PRINT Summer 1988


The News and Its Pictures

This week, the editors return to Carol Squiers’s “Special Effects: The News and Its Pictures,” from the summer 1988 issue, in which the writer-curator takes a closer look at a newspaper image from occupied Palestine and sees the many forces documented therein. Artforum’s website is currently featuring a portfolio of images by Activestills, a collective of Palestinian, Israeli, and international photographers that has been documenting the violence in the Gaza Strip since 2005.

Images are necessarily documents, but what an image documents of course extends far beyond its frame. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Carol Squiers periodically wrote a column for Artforum in which she unpacked the many messages—political, aesthetic, and otherwise—embedded in news photographs. In 1988, while flipping through the New York Times, she came across a picture of an explosion that was captioned: “A house in the Palestinian village of Beita, in the occupied West Bank, being blown up by Israeli troops.” Learning that the home belonged to Palestinians who, by the Israeli government’s own admission, were falsely implicated in the death of a young girl, Squiers understands that the image is not only a record of willful destruction, but also “sums up the frightening force that has been mobilized against Palestinian demands.” Although this frightening force continues to unleash itself, the shifting tides of international response seem to suggest that the inhumanity of its actions is finally being seen with greater clarity.

—The Editors


FROM ALL OF THE newspaper images of the months-long Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank, one stands out. This small photograph, printed on page 8 of the New York Times for April 9, is captioned, “A house in the Palestinian village of Beita, in the occupied West Bank, being blown up by Israeli troops.” It is a simple and somewhat abstract picture, because the photographer’s view is so close to the exploding house—either physically close or brought close by the use of a powerful lens—that little besides the explosion, the smoke and the blasted clouds of debris, is visible in the image. Underneath the picture and caption is a headline: “Army Says Israeli Girl Was Killed by Her Guard.” And under that, in boldfaced type, a single sentence stands alone: “The guard had shot at Arabs before.”

This refers, of course, to a much-publicized incident in which a teenage Israeli girl was reported, with great hysteria and horror, to have been “stoned to death” by Palestinian villagers. Immediately after the first reports of the rock-throwing melee that led to her death, Israel’s justice minister called for the demolition of numerous Arab homes and the expulsion of hundreds of Palestinians.

Two days after the incident, and before some of these punishments could transpire, the Israeli army issued a statement that the girl had in fact been killed not by the Palestinians but by her Israeli guard. Yet the army subsequently dynamited eight houses belonging to the families of Palestinians accused of taking part in the rock-throwing, despite its own report that the rocks did not directly cause her death. What is so distressing about the picture, then, is its evidence of retribution against the family of a nameless accused at least partially vindicated by Israeli officials who nevertheless continued to carry out a punishment decreed in the heat of hatred and rage.

Yet it is just a small photograph that offers this evidence, in conjunction with the news story that accompanies it. In some ways the picture seems even insignificant—it is far less dramatic, for example, than the images of dead children, angry soldiers, or weeping women that have also been printed. But the situation of these people, with their grievous problems and appalling solutions, is essentially alien to us, even while we sympathize with them or damn them, and even while pictures of them evoke our emotions. What is not alien to us is the idea of due process—of arrest, charges brought, judgment passed, punishment decided. And what we see in the picture is the collapse of all those processes into one immediate, and apparently acceptable, spasm of revenge.

Under what circumstances would a similar punishment be acceptable on American soil? What black activist arrested during a violent street confrontation would expect the U.S. Army to arrive at his home, evacuate him and his family—parents, wife, children, whatever kin lived there—and blast the house to ruin? What antinuclear demonstrators, after crawling through a fence and damaging a nuclear warhead, would expect, in addition to arrest, the destruction of their homes? It seems unthinkable, yet in 1985 there was an officially sanctioned bombing of an American dwelling. The Philadelphia house of a group of black Americans who belonged to an organization called MOVE was bombed by the city police department, in a disastrous maneuver that resulted in the destruction of sixty other homes. MOVE, a radical fringe organization, was unacceptably troublesome to its neighbors and local authorities, and its intractability gave Philadelphia officials an excuse to use extraordinary force against it.

Usually, such force can only be gotten away with when it is applied to people considered too far outside the realm of human society to be rendered even the most basic of rights. What has happened with the Palestinians in the current insurgency is that their disruptive, violent, but essentially nonlethal behavior (at least in the events in question) has convinced the world community to allow them entree to the human society from which they had thus far been excluded because of their prior abstraction into “terrorists.” The opposition of their teenagers’ stones to Israeli guns and armored cars has proved much harder to label and categorize than the PLO’s bombs and assassinations, and has provoked a kind of sympathetic identification. The images of their dead children, angry women, and ruined homes have conveyed a tragic message that had never before reached the majority of the American population with such force.

Out of all the terrible images pouring out of the occupied territories, that picture of the exploding house, and the news that the excuse for its destruction was no longer even valid, sums up the frightening force that has been mobilized against Palestinian demands. It also asks each viewer to consider where the use of unbridled force against an entire people will lead.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator and an associate editor at American Photographer. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.