It all started with a video clip I saw, by chance, after a day of sifting through videos shot by Palestinians in the occupied territories. One night, I saw a direct face off between the Palestinian cameraperson Zidan Sharbati and an Israeli woman. This face-off was between a very different kind of weapon: between cameras.
As Zidan filmed, behind the other camera was a religious Jewish woman in her thirties or forties, with two teenagers next to her, who I presume to be her children. She and Zidan appear to be standing only two or three meters apart, each with their lens fixed on the other. The woman’s camera covers her eyes, like a black bar to preserve her anonymity. It’s night, in what I recognize to be Hebron, and the tension between them is palpable. Something must have just happened, but I’m not sure what. These two camera people stand in the street, locked in a recorded checkmate.
This image took hold of me– and I began to find more and more like it: hundreds of instances where cameras faced off against other cameras. Hundreds of instances where a Palestinian and an Israeli were each facing each other, seeing each other, almost waiting for each other. Hundreds of instances where there was a direct tension of visioning.
Who would look away first? What would each do with their footage? What was each hoping that these images would prove? What would be the impact of this surveillance, and of this simultaneous, echoing counter-surveillance?
I had been researching in the B’Tselem video archives, in a small office building in west Jerusalem, not far from where my grandmother lived. B’Tselem is an Israeli NGO that, in 2007, began distributing cameras to Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip – areas where tensions are high and clashes are commonplace. It has now amassed an archive of over 4,500 hours of footage.
I started this project because I do not understand the conflict, neither intellectually nor emotionally. I have never been to Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem — Israeli law forbids all of its citizens, myself included, from going to any Palestinian-controlled city. I had therefore come to the archives to flood myself with a view that was not my own.
I started this project because of one other fact: and that is, what distinguishes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — more than any other conflict of its kind — is the freedom to record. Israeli law is more lenient on recording in public than the state of Massachusetts. The volunteers who film for B’Tselem sign an explicit legal document with the Israeli Defense Forces, and wear official badges on lanyards around their necks, as if they were conference attendees.
As I sifted through thousands of hours of raw footage, shot by what I’ve come to call an “accidental class of filmmakers,” I thought about how there are two kinds of shooting: shooting with a camera, and shooting with a rifle. “One shoots for his life, one shoots for the life of his regime,” wrote Rabih Mroue, a scholar writing about the Syrian revolution. These filmmakers are shooting back.
But this camera versus camera? This is a step further. This is where everything folds in on itself, with echoes of infinity mirrors and diagonal arguments. This is shooting back at shooting back.
Elbows, Thumbs, and Middle Fingers
Before I get into shooting back at shooting back, I want to talk about the rise to dominance of this recurrent trope, because it did not commence all at once.
The first way station is the mere acknowledgement of the camera by posing, smiling even. The promise of surveillance changes that which is surveilled — this is the Observer Effect, writ large. Often the camera is ignored, so it’s remarkable when its presence begins to be acknowledged.
I began to find clips where settlers or soldiers break from code and explicitly pose for the camera. In a clip of Nayef D’ana’s footage, two male settlers strike a posture for the camera, arm in arm, each with a large gun and a thumbs up. The settlers take back power by choosing the shape of their bodies. They pose as if in front of the Eiffel tower. They pose as if their images are heading into a family photo album, not a human rights archive. Their pose is mocking. Their pose is playful. Their pose says that they refuse to be caught candidly by the camera; they will be captured in the bodily shape they wish to put forth into the world.
The second way station to shooting back at shooting back is the ghosting arm gesture of the camera. In one clip, I saw two young Israeli boys imitating the comportment of the cameraman – mimicking the way his elbow must have been tucked in close to his side for stability, and his hand curved up over the camera body.
In the archives, I found footage of a 2008 B’Tselem training session, where a staff member taught Palestinian boys to do the “T-Rex”: to tuck their elbows into their sides and hold the camera tightly to their chests for stability.
All of the footage in the B’Tselem video archive is amateur: it is blurry, shaky, tripod-free. But stable, clear, and rich images are what subvert dominance. Clear images subvert by demanding accountability without obstruction. The stability of an image of an image is its power.
Therefore in the earlier mimicry of the Israeli boys’ gestures, I see the foreshadowing of the camera to come: their possible futures as cameramen who shoot back.”
The Wet Lens and the Blind Lens
Way station number three to Shooting back at Shooting back is the Wet Lens and the Blind lens.
There are many ways to fight a lens:
Lens is dirty.
Lens is wet.
Lens is capturing too much light, too little light.
Lens is moving too fast.
Lens is too far from action.
Lens is obstructed.
Lens is cracked.
In this clip, I saw a young Israeli down on the street, from behind a grate. He displays a bottle of coca cola to the camera, and points at his eye. He slingshots the liquid at the lens – a direct hit. The wet camera drops its gaze and quickly shuts off.
Other wetnesses happen more quickly, more intimately, more violently.
And then there is the fight with light: the moments where young Jewish settlers realized they could blind Palestinian cameras with mirrors and the sun.
When I first found these clips, I couldn’t stop watching them – their sheer beauty floored me: something clicks inside me in the moments when the children get the angles right, and something melts in me in the moments they get it wrong and the camera blindness gives way into a vision of their young faces again. Do they know what they’re doing? Do they see the stakes?
Because in these clips I see a bootstrapping of sorts: an ingenious fight against the camera as an object of penetrative seeing. Moreover the mirrors cause a blindness that is aphysical: that is, there is no literal obstruction to the lens, but rather a flood of too much light that overwhelms the sensors, and forces a penetrative camera gaze into a momentary lapse, like a pulse in a radar, a blink of a drone.
