Ahlam Shibli احلام شبلي

back to Top

© Ahlam Shibli
Ahlam Shibli — TRAUMA

The Trauma Work

Ulrich Loock, 2010

The trauma referred to in Ahlam Shibli's work dates from the frequently related events that occurred early in June 1944 in Tulle: the attack by the Résistance on the 7th and 8th of that month on the German garrison; the murder of 18 civilian track-watchmen by the Wehrmacht on the 7th June; the end of the short-lived liberation of Tulle on the arrival of armoured SS forces on the evening of the 8th; the hanging of 99 uninvolved men the following day, and the deportation of a further 149. On the 10th June members of the SS division that committed these atrocities shot and immolated the male inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, some 100 km from Tulle, burnt the women and children alive in the church, and torched the village. These events and their victims are publicly commemorated by the people of Tulle and Oradour in various ways, including annual ceremonies, memorial sites, and epitaphs.

Ahlam Shibli embarked on her artistic career in 1996 with photographic works that tackle 'living conditions among the Palestinian population under Israeli rule'. These works are likewise informed by traumatic events: violent deaths in many forms, the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and the destruction of 400 Palestinian villages by Jewish fighters before and after the proclamation of the State of Israel on the 14th May, 1948, and the enduring discrimination and threats that the Palestinian minority suffers in the new State. A recent motion put before the Israeli Parliament attempts to forbid the Palestinian populace of the Jewish State to commemorate the Nakba, the 'catastrophe' of 1948. In a number of photo series Ahlam Shibli has traced out the lengths that the Palestinian population must go in order to survive.

Unrecognised shows how the inhabitants of the village 'Arab al-N'aim — which was not recognised by the State of Israel and thus not shown on any of the official maps, and in legal terms was non-existent — made their shacks not only visible by means of gaudy colours, but also inviting by opening up a guest room in them. By heightening their visual presence and placing space in their wretched dwellings at the disposal of visitors they insisted on their right to live on in their lands, even if the State authorities disallowed the inhabitants to erect a fixed abode at their place of origin. Goter shows a part of the Palestinian population in al-Naqab (Negev) that holds out in unauthorised villages in order to resist being relocated to State ghettos and thus being forced to leave their own land — but without being able to turn their property into a home. Arab al-Sbaih consists of photos of a refugee camp in Jordan whose inhabitants attach themselves to an image of their original village by copying its social hierarchy and topographical layout. The Valley, the counterpart to Arab al-Sbaih, shows how the infringement of Palestinian land rights by the Jewish majority compels the inhabitants of 'Arab al-Shibli (known till 1948 as 'Arab al-Sbaih) to remove sections of the very same mountain that had provided the village with protection during the period of displacement in order to create new sites for buildings. Finally, Trackers is dedicated to the Palestinian volunteers in the Israeli army who, envisaging this as the sole possibility of gathering the necessary means to build a house for their families, become traitors to their own people.

For Ahlam Shibli the violence inflicted — through occupation, expulsion, destruction, and murder — by an alien power upon an indigenous population in order to negate the latter's right to live in their place of origin and determine their own fate amounts to no less than a violation of the right to a home. Stating that 'Where there is a home there is no house. Where there is a house there is no home', she points to the trauma of the Palestinian population: the conflict, imposed on them by the ruling power, between actual presence and their claims to own their ancestral land. She gives this conflict a political slant by means of images that link various forms of social reaction to the denial of a home with the identification of the power that has brought about the dispossession of the Palestinian people.

