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A Gaza Photograph

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Here is a photograph of the al-Tuffah neighborhood in Gaza City on July 29, 2014:

A Gaza Photograph


When I first saw the photograph (referred to as “the Gaza photograph”) on July 29, the effect was of experiencing something overwhelming, as when some part of reality, or the reality of something in the world, or of the world itself, seems to bend and outstrip one’s capacity to understand – in this case, as if what I knew or thought I knew about the world in which I live were fundamentally inadequate. It struck me that my understanding was wholly inadequate to accommodate what is shown in the picture, where “what is shown” is not a representation or interpretation but (a piece of) the world itself on a particular day. If we human animals are distinguished from other life forms by our ability to speak, an experience that leaves us speechless leaves us insecure in our humanity. A feeling of being suddenly insecure in one’s own humanity – or equally a feeling of being suddenly exposed as merely human, implying that the concept of humanness is essentially insecure or unstable – now seems an accurate description of my first encounter with the Gaza photograph almost two years ago. Furthermore, an experience that leaves one insecure in one’s humanity may be said to allow an insight into the essential inadequacy of the solutions that human beings have proposed to those problems that occur uniquely as human problems. In our world, explosions are often proposed as solutions; so what is the problem?

                  The purpose of this essay is to ask about our relationship to the photograph, and since a world, or part of our world is made present in the photograph, about our relationship to the world insofar as it is revealed in the Gaza Photograph. The structure of this essay is as follows: We begin with an abbreviated description of the 2014 military assault on the Gaza Strip known as “Operation Protective Edge.” The point is to suggest that together with its other objectives, one of this operation’s purposes (or less provocatively, one of its calculated effects) was to create a public spectacle, such that the world’s relationship to historical events would be as viewers, as an audience. But what is an audience? The next section suggests that the in our time the answer may be found in the way we look photographs, a way of looking that is implied or required by certain aspects of the medium of photography as described by Stanley Cavell in his first book on movies, The World Viewed (1972). But since one of Cavell’s central claims is that the medium of photography is revealed only particular photographs, the essay investigates the structure of viewing implied in several photographs of subjects related to Operation Protective Edge. The essay concludes with a return to the Gaza photograph, suggesting that what is happening in or to our world may be not just understood but actually determined by what we do (or fail to do) when we take views of it rather than the reverse.

                  Finally, I should note that the personal perspective from which the essay approaches the subject is deliberate and I think essential insofar as the writing rises to the occasion of philosophy. The autobiographical approach is thus intended to suggest a methodological point, namely, that the nature of viewing, while derived from necessities inherent in the photographic medium, is disclosed not by any general theory of photography (e.g., the photograph as index or as fossilized trace) but in and by one’s experience of particular photographs. Photographs have to do with pastness, and therefore with memory, and therefore with the way in which the presentness of the moment forces itself upon us, requiring us to respond to what is shown or to forego response, and that in itself amounts to a way of responding to or claiming our own lives, or not. In other words, the autobiographical tone of the essay reflects the fact that nothing could possibly count as a medium of photography unless it is given human significance in the experience of specific photographs.[i]

Operation Protective Edge

                  The Gaza Strip is an area of 139 square miles in which 1.8 million Palestinian people live under a comprehensive blockade enforced by Israel since the “disengagement” in 2005.[ii] It is one of the most densely populated places on earth with one of the world’s youngest populations with an average age of 18.2 years. Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” was launched on July 8, 2014. The stated aim of the Israeli operation was to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, which increased after an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank following the 12 June kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, which may or may not have been planned by Hamas commanders. Conversely, Hamas's goal was to bring international pressure to bear to lift Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, force the release of Palestinian prisoners and overcome its political isolation, after, it is claimed, Israel was the first, on June 13, to break the ceasefire agreement with Hamas that had been in place since November 2012. After seven weeks of bombardment, a ceasefire was announced on August 26, 2015.

                  During the seven week assault between 2,142 and 2,310 Gazans were killed, including at least 1,492 non-combatant civilians (70 percent of total casualties), among them 547 children, and between 10,626 and 10,895 were wounded. The wounded included 3,374 children, of whom over 1,000 were left permanently disabled.[iii] One three-day period saw a child killed every hour. By the end of the war, an average of 11 children had been killed each day.[iv] On the other side, 67 Israeli soldiers, 5 Israeli civilians (including one child) and one Thai civilian were killed and 469 IDF soldiers and 261 Israeli civilians were injured. On August 5, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that about 520,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (approximately 30% of its population) had been displaced, 485,000 in need of emergency food assistance, and 273,000 had taken shelter in 90 UN-run schools. The UN calculated that more than 7,000 homes for 10,000 families were razed, together with an additional 89,000 homes damaged, of which roughly 10,000 were severely affected by the bombing. Rebuilding costs were calculated to run from $ 4 to 6 billion dollars, over 20 years. As of the date of this writing, Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza has prevented even a single home from being rebuilt.[v] OCHA estimated that at least 373,000 children required psycho-social support,[vi] and according to a World Bank report issued on May 22, 2015, Gaza’s economy is “on the verge of collapse” with the highest unemployment rate (43%) in the world.[vii]