There is a bigger picture here, for this conflict is as much one of media and metadata as it is one of physical borders, boundaries, and wars. We have long known that it is a media war – and such is the case for many conflicts, from the Arab spring with its Twitter uprisings, to the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent push to arm police with body cams.
What is new in this archive – in what I call shooting back at shooting back – is that we get to see the exact moment when the physical conflict moves into a media conflict. The liminal state of transition is the camera itself, and when cameras face off with other cameras, we witness the fight to intervene on that state change from physical data to metadata. We witness the tension of visions colliding, in media res.
We witness the attempt to block that state transition. Often soldiers take out their phones because they cannot block the lens with their hands – the most natural reaction to a camera in one’s face. Remember, all this filming is legal. So the funnel narrows: if you want to block a camera, your only option is to film back. Or walk away, defeated.
And here the camera-as-obstruction is most clear. The iPhone isn’t even on: it’s backwards. Its only purpose is to obstruct. Amidst the field and flock of sheep, its anachronistic shiny black surface becomes a technological mirror for the camera itself, and the conflict more broadly.
Shooting back is, of course, a way to claim power. The claiming of this power looks like an elaborate, choreographed dance. Do you see them moving in duets, in trios, as if marking out a waltz that only they know? It is angry waltz, a frustrated one; one with embarrassment, past wounds, fear, indignancy, sadness – and also boredom, distraction, banality. They change partners, but the feelings persist.
In this waltz I sense the gravitas that perhaps the civil contract of photography is a complete fallacy. This contract is the idea that if one captures injustice on film, it will be remedied. But this is not how the civil contract of photography works. Do you remember when it was popular to circulate postcards of Black lynching in this country? They were celebrations! It has taken sweeping societal change on our part for those images to signify “injustice.” The images stay the same, and we are the ones who change. So if civil contracts of photography rely on images alone, they will always, always disappoint.
And then the waltz leaves the field and enters the home.
Here we see the phenomenon of the night search: the media becomes more private, more intimate, more personal. And here the camera of the Israeli soldier is not brandished in a moment of exasperation, but rather is mandated by the state. The soldier must awaken everyone in the home, gather them in one room, check each of their documents, and photograph them.
This is the primary way that I have seen the inside of Palestinian living rooms. This is how most Israelis have seen the insides as well.
In 2012, the Israeli army created a division of what it calls “combat cameramen” to document its own actions from the inside. Here you see a soldier with a head-mounted GoPro – one of his weapons among many others. Captured is the state change: the liminal moment where the physical war becomes a media war.
And of course this shooting back is not looked highly upon. “Atah Chayal,” says the Palestinian filmmaker in this clip – translation: “You’re a soldier!” The soldier shushes him. The Palestinian tries to finish his sentence: “You’re a soldier! Be… be… be…” He wants the soldier to be something else, to do something else other than film.
But that’s the thing: everyone wants the other side to be something else. Everyone wants the other side to stop filming. That is why they are filming in the first place.
The Next Echo
So we come to the last clip I will show, which I call “the next echo.”
Soldiers enter a house in Hebron.
This is a night search.
They find a hard drive.
“What’s on here?” they ask.
So the father in the home takes out his Toshiba laptop.
The soldiers continue to photograph the teenagers in the home, cataloging them as if for the future acts of violence.
There, that moment – like a foreshadowing, with a large shadow; with a flash, with a highlight, with the broad stroke of light.
What they find on this hard drive is all the material this family has filmed for B’Tselem recently. This is the next echo: where the mirroring of shooting back at shooting back turns into an infinity mirror.
We have two cameras here, already: the Palestinian and the Israeli. But we also footage of soldiers sitting and looking at past footage of soldiers. I almost feel as if the world should explode in paradox at this very moment: it’s like Cantor’s diagonal method, or Gödel’s first Incompleteness Theorem; or Russell’s Paradox in set theory, where you cannot say that a set is not a member of itself. In mathematics, turning a theorem back on itself is the easiest way to disprove it — and to show that your systematic view of truth is actually a set of crumbling hypotheses that contradict one another.
And this is what we have here, in shooting back at shooting back: we have cameras turned against cameras. “Everyday recordings can suddenly become acts of resistance,” wrote Carol Martin.
This resistance wants power. I think about Rabih Mroue’s observation that the tripod is a tool that stabilizes a camera, but also stabilizes weapons of artillery. For both, this stability enables a clear shot.
And all these cameras want to be defenses, too – they want to be shields. How funny, this camera turned into camera-as-shield. A camera is essentially a hole that lets in light. How can a hole be a shield? Shields are large, solid, iron. Shields are not holes in Nikons.
So much is at stake, here, where cameras face off against other cameras. What are we to do when the freedom to record does not cause freedom, in general? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that this is key question we now need to ask – not, ‘how can we distribute more cameras to more people’. Because the camera is simply the newest weapon, the camera is the newest shield, the camera is oldest symbol, the camera is real and the mediated face-off.
And in this face off, with its surveillance and simultaneous, echoing counter-surveillance, I believe that so much collapses.
Perhaps this collapse is good. Perhaps it is good to see where in war – like in mathematics – one’s systematic view of truth is actually a set of crumbling, contradictory hypotheses. In the rubble, we are left with only a question – for both sides: what are we to do when the freedom to record does not cause freedom, in general?