Ahlam Shibli's photos of Palestine are themselves steeped in the trauma afflicting the society whose traces they record. With the exception of Unrecognised — notably colourful photos in which people face the camera in a relaxed mood and which reproduce the visibility that the villagers give their houses and demand for themselves —, Ahlam Shibli does not allow her pictures to lay bare the traumatic ways of life. The photographs tend rather to veil what they claim to show: in one shot only a person's legs can be seen, the rest of the body being obscured by a hanging cloth; a young woman's face disappears behind a sheet of paper that her neighbour is holding up; bodies get lost in the folds of garments; fragments of a broader situation are brought to the fore; or rooms and buildings are shown completely empty of people – as if the photographs had not captured the actual point of interest so as to avoid exposing the precarious existence of a disenfranchised population to the total visibility of representation, which would amount to making the victims of circumstances also the victims of photography. Photographic visibility is challenged in Ahlam Shibli's pictures in much the same way as the presence of the Palestinian population is threatened at their places of origin.

An important part of the images from Tulle records various forms of collective response to the trauma of occupation, deportation, and arbitrary murder. However, unlike the situation in the Palestinian territories, the events here have not led to an unbroken chain of catastrophes that have been propagated ever on to the present. The original traumatic scene is firmly anchored in the past. Thus the pictures record symbolic stagings of public and official commemorations performed on the various anniversaries and in the presence of the general public by State officials, the members of heritage societies with their flags bearing the national colours and fitting legends, and surviving family members. The ceremonies and sites of remembrance appear as a curiously anachronistic eruption in the midst of ordinary, everyday life that is being conducted in tune with the times. And while the officials attend to their duties an adolescent stands leaning against a lamp post, a figure of inexplicable vulnerability.

The commemorative ritual is photographically divided into different moments: individual photos pick out the solemn populace, a number of civic functionaries, representatives of the State authorities, epitaphs on monuments, plaques at the cemetery and unobtrusive scenes before and after the ceremonies. Indebted to the modes of investigation and drawing up of inventories, Shibli's analytic way with the camera resists the all-enveloping suggestiveness of the ceremonial.

This photographic fragmentation of the manifestations of organised remembrance accompanies a decisive insight that informs Ahlam Shibli's Trauma work: the ceremonial consigns remembrance to the overpowering mark of death. Death, evoked in the expressions Morts pour la France or Morts pour la patrie, is a totalising symbol that allows commemorative acts to be performed at the same time in homage to differing groups, and thus to be depoliticised. A single monument and a corresponding commemorative service is dedicated to the 18 track-watchmen who were murdered on the 7th June, 1944 by the Wehrmacht, another to the fighters of the Forces françaises de l'intérieur (FFI) who fell on the 7th and 8th June during the attack on the German garrison in Tulle. A photo of the Puy Saint-Clair cemetery shows, however, how one and the same memorial stone has been dedicated not only to one of the uninvolved victims hanged on the 9th June, but also to a member of the Armée secrète, a Résistance fighter, while another photo shows veterans from the Second World War and the wars in Indochina and Algeria bearing the flags of their respective associations as they honour the memory of those hanged and deported on the 9th June. The key to the Trauma work consists however of shots of memorial sites that are simultaneously dedicated to those who fell in World Wars One and Two, the First Indochina War (1946–1954), and the Algerian War (1954–1962). Under the badge of death, the victims of wanton Nazi atrocities are honoured together with fallen Résistance fighters, and those who died in the two World Wars and the subsequent colonial wars. Organised remembrance avails itself of the concept of dying for the fatherland in order to veil the political reality of those deaths.

Ahlam Shibli enlists a political concept of the home or homeland to counter the way remembrance is subsumed under the symbol of death. Her opening question is 'How is it possible that within a few years of the liberation, the French who fought against the occupation and suffered horrific reprisals — sometimes the same people or members of the same families — proceeded in much the same way as the Germans against the people of Indochina and Algeria who for their part demanded liberation from foreign dominion?'. This question prompted her to juxtapose her photos of official commemorative events, ceremonies, and monuments with other shots she took in encounters with individuals from Corrèze who in various ways are affected by the trauma of occupation, deportation, and murder. Faced with the recuperation of the trauma as a privilege of the French nation and the honouring of the dead as a way of imposing the acknowledgement of a united and unique fatherland, Shibli turns her look to resistance and suffering on the personal level — to the people or relatives of people who were subjugated to German occupation as well as those affected by French colonialism.

