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What role can the archive play in developing and sustaining a critical and culturally located art history?

Rona Sela
6 November 2013

The Archive of Horror

The Soldier: 'Indeed, I took these photographs from the pocket of a dead Arab, killed in Bab Al-Wad in the beginning of May 1948. I was commander of the squad and we were looking for intelligence.'[1] This is what Moshe Rashkes, a former Jewish soldier and author, told me. The photographs – depicting the dead and wounded as well as protests and riots – were donated by Rashkes to the Haganah Archive, a pre-state Israeli military archive. The macabre circumstances – a dead person, who was not photographed, represented unwittingly by other documented bodies – were not even considered by Rashkes.


A soldier goes to war. What does he carry with him, mentally, consciously, morally? What do the sterile words 'the picture was taken from a dead Arab', written on the back of the photographs, convey? What goes through his mind when asked to strip a soldier of his overcoat, sweater and shirt, to search his pockets, clothing and belongings? The smell of death and decay spreads, the body swells, its limbs collapse. Sometimes he finds personal images, or photographs having national and military value. He tramples the man's privacy, invading his life. For him, he no longer has a family, a past. The body becomes an object, a source of information. 'We started off at a fast pace, our load [the body] swinging […] it was slipping from my hands and slowly sliding down, while I fought with all my strength to raise it back up […] the head of the dead man […] turned to the rear as if pulled down by a hidden weight […] we began to move our hands over the length and breadth of the body, turning it over in order to search it […] The sight of the blood, sticking to my fingers, sickened me.'[2]


The photographer: Chalil Rissas,[3] young, an adventurer with a national consciousness, a pioneer of Palestinian photojournalism. Born in Jerusalem, Rissas was one of the first to document the struggle from a Palestinian perspective. His photographs, too, were looted from his studio by an Israeli soldier, and handed to Israeli military archives: a common and routine practice.


The photographed: And what happens when the looter sees others like him, or those he assumes are his people, in photographs taken from the man he killed, or in looted enemy archives? Rashkes: 'Yechiel handed me a photograph. "These are our soldiers…the enemy distributes this…" My blood froze. I felt as if the breath had been squeezed out of me. Paralysis. Our soldiers: a pile of naked bodies, amputated limbs, I was shaking, heads beaten, cut ears, black bruises on their faces. Desperately I looked for the eyes, but there were none. They were gouged out. […] their feet amputated as well […] "I've seen many horrific images in my life […] images from the death camps of Germany, naked bodies, gas chambers, rows of corpses in excavations"'[4]


It is difficult to determine whether the mutilated bodies in the photograph are Jews or Arabs. It may be that Rissas photographed Arabs, as in two other photographs from the series where the identity of the dead and wounded is clear. However, among the Jewish establishment and soldiers – the Holocaust hovering in the background – the identity of the photographed was twisted for Zionist purposes and propaganda, in a conscious and sophisticated manner. The possibility that they were Arabs was rejected, since it raised questions of image and morality.


[1] From a conversation with Rashkes, 3.3.2008.

[2] Moshe Rashkes, Days of Lead, 1962, pp. 105-107.

[3] The photos bear the stamp of the photographer.

[4] Ibid., pp. 28-29.  The scenes described by Rashkes in the book probably relate to the specific event and photographs given to the archive.

Rona Sela

is a curator, art-historian and lecturer at the Tel-Aviv University, focusing on the social, political, national and ideological aspects of the history of Israeli and Palestinian photography and the visual history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her work deals with different aspects of photography and colonialism, photography and human-rights and the national archives. Her recent work deals with the development of Palestinian civil society in Israel, artists and activists, who are fighting to replace the old guards and challenge democracy. She has curated numerous exhibitions and published many books, catalogues and articles on these topics. Among them : Photography in Palestine in the 30s and 40s (2000), Six Days and Forty Years (2007), "The Absent-Present Palestinian Villages" (2006, 2009), Chalil Raad, Photographs 1891-1948 (2010), Made Public - Palestinian Photographs in Military Archives in Israel (2009) and Effervescence (Unrest) – Housing, Language, History – A New Generation in Jewish-Arab Cities (2013). 

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