                  Some of the most disturbing incidents involved the IDF’s repeated and apparently deliberate attacks[viii] on places where civilian non-combatants were gathered, including hospitals, a rehabilitation center, open air markets, playgrounds, and United Nations (UN) schools where Gazans had sought shelter from the violence. According to a report released by the UN on April 27, 2015, Israel attacked seven UN schools, six of which had been designated as emergency shelters, killing at least 46 civilians (including 10 UN staff). “All coordinates of United Nations installations were available to (Israeli) units on the ground and were clearly and visibly marked on maps. The board noted, though, that, in spite of such measures, (U.N.) facilities were hit” according to the report.[ix] The shelling of designated shelters must be understood in connection with another of Israel’s military innovations – the so-called “knock on roof” policy. “Roof knocking” is the equivalent of a warning shot for aerial bombing; a non-explosive or low-yield device is fired on a building’s roof warning occupants to leave, shortly before the building itself is bombed a few minutes later. While Israel presented the roof-knock and other forms of warning as a humanitarian measure designed to minimize civilian casualties, it is undeniable that many of those fleeing their homes following the warnings were subsequently bombed in the very shelters in which they sought safety.

Images and Talk

                  As the assault proceeded day to day anyone with an internet connection was flooded with horrific reports and images of the carnage, providing anecdotal and documentary evidence (gathered by amateur as well as professional journalists) of each atrocity almost as soon as it happened via social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter. To a much lesser extent television viewers were given somewhat sanitized versions of these images in carefully measured doses. The cumulative effect of this deluge of visual reports was strangely unsettling, at least for me. Viewing images of the mangled and incinerated bodies of women, children and the elderly in the bombed out remains of a UN shelter, I found myself asking, “How can this be happening? How can this be permitted to happen?” But it was happening, and each successive day seemed to bring yet another atrocity, another image and yet another, each more horrific than the last.

                  At the same time, our television screens were dominated by an endless parade of “experts” tasked with justifying, excusing, denouncing (depending on the political viewpoint represented) or otherwise explaining what we were seeing and reading. This explanatory function was carried out in the mass media by the staging of daily “debates” involving diplomats, generals, public relations professionals, politicians, university professors, bureaucrats, journalists and other “experts” on the Middle East conflict, in print and on the major cable news and radio networks. The debates revolved around a short list of familiar moral and legal “issues”.

                  Representatives of Israel and its supporters explained that the IDF’s use of overwhelming lethal force was necessary as a self-defense measure to stop the unprovoked firing of thousands of home-made rockets at Israeli towns from inside Gaza; that civilians were (regrettably) hit because Hamas fighters were hiding amongst them, but that the IDF was taking unprecedented precautions to minimize civilian casualties; that Hamas was storing weapons in hospitals, schools and mosques; that Hamas was parading the dead bodies of children for the news media as “cynical propaganda” when Hamas bore ultimate responsibility for their deaths; that Hamas’ goal was to destroy the Jewish state and by extension the Jewish people; and so on. Palestinian officials and intellectuals responded that Israel had provoked the rocket fire by using the hunt for the kidnappers of the three boys as a pretext for jailing Hamas leaders; that Israel’s response to rocket fire was “disproportionate”; that the IDF’s claims regarding “human shields” were false or exaggerated;  that there was no or very little evidence of weapons caches in bombed hospitals and schools; that Israel could “do more” to protect civilians; that attacks on UN designated shelters were not “accidental” but “intentional”; and so on. Officials for various human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN Commission on Human Rights were careful to maintain their neutrality, issuing more or less bland statements to the effect that while Israel’s bombing of civilian targets was deplorable, Hamas’s rocket attacks were “indiscriminate”, and blaming both sides for putting political and military goals above the welfare of civilians. Meanwhile amidst all the talk the carnage continued without interruption – with Western politicians advising “restraint” on both sides and Israeli politicians and generals expressing “regret” for needless deaths – until the IDF basically ran out of targets.

                  As they were discussed in the media, the “issues” which defined and delimited the ongoing debate – identifying which considerations were relevant, impliedly excluding all others – seemed to be given, in the form of an unalterable list, and the assumptions underlying these “issues” – such as the assumptions that the conflict involved opposing armies of roughly even strength, that the political history of Gaza including the blockade was not immediately pertinent to understanding the conflict; that a country enforcing a comprehensive blockade against stateless people is entitled to claim “self-defense” as an explanation and justification for the use of state violence; that non-combatants who have been warned to leave a target area become legitimate targets if they fail to leave; that it is acceptable to kill civilians including children who happen to be in the same area as enemy fighters; and that it is an unusual or extraordinary event in our world when women and children and the elderly are blown to smithereens for vague and rapidly changing political reasons – these assumptions were and could not questioned. These assumptions were, so to speak, built into the view presented by the mass media to its consumers – us. As a result, the rigidity of that view meant that anyone who sought to bring unlisted considerations into public discussion was immediately dismissed as “off topic” if not unhinged. The provenance of such lists and their underlying assumptions remains mysterious.  

