Should France Censor Ahlam Shibli’s Photos of Suicide Bomber “Martyrs” in Occupied Palestine?

The photography world is embroiled in debate about Ahlam Shibli, a Palestinian artist whose exhibition, Phantom Home [Foyer Fantôme] is now on view at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. Along with a picture from a veterans’ remembrance ceremony in the French town of Tulle and an unremarkable shot of an Israeli soldier in central Israel, one series in the show, titled Death, includes images of domestic shrines to Palestinian suicide bombers. Inflamed by Shibli’s choice to refer to the bombers as “martyrs” in her wall labels, Jewish groups have condemned the show on the grounds that it justifies and glorifies terrorism, and have called the French Ministry of Culture and Communication to forcibly shut it down.

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Ahlam Shibli, Untitled, (Death n° 33), 2012.

Many people and organizations have stepped forward to defend Shibli and the museum’s director, Marta Gili, including the International Committee for Modern Art Museums and Collections (CIMAM). The author of a CIMAM petition on Change.org writes that by capturing her subjects at home, where rock-star posters of departed suicide bombers abound, Shibli has pushed forward the dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In their minds, the deification of suicide bombers — a fact of life in the Palestinian territories — has gone under-exposed, and the public would benefit from seeing Shibli’s attempt at delivering a more subtle and complex portrayal of the Palestinian situation. By suppressing her show, the argument goes, the Ministry of Culture would be suppressing her right to free expression.

Ahlam Shibli. Untitled, (Death n° 37), 2012. Chromogenic print,  100 x 66.7 cm.
Ahlam Shibli. Untitled, (Death n° 37), 2012. Chromogenic print, 100 x 66.7 cm.

What’s maddening is that on its own, the series absolutely succeeds in capturing the lives of Palestinians struggling in the occupied territories. Without her wall labels or statements to the press, the images show a side of the conflict that in many circles (particularly the American mainstream media) goes under-reported. That is to be applauded.

With her verbal accompaniment, however, Shibli departs from the stance of a detached photographer reporting a phenomenon — namely, the celebration of suicide bombers who target civilians — and becomes a rhetorical participant. In one email to Flavorwire, she wrote:

To call people who lost their lives as a consequence of the Israeli occupation of Palestine “martyrs,” even the ones who used their own bodies to carry out a bombing attack, is adopting the language commonly used by the Palestinian people. It implies the refusal to use the language and rationale of the powers that support Israeli hegemony, and especially the language of the colonial occupation force itself…It asks to acknowledge the complexity of that situation. Part of that complexity is the fact that at the time of the Second Intifada the Israeli occupation resulted in a feeling among Palestinians that the only remaining way to resist was to use their own body as a weapon and to choose non-military targets.

The term “non-military target” is particularly hard to swallow. No one could blame Shibli for being saddened by the environment in which suicide bombers are raised, but she goes further than that.

Shibli gets on board with the use of the term “martyrs.” Her reference to the victims of suicide bombings as “non-military targets” recalls the IRA’s euphemism for the Guilford pub attack and other bombings that resulted in deaths that were exclusively civilian. She makes no effort to disconnect the “hegemonic powers” of the Israeli state from civilian victims, even if such victims were children, foreign nationals, or activist opponents of the Israeli occupation. Shibli’s identification with suicide bombers is loose and — with regard to the families that encourage it — sympathetic.

You don’t have to be an arch authoritarian to think that on rare occasions, allowing speech to go completely unguarded can do more to threaten a free and safe society than it does to protect it. One such instance is the incitement to violence, and when Shibli goes beyond reporting the worldview of a suicide bomber to positively using a suicide bomber’s language, she arguably fits that description.  

Ahlam Shibli, Untitled (Death n° 3), 2012. Chromogenic print, 100 x 66.7 cm.
Ahlam Shibli, Untitled (Death n° 3), 2012. Chromogenic print, 100 x 66.7 cm.

The strongest reason to keep Death on display would be that as a curated art show, the photographs go beyond informing the public of the circumstances that produce suicide bombers, and moves viewers to re-evaluate their understanding of the conflict. Of course, this is very subjective, but experience tells me that people who see the show will most likely just become more entrenched in their prejudices. People who are willfully blind to Palestinian victimhood will remain so, responding to the show with a shoulder-shrugging, “Yep, those Palestinians are angry and bellicose. Just as I suspected.” Meanwhile, viewers who come to the exhibition with some ground-level understanding of life in the occupied territories will see Shibli’s images of faceless Israeli soldiers and modest, faintly ragged Palestinian living rooms and concur with her view of the world.

Precisely because they are so unremarkable, I very much doubt that anyone will be moved to violence by Death — so, yes, the series is offensive, but no, it isn’t so dangerous that it should be taken down. To anyone who has occasionally read a newspaper in the last 14 years, the photographs are almost banal. There is nothing in them that shows the viewer something powerful and new in the way that great art does. And Shibli’s words don’t help.