I apparently have picked up a few readers! It's good to have friends with friends. I had planned to post a book review today, but in light of the fact that I have readers, I thought I'd do something a little lighter, rather than start with inside baseball. (If you didn't see my intro post, it's here
I work on discourse, by which I mean the ideas, concepts, and frameworks we use to understand the world around us, define it, and interpret it. One of the primary means of analyzing discourse is to work on texts: speeches, conversations, written documents, etc. However, discourse doesn't just exist in words; it also exists in symbols, images, sounds, music, and other sorts of elements to the complex patterns of human interaction. If we want to understand discourse, I believe we have to approach it broadly, and look for discursive signs in multiple formats. This is part of the reason I'm an ethnographer: I want to get a full, holistic picture of the context for any sign used in a framework, rather than have to interpret it with a set of preexisting limits.
So I spend a lot of the time I'm out in public doing my fieldwork taking photographs. Generally, they are terrible as photographs. What I'm trying to do with them is collect data: to see what of the visual information at an event I can preserve for myself, later. I'm going to start posting some of these photos, occasionally, and talking about them, to demonstrate how one gets data out of images, and to start to untangle some of the complicated information in them. Hopefully this will be interesting!
So, let's start here:
This photo was taken in the middle of a demonstration organized by Al-Awda
, held on 27 December 2009. The demonstration was held on the first anniversary of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza (called by Israel 'Operation Cast Lead'--more info can be found here
). By this point in the demonstration, we'd rallied for an hour at Times Square, and then marched, by a long and circuitous route, to stand outside the Israeli Consulate on 2nd Avenue and 43rd St. It was a Sunday; the Consulate is in a large office building, and no one appeared to be there. Al-Awda holds the largest pro-Palestinian demonstrations in New York; its base lies in two places, first, the Arab immigrant community of Bay Ridge (and other Arab immigrant communities in the city) and, second, in the radical-left community, including the International Action Center (home to the ANSWER Coalition, which you may have heard of).
This photo is dominated by protest signs (though, between two of them, you can see a woman speaking on the stage at the front of the demo). Before we get to the actual signs themselves, I want to point out something about them--all but one of them are professionally printed. Central printing and organization of signs means several things. First: a group with a budget, resources, and time to plan their actions. Second: a group that wants to have some control over the message they send out. There's a desire to present a unified narrative of the action, and to put that narrative in the hands of as many people as possible.
Now let's actually look at the signs, starting with the one at the center of the frame. In addition to the name and contact information for the organization, there is a large graphic and then a slogan in bold print. We'll start with the image. The fist raised in struggle (hey, look, it's got a wikipedia
page) is a sign that dates back at least to the black power movement (note what percentages of the images in a Google Images search for"black power"
feature the fist, either as a graphic or as an action) and is used by revolutionary movements worldwide. The image behind the fist, if you don't recognize it, is a map of what's usually called "historic Palestine," meaning the territory ruled as Palestine under the British mandate, which is roughly contiguous with the territories now known as the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Historic Palestine is rendered in the colors and pattern of the Palestinian national flag; this symbolism here is not subtle.
The fist clutches a large key, which is the most complicated sign in the image; let me back up and take it from the top. This is a reference to the departure of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war between the nascent state of Israel and its neighboring states, who objected to the terms of its formation. Many Palestinians left their homes, either because of direct violence by representatives of the new Israeli state, because of fear of that violence, or because they were anxious about the situation. Many, if not all, believed that they would shortly be able to return to their homes, and, in general, brought few of their belongings, including their house keys, planning on returning back home in a few weeks. However, for those who had lived within the area that Israeli forces seized at the end of the war, they were not allowed to return, and were not compensated for their land or possessions. The key here symbolizes the desire of Palestinians to return to their homes and land within what is now the state of Israel; in fact, the name of the organization holding this rally is Al-Awda, which means "return" in Arabic (you can see it written in small print on the wrist in the image). The image of the key is repeated in the sign to the right of this central sign, where we see a photograph of an old man holding a key with the text "The Palestinian people have the right to return!"
The text beneath the image reads "Free Palestine from the River to the Sea." (The 'river' in question is the Jordan; the 'sea' the Mediterranean.) This is a common invocation. "From the river to the sea" is a way of referencing "Historic Palestine with easy geographical markers. It's also remarkably easy to rhyme in English; a major chant used at all sorts of protests goes "From the river to the sea/Palestine will be free." By referring to all this territory as Palestine, the sign makes a clear statement against the legitimacy of the state of Israel; Palestine needs to be free, and it isn't because
it is Israel.
Stepping away from this sign, I want to point very briefly to a few of the other things we see going on in this picture. First, the other signs; the other one about return is by the Break the Siege on Gaza coalition, whose largest member is Al-Awda; the two groups are basically contiguous. The "End all U.$. Aid to Racist Israel" sign is from the International Action Center, though you can't read the name well. The hand-written sign in the upper left, which was a large illustrated sign, also has another organizational URL written on it (you can see just the end). The existence of these other signs, with other messages on them, are designed to gesture to a broader coalition of groups; having multiple identifications suggests that the group objecting to the decision isn't either one single (dismissible) organization or the two hundred (unusual) people who are standing with the signs, but instead a larger, amorphous, and potentially more powerful grouping with multiple bases. The messaging on all these signs, however, is remarkably congruent, which suggests either that the protest was collectively planned by all the groups, who decided on joint messaging, or that the groups share political perspectives fairly tightly.
Looking at the picture, what strikes me as someone who was at the rally is the amount of data that is missing.
I only see one woman in hijab, who is also the only person in frame (in addition to the woman on stage) wearing a kuffiyeh, but this strikes me as an atypical frame; I'd say there wre probably 20-30 women, including teenage girls, wearing hijab at the demonstration (which probably had 200-250 people), and at least 50 people wearing kuffiyehs or kuffiyeh print. (If you don't know much about the kuffiyeh, Ted Swedenberg
is an anthropologist studying its dispersion into American pop culture; here
is an article where he talks about them. In this context, they're being worn as a sign of solidarity with Palestinian resistance movements.)
And, of course, there's all the non-visual data that's being missed: the attention of the passersby to our spectacle; the mutter of people talking to each other while, on stage, speakers yell into microphones; the endless rhythmic procession of an entire mass of people chanting along. You can't tell that many of these signs had been used at another demo six months before; you can't tell that the speakers belong to the same set of groups; you can't get the sense that the crowd has all been here and done this before. While using images to collect data is important, they can't be read alone, or without attention to what's missing or invisible in them.