                  A fruitful topic not addressed in this essay concerns the relationship between talking and viewing. I refer to the fact that the tremendous volume of talk accompanying the steady stream of digital images seemed designed to blunt the visual impact of the images, as if the official media’s inability to control and filter instantaneous dispersion of images required an interminable cascade of words spoken by experts could absorb and disperse and ultimately dissipate the visceral effect of those images and our knowledge of the reality they recorded, allowing us to forget something we could not help knowing. (We see a similar dynamic at work whenever a mass shooting or other “terrorist event” occurs in here in the United States, even when photographic images are suppressed; the sheer volume of talk broadcast via official and social media sources – demanding that each of us instantaneously adopt a “hot take” on and “debate” the shooter’s motives and the event’s implications for “public policy” (e.g., gun regulation, Islamic theology, etc.) – seems as if designed to suppress our capacity to absorb the meaning of tragedy in our world.) But if that were the purpose of the excessive talk, the risk was that it could also produce something like the opposite of the intended effect. In fact, the more analysis I exposed myself to on television, the Internet and in print, the more strongly I felt myself affected by the truthfulness of certain images – specifically by a sense of the disconnection between the endless talking and the reality to which it purportedly referred. As if the residual and ultimate effect of the very plethora of explanations proffered (whether they were meant to justify or to denounce what was happening) was to leave the reality pictured in the photographs even more striking, even more inexplicable than it would have been without any explanation at all. “If you can't understand it without an explanation, you can't understand it with an explanation” (Haruki Murakami, 1Q84).

                  I believe that what I will call the “talk effect” was generated by one’s sense that by the latter part of July 2014 (if not earlier) all of the relevant facts were already widely known, or at least publically available, so that what was needed was not more information of the sort being recycled again and again by talking heads on television, but a way to assess the significance of those facts – a way of seeing the reality of what was happening that was all but occluded by the expert analyses presented in the mass media. The unspoken assumption underlying expert analysis was that one’s position with respect to the reality presented in photographs was necessarily inadequate – as, according to the modern philosophy of the subject, all views of the world are necessarily “subjective” and therefore partial – and this inadequacy can only be repaired once “all the facts are in” and assessed from all possible perspectives according our quasi-scientific sense of fairness and impartiality. As if I cannot really know that the desk at which I am apparently sitting is actually there, in the world, because after all I cannot see those parts of the desk that are not presently visible from the perspective of my chair. The effect of the officially-sanctioned talk about Operation Protective Edge was to imply that there was something about what was happening in Gaza that we did not (yet) know (until informed by expert analysis), and that implication served its purpose if it effectively precluded consideration of the possibility that what we did not know could only be something we refuse to know. But discovering something that we refuse to know means discovering something about ourselves – something we fail to acknowledge. 

Theater of War

                  The photograph reproduced at the outset of this essay shows an explosion in the Al-Tuffah neighborhood in the northeast section of Gaza City on July 29, 2014. On the preceding day, ten people including eight children had been killed when shells hit a refugee camp near the beach in Gaza where families had gathered to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.[x]   Everyone knows that in war there are explosions, and what knowledge could be more common than that men and women and children are incinerated, decapitated, disemboweled, maimed and blown to bits? One might go on to evaluate the particular explosion shown in the image, whether the launching of the bomb that caused it was defensive in nature, or whether the attack amounted to a “disproportionate” response to provocation, whether the military significance of its target justified the use of a particular ordnance, whether the risk of collateral damage was excessive, whether there might have been less risky alternative courses of action, and so on. And one might conclude, based on all available evidence, that the resulting destruction was either justified or not, morally and legally, more or less. But the Gaza image suggests that this way of knowing does not account for our relationship to the reality shown in the photograph and that in fact we know much more about that reality (and much less about ourselves) than our considered judgment can record.

                  It has become commonplace to observe that contemporary corporate media blur the distinction between “news” and “entertainment”, and television and online coverage of Operation Protective Edge confirms this truism. But my claim – hardly original after Guy Debord, etc. – is that the theatricality of the conflict may be seen not just in the way real events were presented, but in the way their reality was constituted, because the events themselves were to a large extent conceived and executed as performances – performances for a variety of audiences, depending on who was involved the action. Buy who was the audience?

                  On the most superficial level of politics, there is no doubt that the Hamas movement in Gaza was motivated in part by a desire to demonstrate – by showing – the truth of certain propositions to various audiences including  the people of Gaza, to Israel and its military, to the world at large, and to themselves. They wanted to show Gazans (among others) that Hamas remains, notwithstanding its political isolation (vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority and various other factions) and relative military weakness, a viable and effective resistance movement. The “terror tunnels” were used (among other purposes) to show Israelis that despite that country’s high-tech security walls, fences, and surveillance capabilities, it is easily infiltrated, and that as long as Gazans are threatened, so will be Israelis. On the other side, the Israeli government and the IDF wanted to show Gazans and especially Hamas that resistence is futile, and that every act of defiance will result in vastly disproportionate pain, death and suffering. And Likud Party politicians in particular wanted to show Israeli voters (and their American and European supporters) that only their party was willing to undertake the difficult and internationally unpopular kind of action needed to protect the Jewish state and its aspirations as “the only democracy in the Middle East”.

