The Israeli Photojournalist Collective That Foments Social Change

There is striking disparity between the impressive display of resistance documented in Activestills' new book and the lack of action by the Israeli and Palestinian left

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From 'Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel.'
From 'Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel.'Credit: Activestills
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter

“Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel,” edited by Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum, Pluto Press, 296 pages, $30.

It’s hard to imagine the past dozen years without the Activestills group of photographers. The images they have captured of demonstrations at the Palestinian villages Bil’in and Na’alin in the West Bank, the evacuation of the down-and-out residents of the Givat Amal neighborhood in Tel Aviv, the West Bank separation barrier and Israel’s social protest movement have been widely disseminated – turned into street posters, shared on social networks, transmitted to news agencies and published in the established media, in Haaretz and on the Walla news site. Without the presence on January 18 of Activestills photographer Keren Manor in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev, it would probably have been impossible to refute the accusations against resident Yakub Abu al-Kiyan: He would have forever remained in the minds of the public a terrorist who deliberately ran over Israeli policeman Erez Levi – rather than an innocent victim of the security forces. (Those forces shot Kiyan as he was driving, he lost control of his vehicle, and he died; Levi also died).

The book's cover.

Activestills images have become part of the imagined collectivity in this land. At the same time, the group’s approach has expanded and altered the field of “photojournalism,” and indeed transcended it. “Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel,” edited by Vered Maimon, a senior lecturer in the art history department at Tel Aviv University, and Shiraz Grinbaum, Activestills’ curator and photo editor, offers an interim summation of the group’s activity. The new book, in English, underscores and analyzes the collective’s distinctiveness, with the aid of dozens of photos from the tens of thousands in its archive. Printed in large format and on high-quality paper, the photos are beautiful – and bitter as wormwood.

The book shows the change that Activestills has fomented in every aspect of photojournalism in this part of the world. From the outset, its members decided to forgo the pretension of objective, neutral photography, which captures a political event by means of a lens that is aimed at portraying reality but is separate from it and makes no prior demands of it. Instead, upon the group’s founding in 2005 – by documentary photographers Manor, Oren Ziv, Yotam Ronen and Eduardo Soteras – its members declared that they view photography as a means to generate social change by taking part in the struggle against oppression in its different manifestations: the occupation, racism, restrictions on freedom and rights violations.

Accordingly, their target audience is not an abstract public uninvolved in the events and turning to photographs for information or thrills. Their photography is earmarked primarily for engaged communities, as a counterweight to establishment photography – of the police and the army, but also of the press – and for use as part of the struggle: as oppositional documentation, as a tool to heighten awareness, and as an instrument for visual and conceptual stimulation.

It’s intimate photography, as the photographers return time and again to the same arenas they know so well, and to the activists who often become their friends based on a shared commitment. Even the photographs themselves return in their own way to the sites at which they were taken. By the same token, the photographers work as a collective; they often do not take credit for their work individually, but under the Activestills rubric, which has come to signify the group’s activist photography.

The book seeks to connect with and continue the group’s mode of action. It does not offer a structured narrative that sums up Activestills’ work from the perspective of a single external authority, either academic or journalistic. Instead, there are short essays written from different viewpoints, many of them from the players themselves – comments by the photographers, dialogues between photographers and subjects, brief responses by some activists to shots in which they appear – along with a number of more theoretical texts.

But the book’s most interesting aspect is the multifaceted display of the photographs. The same photograph can appear a number of times: the photograph itself as a closed, independent unit, printed in its original form; the photograph returning to the scene of the action – either held by demonstrators or hanging on a wall and viewed by passersby; corrupted copies of the photograph spray-painted with malicious graffiti; or as a painting done in the wake of the photograph. We thus follow the photographs’ trajectory and mode of interaction in different social spaces.

An example is the photograph of Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahmah, a Palestinian activist against the separation fence in the West Bank village of Bil’in. After he was killed by the Israeli army during a protest in 2009, an Activestills photo of him – in which he seen is holding a kite next to the barrier in an earlier demonstration – was refashioned into a striking commemorative poster in bold colors. It was hung on walls in different parts of the West Bank and was carried during protest demonstrations. All the photograph’s different forms of existence appear side by side in the book, offering a lesson in the transmigration of imagery in a political struggle, which is always also a struggle over the dissemination of images.

It emerges, then, that the group’s photography is a call to active resistance. Indeed, from looking through the book, one gets the impression that the whole land is one big struggle: numberless demonstrations on an array of issues; ongoing, around-the-clock, multi-targeted protests. But 2005, the year in which the photography collective was established, also marked the end of the second intifada, the moment when the organized Palestinian struggle was stifled: Since then it has been in the throes of a lingering death. The joint Jewish-Arab struggle, both outside and within the Green Line (the pre-1967 borders), has also been reduced to minute pockets of resistance. Even the voice of internal Jewish protest in Israel is hardly heard. The “field,” as military experts like to call it, is quiet for now – and not because the collective conditions of life for the Palestinians or most of the Jews between the river and the sea have changed for the better in the past dozen years.

At times, the book resembles a family-style album of a small and select group, meticulously edited so that everyone will remember his or her best moments, packed with action and rife with boldness. The photographs, too, are seen at their best – frontal, sharp and strong, never frayed, wrongly focused or lacking. But the disparity between the impressive display of resistance documented in the book and the despair of action and protest that has seized the Israeli and Palestinian left raises a question.

Even if the photography of Activestills does not reflect reality but arouses it, it’s possible to ask why, despite its unquestioned quality and extensive distribution, no political awakening is taking place even in the circles closest to it. What weakness is encapsulated in them, on the basis of their utter strength? And, pursuant to that, to ask whether it’s possible to photograph laxness, enervation and dismay, the failure to embark on a struggle or the loss of faith in it, the drift into insularity or the anticipation of a miracle.

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