“We Exist and We Resist," Issam Nassar Delivers Insightful Lecture
On Wednesday, Feb. 6., Professor Issam Nassar, a historian of the Modern Middle East and Photography at Illinois State University, guest lectured at Skidmore as a part of the “Palestinian Voices” series in relation to the current Tang Museum exhibition This Place. The event, which focused on the history of photography in Palestine, was sponsored by the Art History, History, and International Affairs departments, John B. Moore Documentary Studies Collaborative (MDOCS), the Environmental Studies and Sciences Program, Media and Film Studies, Hayat, and the Skidmore College Dean’s Office.
The main focus of the lecture was to dissect and challenge stereotypical and one-dimensional presentations of the region by focusing on photography in Palestine, especially on photographs taken by Europeans photographers. With their existing preconceived notions about the region, these photographers shaped their own narratives of Palestine and the Middle East.
Nassar revealed how historical photography in Palestine transformed the public’s perception of the Middle East, as well as the irony that most early pictures — that he is particularly interested in exploring — of Palestine did not provide an accurate representation of Palestinian realities.
According to Nassar, “European photographers had a blindness when it came to Palestine, they tried to capture what they could not see, rather than what was right in front of their eyes.” Throughout his presentation, he introduced the audience to striking images captioned as “the Solomon Temple” and “Omar Mosque,” which depicted these historical landmarks as completely devoid of Palestinian life and people.
In another example, Nassar showed three photographs, titled collectively as “The First Sight of Jerusalem,” which were taken at the same place and from the exact same angle, twenty years apart. The resemblance of the three photographs is striking and offers an insight to a common habit of European photographers: to depict the region as unchanging and static. The photographs, almost always staged, indicated stereotypical tropes of Palestine: Biblical, barbaric, and even exotic. Some photographs went as far to demonize and ostracize certain groups of people such as the lepers, that the Western photographers coined as being “sinners.” Such stereotypical imaging is still prevalent today, said Nassar: “They were once essentialized as people of the Bible, now they’re essentialized as people of violence.”
Instead of a vibrant, diverse Ottoman society, early Western photographers attempted to reenact Biblical practices by staging photography sessions and getting civilians to dress in traditional costumes to portray their Western-influenced versions of “Middle Eastern” personalities — deliberately crafted to appeal to their Western target audiences. These photographers did not attempt, nor felt compelled to depict the diversity of the region. For example, Nassar highlighted identical photographs of two “Bedouin” women, one from Jericho and the other from Beirut, completely ignoring the fact that Beirut is an urban vibrant city that Bedouins did not inhabit at the time.
We had the opportunity to chat with Nassar earlier on in the day, engaging in a conversation about his personal interest in photography, and on issues revolving around classism, a lack of representation of women, and the current flaws of modern photography. Growing up in Jerusalem, Nasser admitted that his interest in the field had stemmed from wanting to understand a different representation of the Middle East than the stereotypical portrayals of the region by the Western world. Nassar thinks studying social history through photography enables him to look into a time that has passed, and a society that was being transformed constantly.
Nassar also brought up the gendered nature of early Palestinian photography where male photographers and the lens through which they viewed the world was dominant in the sphere. Men, for instance, saw photography as a tool to display their masculinity and grandeur, with some men having brought family portraits to the battleground as memory and a motivating force during World War I. The perspectives of women were almost never present in historical photography of the Middle East.
Nassar also mentioned the difficulty of reconstructing the Palestinian narrative because of the lack of historical sources — there are no official Palestinian archives, making it a challenge to do research. It also forces historians to fish from other countries’ archives like Syria and Jordan where Palestinians are often in the sidelines. However, while Palestinian history has been erased, it can be reclaimed. Nassar offered a new approach to studying history: “History from below is history from the margins, the history of the struggle for everyday life, and it is always empowering to people,” Nassar emphasized. “It weakens the role of the elites.”
Issam Nassar offered a thought provoking lecture and interview in which he addressed the complexities of the role of photography in understanding and challenging dominant historical narratives. He concluded his lecture with another image of a historical landmark that seemed devoid of people. On second glance, however, Nassar pointed out there was a faint shadow on the image, of a Palestinian peasant that had been sloppily erased from the photograph. He affirmed that even though there has been significant efforts to erase the history of Palestinians, they always find a way to be present, be it in a photograph or in society as a whole. As he echoed in our interview, “We exist, and we resist.”
Photo retrieved through the Tang Museum Website