                  On the plane of politics, none of this was new. Wars are always, among other things, rhetorical acts made to demonstrate the validity of various polemical points. However, in recent years the theatrical nature of military operations – the sense in which systematic violence provides a vehicle of communication between human beings – seems to have entered a new phase. I am referring to more than simply the now widespread practice of terrorism, which is intended to convey to the terrorized population the message that its government or security forces are unable to protect them, thereby undermining the credibility of that government. It seems to me that today state-sponsored military operations, especially Israel’s, are conceived and executed for the purpose (among others) of actually altering the way in which violence is perceived and taken in by an audience consisting of the people of the world, just as a dramatic or cinematic performance can alter the way in which events and indeed human action generally is understood. Violence is deployed for the specific purpose of altering our perception of violence – for example, by normalizing it, weaving it into the fabric of ordinary life so that instead of being experienced as a disruption that dawns and then subsides (allowing normalcy to be restored), war and the threat of war are used to transform our ordinary lives into a more or less permanent exercise of crisis-management. The geographically and temporally unlimited “war on terror” – like terrorism itself – is essentially theatrical in that it positions civilians as an audience, as if sitting in a darkened cinema watching a slasher movie.

                  What was the point of Israel’s repeated and undeniably deliberate attacks on civilians during Operator Protective Edge – if not to permanently alter the way in which such attacks are perceived and understood? Consider this statement of former senior Israeli military lawyer Daniel Reisner following Israel’s attack on southern Lebanon in 2006:

‘What we are seeing now is a revision of international law,' Reisner says. 'If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries. If the same process occurred in private law, the legal speed limit would be 115 kilometers an hour and we would pay income tax of 4 percent. So there is no connection between the question 'Will it be sanctioned?' and the act's legality. After we bombed the reactor in Iraq, the Security Council condemned Israel and claimed the attack was a violation of international law. The atmosphere was that Israel had committed a crime. Today everyone says it was preventive self-defense. International law progresses through violations. We invented the targeted assassination thesis and we had to push it. At first there were protrusions that made it hard to insert easily into the legal molds. Eight years later it is in the center of the bounds of legitimacy.’[xi]

Based on this quotation and the ongoing behind-the-scene activities of military lawyers and “human rights” policy wonks in various international institutions including the United Nations, it is plausible to interpret at least some of the more disturbing incidents of Operation Protective Edge as deliberate attempts to alter international norms that determine what is and what is not acceptable conduct during military conflict, attempts that have been successful to the extent that they have not (for now) resulted in prosecutions for war crimes – where a failure to prosecute implies that the action in question not only was not a crime but is on the verge of becoming acceptable and appropriate conduct.

                  As an example, consider the “roof knock” warning policy mentioned earlier. International law strictly prohibits deliberate attacks on “protected persons”, principally non-combatant civilians. By warning building occupants shortly before the building is destroyed, the roof knock policy appears to respect the prohibition because it provides non-combatants with the opportunity to escape. Thus, its proponents used Operation Protective Edge as an opportunity to brag about how “humanitarian considerations” shaped the IDF’s tactical thinking. However, that rhetoric deflects attention from the policy’s more subtle effects. Anyone who, in response to a warning, either refuses or is for some reason unable to leave on very short notice automatically becomes a legitimate target – allowing a protected non-combatant to become magically and instantaneously transformed into an unprotected enemy soldier, even if that person presents no threat whatsoever.[xii] In some cases, the target was destroyed between 30 seconds and one minute after the “roof knock” – far too short a time for people to escape.[xiii]  In other words, the same policy that at first glance respects the distinction between civilians and hostile forces effectively blurs that same distinction. To the extent the roof knock policy is viewed as an acceptable military tactic (like “targeted assassination”), the Geneva Convention’s boundary between legitimate and illegitimate attacks has already shifted, perhaps irreversibly. If I am correct about the policy’s goal – namely, to blur the boundary between legitimate and illigitimate attacks – it follows that the actions implementing the policy (i.e., attacks on unarmed civilians who fail to leave when warned) must be open to view and seen, such that the observer’s failure to challenge the legitimacy of the attacks constitutes achievement of the goal. In other words, the attacks must be performed for an audience that, like the audience in a movie theater, is silent, immobile and invisible.

                  The testimonies compiled by the Break the Silence organization (cited in footnote x) reveal that some Israeli soldiers in Operation Protective Edge at times experienced the battlefield as if it were a movie set and they were film actors. For example:

When you shoot at a house it doesn’t totally collapse. They stay standing. I was surprised by how long it takes until they fall. You can take down three walls and somehow they remain standing despite the fact that they’re all blown to bits, it’s all ruined. It’s like “Call of Duty” (a first-person shooter video game). Ninety-nine percent of the time I was inside a house, not moving around – but during the few times we passed from place to place I remember that the level of destruction looked insane to me. It looked like a movie set, it didn’t look real.


At that stage, we returned to pretty much the same area in which we were stationed before, and we didn’t recognize the neighborhood at all because half the houses were just gone. It all looked like a science fiction movie, with cows wandering in the streets – apparently a cowshed got busted or something – and serious levels of destruction everywhere, levels we hadn’t seen in [Operation] ‘Cast Lead.’ No houses.

And that’s how it was, really – every tank just firing wherever it wanted to. And during the offensive, no one shot at us – not before it, not during it, and not after it. I remember that when we started withdrawing with the tanks, I looked toward the neighborhood, and I could simply see an entire neighborhood up in flames, like in the movies.

