israeli soldiers or Palestinian collaborators who engaged in torture. Although I haven’t visited the site with Israelis (something I’d like to attempt in the future) it is an interesting proposition: how would their narratives interact with images? How does a torturer view the facility? What would their memories look like? What would they label on maps? What are the hidden and explicit politics of such a project? All of these are questions I’m hoping to explore in the future.

Ahmad: Was your use of photography aimed at undoing the disconnect between narrative and memory? Is that what you expect from the juxtaposition of photographs and narratives?

Michael: Let me briefly sketch my thoughts on this. When a photograph is taken, the spaces, things and bodies captured are constituted as an object. Similarly, when a text is authored or a narrative is recorded and transcribed, another object is created. When these two creations, the text and image, are combined, another object is created. This third object is a form that can instigate a different type of knowledge and relationship to al-Fara’a (or any ethnographic project) for the viewer/reader, beyond what image and narrative can achieve in isolation. This is not a matter of accuracy or truth, but a difference engendered by representational form.

Exploring the constitution of this difference speaks directly to my decision to exclude bodies, especially faces, in the images. Some might criticize this choice as colluding with the Zionist project’s effort to erase Palestinians from Palestine. Indeed, decontextualized images of ruin reduce Palestinians to objects of occupation that cannot exist external to their own oppression. But if the images were portraits of the former detainees, it would, I think, place the ‘face’ in a position of narrator. Then, the experience narrated would lose some of its ambiguity as well as the annihilation of space and time that should be stressed. Images shock us. They are invitations to anger and pity, but can also prick one’s imagination in a for my purposes more useful way . They can help us sift through an unsettled, abstract image of a space and a narrative of that space and picture the relationship between the two.

Ahmad: Last time we met, when you were on your way to the West Bank, you had a Pentax 67 on you; a large format camera used mainly for studio portraits. I thought you would be working on a series of deadpan portraits like the ones that have dominated documentary art photography for years. But you did not to photograph the interviewees and opted for a Holga, a $30 plastic toy, instead. What happened?

Michael: Well, that idea – to do deadpan portraits of detainees holding childhood photos with the Pentax 67– had to be shelved for the time being, for practical reasons only. Tracking down photos and detainees with whom I feel comfortable enough to try an experiment like thatis time consuming. I tried once with modest results.Due to time constraints I was not able to try again this summer. But I certainly will in the future. I had started using the Holga on my previous trip, so I continued that work this year.

Ahmad: Photos from your last visit shows signs departure from the interior, close-up imagery characterized the earlier series. Suddenly we don’t see walls but a landscape, an abandoned amusement park: you moved outdoors. How do you relate these to the earlier ones?

Michael: Well, I’ve been taking these images all along but haven’t included them, yet, in the al-Fara’a series, though they share a lot both conceptually and aesthetically. Here you have an abandoned amusement park where a hollowed out passenger jet and a Ferris wheel lurk in front of an abandoned Israeli checkpoint. It is hard to image a scene that lends itself more readily to florid imagery about the type of destruction and ruin occupation brings. This site has a complex history full of unknowable experiences with which a photo-essay cannot begin to grapple. The challenge here is essentially the same as at al-Fara’a: how do you take a site that seems ready-made for another uncritical polemic about the suffering of Palestinians and create imagery that prompts a critical reflection.

Ahmad: As a photographer working within a regional, political context like Palestine you are always working against a backdrop of iconographies. You inherit tropes of representation that you have to work over and against. How did you work around that? Can it be a burden?

Michael: The visual tropes of Palestine that color our thoughts about the place — the gunman, the destroyed house, the screaming mother, the wall – are set within pre-established political frameworks and usually convey a sense of literalness or urgency. Market-driven photojournalism exacerbates this, relying on cultural and political stereotypes to drive emotional responses. In turn, most images we see of Palestine rarely instigate a new, critical or nuanced understanding of the photographed subject.

A question I’ve often had while photographing Palestine might help to answer the one you pose. Do visual “solidarity” projects reproduce the meta-narrative of ‘suffering-for-rights’, where it is assumed that because Palestinian suffering has remained largely invisible to the international community, making the suffering visibile would lead to a type of enfranchisement for Palestinians? Are those who wish to show the “other” Palestine in its everydayness, the minutia that goes on during and apart from violence, really avoiding the trope of suffering? In both cases, is the product not rehashing existing binaries of occupier/occupied, victim/perpetrator or torturer/tortured?

The question remains: can we produce images that offer political commentary but do not easily lend themselves to established political rhetoric? This leads to my inclination to employ plastic cameras to capture a landscape bereft of human subjects. Unaccompanied by the expression of experience, images lack the power to reveal the complexity of life under occupation. Those who wish to understand and bear witness have a task: to produce alternative forms of visual and textual representation, with the intent of challenging the stale political and ideological binaries that have come to dominate the Question of Palestine.

Published October 16, 2010