For about six years starting in 2012, artist Scott Caruth has been involved with periodical non-violent activism support to the ISM (International Solidarity Movement) in the West Bank, Palestine. Molatham (ملثم , an Arab verb literally translated as ‘to cover one’s face’ – but also generally referring to the people taking part in the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation) is the result of six years endeavour to understand the social and political role of the photographic medium within the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The book is an effective combination of texts and interviews from one side and archival/original photography from the other. On a first level, Molatham is a documentation of the social practice of studio portrait photography in the West Bank. It primarily engages with archival work from two major local photography studios, Studio Havana and Studio Chaplin; but on a further level, the visual narrative is constructed upon the socio/political shift undertaken by those same images going from the very private context for which they have been made to the politically-charged public domain of martyrdom posters plastered all over Palestinian streets.
Molatham engages with the limits of representation of a photographic practise that denies any personal agency to its subjects. Those limits become extremely evident within the heavily obtrusive systems of surveillance enforced by the Israeli Army over Palestinian territory, marked further by photojournalistic approaches that aim at reinforcing the stereotype image of suffering Palestinians across all news outlets. In this case, the camera/weapon capturing people’s image becomes an efficient tool for the dissemination of terror among the occupied citizens, often addressed as criminals by the Israeli Army only for having taken part in periodic non-violent protests. Or simply a propagandistic mean for the manipulation of reality to reinforce the old Zionist claim of an abandoned/inhabited land (Palestine) that justifies the ever-growing settlement of Israeli citizens.
In this regard, as the artist writes in one of the authored texts included in the book ‘It became crucial to discern between moments where the use of a camera may act as an extension of our solidarity work and those where it would compromise it entirely’, referring to his experience and the times when holding a camera in the presence of Israeli Army soldiers inevitably turns any individual into a persecuted target. It is the methodological dilemma arising from these circumstances that led Caruth to shift his attention from active photographic documentation to the more symbolically charged practice of studio portrait photography, a very popular and long-rooted tradition among the locals.
In the context of Palestinian studio photography, it is possible to restitute the political agency of self representation back to the subject, through a collaborative effort together with the studio photographer to create an image of the self that aligns with the subject’s own identity. In direct opposition to the type of images disseminated by the Israeli surveillance cameras together with the photojournalistic stereotypes. The first usually abused to prove the subject’s involvement in criminal actions against Israel. Here the photographed body loses its identity to become nothing more than a flawed piece of criminal evidence for its persecutors.
A very significant moment in exposing the fluidity of the ontological status of studio portraiture photography is when, after the first two chapters engaging with archival images of Palestinian people, the viewer is presented with a collection of portraits of young Palestinian prisoners. As mentioned in the text, this specific type of prison photography takes place once a year within the prisons’ walls. The purpose of those photos being to be sent back home as a memory to the family of the imprisoned men.
Many young Palestinians are forced into administrative detention by the Israeli Army (a type of detention allowed without any trial or charges against the person) – when they don’t lose their life resisting the occupation – from very early ages until late in their lives. Here is when the practice of studio portraiture, made with no other intent than personal circulation, meets prison photography to become both a relevant piece of the testimony of the subject’s life, of his reclusion and most often death. The portraits are then rearranged within the collective narrative denouncing the Palestinian oppression through the dissemination of martyrdom posters around the city. A final chance for remembrance, grief and manifestation of collective disdain of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
Interestingly, as noticed by the author, those same faces fighting for new visibility within the community are condemned to losing their identity once again because of their exposure to the elements and all outdoor conditions. A fight for identity that finds in the photographic medium a privileged means of iteration as well as oppression. A double-sided condition well expressed and exposed by this body of work with the elaboration of a sophisticated narrative structure that leaves no space for indifference.
The work, published in 2019 by Trolley Books, is a sensibly made visual investigation of great socio political relevance. It is able to inform the viewer of the circumstances within which it has been conceived and carried on, without failing to provide a much needed critical and personal account of the historical events that led to the current humanitarian crisis. From a strictly visual point of view, this is a strongly engaging archival investigation of the studio portrait photography practice in the West Bank along with a look into the culture of martyrdom posters specific to this matter. A response inevitably linked to the intrinsic problematic nature of the photographic medium’s evolution and function throughout history.
Lastly, the interviews with the studio owners behind the displayed portraiture are capable of informing the viewer on the variety of personalities that make up the Palestinian crowd, of the socio-cultural context that allowed their production as well as the causes of the practice’s decline in recent years. This is mainly due to the long-lasting Israeli occupation leading to unfavourable business conditions, but also a consequence of the coming of modern digital technologies. Molatham is an important body of work that can deconstruct and rethink a new responsibility of self-representation in places where traditional photojournalistic approaches have failed.