We saw Gazan civilians only once, in daylight. They just came over, with their hands up. One Friday morning I saw a family going out to the street, their hands up, like in the movies. Right when we had just arrived. Eight or 9:00 AM in the morning. You could see them coming out – there was this more central area with no buildings in it – and they come out wearing white clothes and with their hands up. It’s funny seeing people with their hands up, no one does that in reality. You only see that in movies. There was something comic about it.[xiv]

                  It is hard to know exactly why these soldiers’s experience of the battlefield experience struck them as cinematic – “like in the movies” – but we can assume that at least at those moments, they did not feel themselves to be in imminent physical danger – in no more danger than a film extra feels in an action movie. Their testimonies suggest that the soldiers did not feel bodily or even emotionally implicated in the destruction, perhaps because of its sheer scale, the automated nature of the weaponry deployed and the alien appearance of the utter devastation and ruin it caused. In any event, let us say that the soldier’s cinematic experience of violence meant that they were somehow absent from the scene – that while the enemy was there to be destroyed, the soldiers felt themselves to be invisable, all but immune to their enemies’ attempts to resist. The idea of that state-sponsored violence can or should be risk-free, and that risk-free violence can produce peace, is related to the idea that our relationship to the world can or should be one of seeing without being seen, hence of taking views of it, hence of knowing.[xv]

Photography and Audience

                  Concerning the invention of photography, Stanley Cavell has written that film “could not have impressed itself so immediately and pervasively on the Western mind unless that mind had at once recognized in film a manifestation of something that had already happened to itself” – a cultural trauma that produced “a sense of distance from the world”, a “terrifying recognition that reason as such, language as such, can no longer be assured of its relation to a world apart from us or to the reality of the passions within us.”[xvi] As a result of this trauma, our consciousness interposed itself as a barrier between us and our presentness to the world, so that  “[o]ur subjectivity became what is present to us” and “individuality became isolation.”

                  According to Cavell, photography expresses a need to overcome the chasm that around the time of Descartes and Shakespeare opened up between consciousness and world – not by restoring our old immersion in the world but by allowing our alienation from the world to be experienced as a natural fact rather than a traumatic event. Photography restores the world’s presentness to us but only by engineering our withdrawl from the world made present. Our alienation from the world is defeated by repositioning the human subject as a spectator, so that our withdrawl from nature feels as natural as projecting or taking in views of it. And it feels natural because it is not possible for us to reach the world projected on film, and therefore not possible to fail to reach it either.  “Our condition has become one in which our natural mode of perception is to view, feeling unseen. We do not so much look at the world as look out at it, as if from behind the self … as though the world’s projection [on a movie screen] explains our forms of unknownness and of our inability to know … The screen … makes displacement appear as our natural condition.”[xvii]

                  Cavell’s description of the structure of viewing provides a way of seeing what is shown in the four photographs reproduced below.

Group of people in Gaza


Credit Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In the first photo, we see Israelis seated in chairs arrayed on a ridge near the town of Sderot overlooking a lowland where an adjacent area of the Gaza Strip is being attacked. Most of the figures are shown in profile staring straight ahead to the viewer’s left where the attack is in progress. Although we cannot see the attack, we may assume from the intensity of the some figures’ rapt attention that the proceedings are dramatic – perhaps jet fighters firing missiles at ground targets, tanks launching artillery shells, buildings exploding in spectacular conflagrations of fire and smoke. We get a better picture of what the spectators are viewing in the second photo, taken at night.

 Spectators watching Gaza

Image credit: AFP

                  These images (dubbed “#Sderot Cinema” by Danish journalist Allan Sorensen, a veteran Middle East correspondent for Denmark's Kristeligt Dagblad Allan Sorensen, a veteran Middle East correspondent for Denmark's Kristeligt DagbladAllan Sorenson[xviii])Kristeligt DagbladKristeligt Dagblad make literal the ontological fact that first condition of the filmed world’s being present to us is our removal from that world. The images make perspicacious the distance between what is viewed and its viewers – whose shared absorption in the act of viewing is made possible by their physical and psychic withdrawal from a reality that has been transformed into a view. We might say that these photographs – in the depicted attitude of casualness toward lethal violence – take as their subject what Cavell refers to as the naturalness of our displacement from the world.  To the extent that human subjects exist as an audience, the world exists as theater, as performance. Nothing better epitomizes that naturalness than the sofas and lounge chairs that provide a familiar “drive in” movie experience for the audience, and it is this position of casual disengagement that gives them the freedom to observe, take in and interpret the visual data at hand as the unfolding of a cinematic production. Theirs is, both literally and figuratively, an ideal viewpoint, not unlike the vantage point from which the expert “talking heads” on CNN interpreted events in Gaza from a great distance, or for that matter, the position from which we view CNN in the comfort of our living rooms.  

                  If the photographs of people enjoying the spectacle of mass destruction from distance confirm the casualness of our displacement form the world, the next photograph challenges that casualness.  A Palestinian boy is shown during a quiet moment following the devastation described by Israeli soldiers in the “Breaking the Silence” collection. The boy is sitting one some rubble on the rooftop of a bombed out building in Gaza City.

 A child sitting amidst rubble in Gaza

Credit: Ahmen Hjazi, Pacific Press/BI

Behind the boy and all around him one can see a city reduced to rubble in every direction all the way to the horizon. But for a group of three or four people barely visible below and at mid-distance just right of center, the boy is alone as the once bustling city has been evacuated.

