Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Stephen Sheehi reviews The Resolution of the Suspect

Miki Kratsman and Ariella Azoulay. The Resolution of the Suspect. Cambridge, Mass.: Radius Books, 2016. 216 pp.

Review by Stephen Sheehi

Initially, I wondered whether Resolution of the Suspect was two books: analytic text masterfully written by Ariella Azoulay in her characteristically beautiful prose, and haunting photographs of occupation by Israeli photojournalist Miki Kratsman taken over the past thirty years. Jeffrey Quilter’s preface and Azoulay’s extended introductory chapter contrast in dimension and length with a series of five inserted texts (ranging from two to six pages) that divide the photographic sections into “Borrowed Time,” “Targeted Killings,” “Not Afraid to Be Photographed,” “Death Delayed in a Photograph,” and “Out of Frame.” Yet, this book is neither an illustrated narrative nor a theoretical narrative applied to an archive. Although this book will be of interest and use to the larger theoretical fields of visual culture and photography studies, it is only partly an illustration of a method where narrative and images collaborate to forge an emancipated spectator.

Kratsman’s work is less about photography theory and practice or even about the Palestinians themselves and more about a renegotiation of his own identity as a Jewish Israeli citizen and his relationship to the noncitizen Palestinians governed by the state of Israel. Kratsman’s portraits expose the “malfunction” of his citizenship, a consequence of the dual regimes of Israel/Palestine (one government with two ruling regimes, a civil regime for Israeli citizens and a military regime for noncitizen Palestinians) (p. 35). Photography recalibrates a scopic field that otherwise conspires to cast Palestinians “as both suspect/wanted man (a security threat to sovereignty) and as a victim of the violation of human rights, without this contradiction appearing absurd and unbearable” (pp. 34–35). “This book of photographs,” Azoulay explains, “unfolds the drama of portrait making in circumstances wherein certain people—an entire population of individuals—are doomed to appear under the resolution of the suspect” (p. 25).  Kratsman’s intentionally repetitious images track “the occupier’s gaze at the occupied and the occupied gaze at the occupier, not as two separate and parallel gazes, but rather as a complex field of power relations around life and death” (p. 82), around the Israeli military regime and what I might call the  Palaestinus Sacer.  As such, Kratsman’s portraits register “encounters between a photographer who looks at someone and the way this someone wants her- or himself to be presented in the portrait” (p. 43). But, in the case of Palestine, this encounter, especially between a Palestinian noncitizen and an Israeli citizen, is cast within the perennial “presence of deliberate death sentences” (p. 43). In fact, Resolution of the Suspect is organized around “wanted men” often designated as “targeted for execution” or “targeted extermination” (pp. 73, 74). In fact, the most powerful moments of this book are its images of assassinated “wanted men” identified by family and friends but also the intimate portraits and voice of Zakaria Zubeida, himself marked for death by the Israelis.

Under the shadow of death  that characterizes the occupation of Palestine, Kratstman’s practice “operates as a framework for shaping other models of gaze and power relations between Israelis and Palestinians, through a renewed view of existing materials in different circumstances, times, and spaces” (p. 83). According to Azoulay, he “relinquished some of the fantasy image of the photojournalist as lone rider.” In its place, his work makes visible that the “role as a photographer depends on his [Kratsman’s] simplicity contract with others” (p. 40). Here, perhaps more than in any of her writing, we see Azoulay’s theory of the “civil contract of photography” most articulately in action. Kratsman sees himself as a collaborator, an intentionally ironic term with double meaning because the book proceeds from a particular series taken by Kratsman in the village of Qatabiya the day after a “lynching” of a Palestinian suspected of collaborating with the Israeli Occupation Forces. The contact sheets are blown up and relate a staccato story of the Israelis arresting Palestinian men, some with their heads covered, punctuated by a photograph of the empty electric pole from which the alleged collaborator was hung a day earlier. The photographer refuses to collaborate with the “ruling group to which he belongs by virtue of his nationality and citizenship” but collaborates with the Palestinians not in order to speak for them but to participate with them in a new civil contract (p. 50).

Kratsman acknowledges that “lifting the camera is a very violent act” and realizes using that “weapon” demands a “contract” between him and his Palestinian “partners” that is perpetually made and remade and that is circumstantial, conditional, and relational, depending on proximity and the moment (p. 115). This “contract” requires, on his part, self-awareness of what to wear, how to carry himself, and how to announce his arrival and departure to his Palestinians partners from photographic scenes. “Part of the contract,” he says, “is knowing how you learn or internalize codes of conduct.” The statement speaks powerfully beyond photography to the privileged, who aspire to “abstain” from their privilege and engage in acts of solidarity as allies (p. 49). With this in mind, Kratsman’s practice remains conscientious of the “risks of repeating the soldier’s instrumental gaze” (p. 118)—a structural gaze of Zionism and the Israeli military regime that naturalize the occupation and the dehumanization of the Palestinians, who always remain suspect. Determined to contravene the inherent rules of colonial realities, “Kratsman’s insistence of seeing the Palestinian rather than the Israeli solider as his partner—unraveling the field of vision which the Palestinian is doomed to appear in the spectator’s view through the resolution of the suspect—is part of the photographer’s insistence on his right not to share (or to abstain from) Israel’s feast on the land” (p. 48).

Resolution of the Suspect reproduces parts of the archive that Kratsman launched on Facebook, called “People I Met,” to which he uploaded thousands of portraits cropped from photographs he has taken over the past two decades. He asks Palestinians to identify portraits of men, women, girls, and boys from the West Bank and Gaza, telling us if they if they are alive. As such, it becomes a collective archive where Kratsman is not the proprietor of the photographs but a caretaker of a collective body of visual knowledge that both belongs to its photographed subjects and demands that they use it in service of liberation (p. 40). Azoulay reminds us that “spectators are thus trained to deny how their own actions and interactions contribute to the way the world is shaped, tending to describe it as though it is not in any way a consequence of their own interventions” (p. 34), and Kratsman asks spectators “to take an active part” in viewing the images (p. 28). Resolution of the Suspect delivers on what it promises: “when a depository of photographs created on a slippery slope of a regime-made disaster is opened as an archive to civil viewing, the truth of the political regime—the violence of the law on which it is founded—emerges” (p. 43).