While in an initial group of photos Ahlam Shibli presents views of the official ceremonial, the pictures in the second group are based on her searches for individuals who were caught up with the events. In this way the photographic practice turns into a body of work that sets out to trace history through moments summoned up by close and more distant witnesses. While in her Palestinian works — in which she documents ways of life under the spell of a trauma which also affects herself as a Palestinian — Ahlam Shibli assumes a distance and tends to concentrate on social groupings rather than individuals — even though combining this distance with active commitment —, she now reduces the distance between the camera and the subject and records what the individuals have to say and show. She grants the people she photographs their own power of representation, which they use to present their particular stories.

In the biographies of these individuals, the positions of victims and offenders may be exchanged; the attitude of those who took part in the colonial wars after having gone through resistance and deportation is incompatible with the attitude of others who opposed official French politics; the Algerian collaborator stands in contrast to the people from Indochina, who were forcibly conscripted and sympathised with the struggle against the colonial forces, but who nevertheless remained in France; the identification of a woman immigrant with her French surroundings differs from the ways of other immigrants who created a private sphere for themselves that shows their ties to their places of origin. In this way a notion of the home is rendered obsolete that the State's ritualised commemoration of the dead has upheld as being one and unique — Morts pour la patrie, Morts pour la France. The homeland has now become multifaceted, individually determined according to shifting relationships in a polyvalent nexus with country, people, history, memory, living conditions, and political stance as just some of the decisive terms.

The concept of a multiple and not fixed home that is exposed by a photographic project based on encounters and interviews with individuals in Tulle, differs from the concept of home that marks Ahlam Shibli's works from Palestine. Home there is what the Israeli regime denies the Palestinian people when it negates their right to self-determination and their own land. There the feeling of home is based on the refused possession of the ancestral land which the majority lays claim to by pointing to a 2,000-year-old entitlement. What Ahlam Shibli has documented in her various photo series are the traces of a life marked by the endless repetition of the original catastrophe of expulsion, subjugation, and destruction in various forms, a constant trauma to which people respond with existential deformations.

However, in subsequent works not directly connected with living conditions among the Palestinian population under Israeli rule, Ahlam Shibli started to revise the notion of home as connected with country and people. Eastern LGBT depicts people whose sexual orientations depart from the norm in their Eastern homelands — Pakistan, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Somalia, among others. Here the very body of the individual is regarded as his or her primary home, while the repressive nature of a territorially and collectively defined home is revealed for what it is. Given that their socio-cultural origins impose on them a sexual identity that prevents them from feeling 'at home' in their bodies, the people Shibli photographs are compelled to leave their homelands and emigrate to places where they can inhabit bodies that are gendered according to their own wishes — whether as lesbian, gay, bi- or transsexual. Such places can be found in the nightclubs of London, Tel Aviv, Zurich or Barcelona. These micro-societies of people who come together of their own volition for a night in the extraterritorial setting of a club and choose themselves the gender that suits them may be regarded as their true home.

In the work that Ahlam Shibli has produced in Corrèze, the emerging concept of a home that is bound not to an ancestral land and the identity of its people but to specific and changing hybrids of imposed and self-elected life conditions is the outcome of her photographic exploration of the trauma of occupation, deportation, and murder. In keeping with the words of Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer that 'homeland is the state of having escaped', Shibli culls her evidence from the testimonies of those who, although touched by the catastrophe, have come away alive. These are no less the survivors of the German occupation in France than those of French colonialism with its wars in Indochina and North Africa. So having escaped means not only having been spared the compulsion of making the 'ultimate sacrifice', but also having escaped a nationally defined home.