                  The boy is gazing directly at the camera and therefore at the viewer, but he cannot see us because we are invisible. The photograph’s effect is unsettling. While we might wish to comfort the boy, we cannot confront him because we are not there, and we cannot go there; we cannot make our present his present, not now. But these facts do not imply that we cannot acknowledge the boy. We need only think about what acknowledging the world made present on film might mean, how it might be accomplished.

                  Whatever the boy knows about Operation Protective Edge is known in ways that are fundamentally different from the way the spectators shown in the first photograph know – which is also our way of knowing, relaxing in front of our television sets watching the experts debate the tactics and ethics of war. We might say that whereas in the first picture the observers’ knowledge is derived from data gathered through the eye alone, in the second picture the boy’s knowledge is embodied, absorbed through flesh and blood. The observers in the first picture seek more information to satisfy their curiosity; the boy in the second picture suffers from a surfeit of information. No set of facts could teach him anything he does not already know. The boy’s gaze directly into the camera asks what we the viewers know or think we know of Operation Protective Edge, and how we know it; his gaze does not allow the viewer to deflect the fact that he or she is no less of flesh and blood than the boy himself, exposed and vulnerable to a knowledge that exceeds the capacity of our concepts to contain. His eyes seem to express resignation about the future, both his own and by implication ours. Is his life over, and if it is, what about ours?

                  Although the boy’s gaze is directed toward the camera, confirming his awareness of being photographed, he is not posing. Were he posing, the boy would be representing himself to us, his audience; he would be subjecting himself to our need to take in the world by means of views. I feel like saying that the boy does not have the freedom to pose because his situation is too dire. Although his body survives, we may assume that his life, like the buildings surrounding him, has been reduced to rubble, and his future is in doubt. The boy’s bodily attitude, his  large sad eyes expressing not so much emotion as resignation, manifest a state of being vulnerable and above all exposed – as if his exposure to our view finds its visual equivalent in the way the interior of the bedrooms and living rooms inside the four-story building behind him – a few days or weeks prior, the scene of intimate family interactions – have been opened up and exposed to our view by having their walls blown out.

 Living Room, Gaza City, August 2014, Credit:

Living Room, Gaza City, August 2014, Credit:

As if the primary agent responsible for the destruction of buildings, the obliteration of families and the victimization of children is not bombs but our eyes, specifically our insistence that boy make himself available to our views of him and his world. But the boy’s eyes, the look he casts in our direction suggests that our removal from the world is not, cannot be natural.

                  The boy’s air of resignation indicates that it is his world that has been reduced to rubble. Acknowledging the boy in the photograph would then mean acknowledging that his world is also our world; and acknowledging his world as ours would entail taking responsibility for what has become of it, what we have done to our world by doing nothing. In short, acknowledging the boy would mean repudiating the vantage point from which we theatricalize the world by taking views of it, and in so doing, choose to remain its audience, silent, immobile and invisible[xix].   

                  To say that photography allows our displacement from the world to be experienced “as our natural condition” is to say that in viewing the photograph we feel our absence from the world on film to be an inevitable and essential fact – a fact of our human constitution, rather than something that we have chosen and might come to reject. A photograph’s capacity to naturalize our displacement from the world is a characteristic of the medium of photography, what makes something identifiable as a photograph – specifically, the fact that a photograph projects rather than represents reality. The camera does not produce a likeness or representation of the world; rather, every last visual detail within that segment of the world found within the viewfinder is made present in the photograph, such that what we see in the picture is sensuously indistinguishable from the world in which we live – the same but for the fact that it doesn’t exist (now)[xx]. That the world projected on film doesn’t exist (not here, not now) means that while the world is made present to me, the viewer, I am not part of that world. I can see the world on film, I can look at it, but I am not and cannot be of that world.

                  (According to Cavell, our non-presence to the world on film is a consequence of the fact that a photograph is produced by mechanical rather than conventional means. A representational medium provides images of the world by means of the conventions that establish that medium. What counts as a painting is determined by those conventions (e.g., perspective, contrast, chiaroscuro, and so on) which at any given moment in this history of painting are accepted as ways of representing the world by means of paint applied to a flat surface. By contrast, what counts as a photograph is a matter of the technology used to create photographs (which doesn’t exclude the existence of conventional and unconventional uses of photographic technology, or the existence of radical innovations in that technology such as the replacement of analog by digital images). Unlike paintings, a photograph is able to make nature present without the mediation of human agency and all that goes with it – for instance, the inevitable flaws in human perception and judgment that at a certain moment in Western cultural history, seemed to condemn conventionality as such as arbitrary and subjective, cutting us off from rather than allowing access to the world.)

                  The fact that the reality made present in a photograph is sensuously indistinguishable from the world in which we live implies that the world on film is our world – the objects it contains (even if displaced from their normal positions) occupy the same space that we occupy while viewing the photograph. Therefore, if we are barred from entering the photographed world, it not because that world is located elsewhere, but because the photograph shows the world as it was at the very instant light entered the camera’s lens, and that instant has passed by the time we view the photograph. “The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it; and a world I know, and see, but to which I am nevertheless not present (through no fault of my subjectivity) is a world past.”[xxi] The present of the world projected on film, no matter how familiar or intimate, is gone forever.

                  This phenomenological fact accounts for the peculiar poignancy of certain photographs, a poignancy that is, I think, unique to the art of photography. In freezing a present moment that has now (i.e., in our present when the picture is viewed) irrevocably passed, photographs reveal and confirm the pastness of the past, and therefore the evanescence of the present. The awkward word “pastness” is meant to indicate that the past revealed in a photograph is not the historical past (although a documentary photograph may function as a witness to what happened), but rather a mythical past, like each of our childhoods[xxii]. Photographs reveal and confirm, one might say, that for us earth-bound humans, our experience of each moment is utterly specific, if only we have the courage to make ourselves present to the moment in face of the fact that time is always running out. That this mythical sense of pastness – which may be experienced as a feeling that something has been irretrievably lost – is an essential feature of the medium of photography is demonstrated by the fact that it can be effectively evoked in photographs depicting the historical present rather than the past.  

The Gaza Photograph

                  With these thoughts about our absence from the world projected on film in mind, I will conclude this essay by returning to the Gaza photograph reproduced at the outset, asking once again about its disturbing effect. (I mean, of course, its disturbing effect on me; since what counts for me as evidence for a proposition of philosophical criticism need not count as evidence for you, the validity of the proposition assumes that my experience of the object is in some way exemplary and there is no more guarantee that this will be the case than there is guarantee that you will understand the implications of my uttering just here and now in your presence words that are part of our shared English lexicon.)


                  The composition of the Gaza photograph is in many ways the opposite of that shown in the  picture of the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, Syria reproduced below (and discussed in “A Yarmouk Photograph”, see In each picture, I as the viewer find myself excluded from the world shown in the photograph, but in ways that seem fundamentally different in each case.

 A crowd in Gaza

While the space shown in the Yarmouk picture is filled with people, the Gaza scene is completely depopulated; and while the visual orientation of the former is “vertical” – receding away from the picture surface into deep space according to classical perspective – the Gaza photo is laterally extended as bombed-out buildings occupy the foreground from one side to the other, although the dark space within the cloud of smoke just above the fire seems to recede into infinite depth, like the entrance to a dark cavern. Finally, the Yarmouk picture’s composition strongly implies a specific position from which the camera must have taken in the scene – namely, to the right of the back of the UN worker’s head slightly to the left of center, just to the viewer’s side of the picture plane. At the moment when the picture was taken, the photographer stood on the same ground that is occupied by the desperate hoard of humanity, and the viewer, also standing on that ground, feels as if he or she might step into the picture’s space – if there were room (but there isn’t). The effect is that the viewer is excluded and isolated, suggesting that our doing nothing in the face of massive suffering is something we are doing, namely, allowing it to happen.

                  By contrast, the Gaza picture shows a panoramic view of the landscape from no particular vantage point, as if the camera were suspended in the air. Perhaps the photograph was taken from a ridge, or perhaps from a helicopter hovering at low altitude, but there is no visual evidence of either possibility and the camera’s implied position occupies a groundless place one can hardly imagine being occupied by a literal human body. In viewing the picture I feel dematerialized, rendered abstract, and this vertiginous feeling corresponds to the subject in view. The viewer is not so much forced out of the world depicted (as in the Yarmouk picture) as absented from it – already evacuated from the world revealed in the picture, like the people who once lived and worked in those still-standing empty buildings now shrouded in soot and ash. In this sense, the Gaza photograph literalizes the condition implied in the photographic medium generally (as described by Cavell) – that the world on film is made present to us insofar as we are absent from it.

                  Can we still make ourselves present to the Palestinian boy gazing out at us from the ruins of his life, is there still an opportunity to acknowledge that his destroyed world is the same world that we have allowed ourselves to destroy, or has that moment too passed? Can we still find a way to understand that our relentless pursuit of information about objects and events in the world has undermined our capacity to acknowledge others in it? The Gaza photograph suggests that we have withdrawn from the world in order to make it present (in the form of views) and cannot now imagine entering the world made present there because there is no place, no “here” from which we could go there. The Gaza photograph shows to us a world in which our absence really is our natural condition – a world within which, as a result of our own habitual ways of taking in views of it, we are no longer capable of acting at all.  

                  According to the United Nations, the Gaza Strip will be uninhabitable by year 2020[xxiii]. Although this conclusion is based on a specific set of measurable criteria (e.g., density of population, poverty, access to essential goods and services), I find that the Gaza Photograph reminds me that the concept of “habitability” – like that of “human” as noted in the first paragraph of this essay – is not defined by measurable criteria. It would seem to follow that our mere survival (as evidenced by the act of viewing, for example) does not supply proof or guarantee that the world we have made is tolerant of human life. A world from which our displacement is fully natural, meaning a world that is completely present to us only as viewers, is a world that is uninhabitable. I want to claim in closing that the Gaza Photograph outlines the implication of that observation, namely that there is no humanly comprehensible position from which such a world could be viewed. And this suggests that as we sit in our living rooms observing debates about whether the bombing of hospitals in which women and children have sought shelter from bombs is or is not “disproportionate”, of for that matter debates about the reality of climate change or what to do about the threats of nuclear proliferation, terrorism and massive influxes of refugees from war zones, we may be failing to acknowledge the possibility that catastrophe is not something imagined to be just around the corner as much as something that has already occurred.