While the documentation of the current living conditions in the Palestinian works shows that there is no home as 'a state of having escaped', because the traumatic events of the original catastrophe constantly recur, for the inhabitants of Corrèze these lie in the past, however much their forms differ from person to person. In order to subvert the State administration of a national fatherland, Ahlam Shibli searches for the bygone moments relating to the state of having escaped, the moments that initiated the survivors' trauma. The extraordinary challenge she has to face here lies in the need to photograph something that no longer knows a present. If according to Roland Barthes' now somewhat dated notion that photography gives us the certainty that things have been the way the photo shows us, it is always something that will only have been that way from the moment the shutter is pressed. A radical route for undermining the attachment to the present inherent to photography lies in reproducing documents. The pieces of evidence that Ahlam Shibli has photographed are objects that bear the readable traces of the past, as for instance the concentration camp clothing worn by Françoise Bonneau's father when he returned home from Dachau, and above all manuscripts and photos from the time for ever removed from our direct gaze and the immediate access of the camera. The photo of a photo links the certainty that is attributed to an unattainable moment of the past with the time of the photographer, with a future 'that's how it has been', and the visibility of the witnesses in the pictures as they show the photos and documents they have kept for so long stands for the authenticity of the connections that span the times.

Resorting to graphic evidence, to already existing pictures and texts in which the events have precipitated themselves, to this kind of textualisation with which the exposures of photos, maps, IDs, reports, and drawings distinguish the Trauma work, Ahlam Shibli acquires the possibility of going back to the moment of the traumatic event. In contrast to the Palestinian series, it is no longer a question of taking photographs that challenge the visibility of what is visually present — the precondition for the success of the Trauma work turns out to be a tendency to bracket the image itself. When, in order to get close to the moment of the traumatic event, the photographer of the Trauma work depends on pictures of pictures and written texts that have been singled out and presented to her, by transposing the pictures to the level of readability her photographs simultaneously show that only distance makes it possible to get closer to reality. Far more than in any of Ahlam Shibli's previous works, the reading matter takes the place of visual evidence. Nothing is self-evident anymore, everything is the object of reconstruction. For those who read and do not look, the traumatic events are revealed in the distance, at the origin of a home that has been divorced from land and people, that can be grasped in the contradictions that pervade photos like that of the Algerian immigrant family that is visiting the Pied-Noir couple, or that of Saïda Amarouche in her French style living room, or else the one of Thuong Dang's Vietnamese garden, or that of Pierre Diederichs who stepped into an utterly conventional middle-class living room to demonstrate how on the 9th June, 1944 an SS man had come to attach a noose to the balcony of his grandmother's flat in order to hang a man from Tulle.

The evidence of the picture is evoked in photos that depict the places of past events, some of them together with the former actors, such as Daniel Espinat in the barn where his Résistance group stayed in July 1944, a building complex belonging to the Manufacture d'armes de Tulle (MAT), where the victims of the 9th June were driven together, or a room in which members of the Résistance used to meet. But even less than photos of photos or written documents, these pictures explain themselves. The citation of visual evidence is nothing but a deception that pushes the necessity of reading all the more clearly to the fore. More than all the others, these pictures require commentaries, such as have been added to every single Trauma photo, sometimes in the form of lengthy captions; the research on which the captions are based is an essential part of the work.

And yet the exceptional importance of the captions emphasises that the Trauma work is a work in the visual realm, a work with photographic exposures that depict what is there to be seen, and allocates it for reading. Visibility and readability appear far apart in these pictures. But the visibility of the pictures casts the return of the traumatic events, the result of an effort made in reading, in the light of the particular. In the medium of visibility, the papers and emulsions are coated in the sheen of unexpected colours and unrepeatable shadows that are unique to that very moment when the photos are made; the creases, gum marks, and frayed edges on a contract are recorded; and the order is captured in which the things and the people show themselves just one single time. This visibility resists the conceptual generalisations that reading thrusts upon us. Through the particularity of the photographic exposures in Ahlam Shibli's work the trauma remains incommensurable.

This essay was published in:

Shibli, Ahlam. Trauma. Exh. cat. Tulle: Peuple et Culture Corrèze, 2010. (Essays by: Ulrich Loock, Adania Shibli, and Manée Teyssandier.)

back to Essays