[i] Although this essay proposes what one might call an “aesthetic” interpretation of the formal, compositional and thematic aspects of certain photographs, none of the photographs discussed purports to be “art”. Rather, the pictures are instances of “photojournalism”, and I know nothing about the photographers responsible for their making or their respective intentions. I realize that there are current debates in academic circles concerning the question of whether photographs can be “art”, given that what happens when one “takes a photograph” (e.g., what appears in the photographic print or image) is never fully controlled by the agent’s intentions when the camera’s shutter is triggered. See for example the contributions to the current issue of, entitled “Photography and Philosophy II”, available at This way of describing the medium (which really describes analogue more than digital photographs) distinguishes photography from artistic media like painting, where every detail of the painting can be presumed to have been intended by the painter. As an example we might consider it highly doubtful that any of the individuals responsible for the pictures discussed here specifically intended to create the significance attributed to the pictures in this essay. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask, “can the photographs possibly mean what I say they mean?” This way of asking about significance seems to me misguided because it derives meaning from theory (or rather theories, of photography, intentionality, art, etc.) rather than one’s experience of particular pictures, from what must be – given our understanding of what a photograph is – rather than what is – given our experience of any particular photograph. I am as it were confronted the effect of the Gaza Photograph as I first and continue to experience that effect, and in the grip of that experience, it would hardly clarify matters to classify the picture is classified as “art” or as “photojournalism”, or for that matter to know about the photographer’s specific intention. To trust or believe in or claim one’s experience of a photograph as primary data for thought implies that perhaps we don’t really understand what a photograph is in the first instance, and therefore, since what a photograph makes present is reality itself, perhaps we don’t really understand the world in which we are assumed to live.

[ii] Perhaps the best description of Gaza following the disengagement is found in Darryl Li’s “The Gaza Strip as Laboratory: Notes in the Wake of Disengagement”, published in Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. XXXV, No. 2 (Winter 2006), pp. 38–55 and available at: See also Li’s “Disengagement and the Frontiers of Zionism”, published in the Middle East Research and Information Project on February 16, 2008 and available at:

[iii] “Operation Protective Edge: A war waged on Gaza’s children”, published by Defense for Children International Palestine, April 16, 2015, available at

[vi] “Occupied Palestinian Territory: Gaza Emergency” (as of September 4, 2014), available at

[viii] To say that an attack on a hospital is “deliberate” does not imply that the hospital was the intended target of the attack, although that possibility is not excluded either. It does imply that those responsible for the attack had reason to know that the hospital would be hit regardless of the intended target.

[xii] Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization of military veterans, released on May 4, 2015 a collection of testimonies from nearly 70 soldiers and officers who participated in Operation Protective Edge. The booklet of testimonies is available online at The testimonies confirm that under the IDF’s policy, any person remaining in an area where warnings were given was considered a legitimate target. For example, an infantry soldier deployed in or near Beit Lahia described a typical incident in this way:

There was one time when I looked at some place and was sure I saw someone moving. Maybe I imagined it, some curtain blowing, I don’t know. So I said: ‘I see something moving.’ I asked [permission] to open fire toward that spot, and I opened fire and [the other soldiers] hit it with a barrage …

Q: What were the rules of engagement?

A: There weren’t really any rules of engagement … They told us: ‘There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there. If you spot someone, shoot.’ Whether the person posed a threat or not wasn’t a question; and that makes sense to me. If you shoot someone in Gaza it’s cool, no big deal. First of all because it’s Gaza, and second because that’s warfare. That, too, was made clear to us – they told us, ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot,’ and they made it clear that there were no uninvolved civilians.


Did the commander discuss what happens if you run into civilians or uninvolved people?

There are none. The working assumption states – and I want to stress that this is a quote of sorts: that anyone located in an IDF area, in areas the IDF took over – is not [considered] a civilian. That is the working assumption. We entered Gaza with that in mind, and with an insane amount of firepower.

[xiii] “The head of the cell was there for sure, and a decision was made to ’knock on the building’s roof,’ … and then immediately after that drop a bomb on it.” Asked by Breaking the Silence what he means by “immediately,” the soldier replied: “Not enough time for everyone to leave. Somewhere between 30 seconds and one minute.” Id., p. 208.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] The ideal of risk-free state violence seems to be the inverse of the ideal embodied in some non-state terrorist acts, for example, so-called “suicide bombings”, which presuppose that the terrorist not just risks death but is certain to die. The latter ideal is related to the imperative that the terrorist act be witnessed publically by the widest possible audience in order to achieve its effect of terror.

[xvi] Stanley Cavell, “What Photography Calls Thinking,” in Cavell on Film, ed. William Rothman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), p. 116.

[xvii] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 40-41.

[xix] “To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may – in ways we might prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may be linked to the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York 2003), pp. 102-03.

[xx] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed, p. 24: “There is no way the projected world differs from reality apart from the fact that it does not exist (now).”

[xxi] Id., p. 23.

[xxii] “When someone says that we cannot have been present at the events projected on the screen apart from that projection itself, it does not follow that reality has played no essential role in the origin of that projection. All that follows is that any role reality has played is not that of having been recorded. But reality is not so much as a candidate for that role, because the projections we view on a screen are not in principle aurally or visually indistinguishable from the events of which they’re projections – what could be more distinguishable?” Id., p. 183.

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