Rebecca Stein on her book, Screen Shots

Interview by Areeg Faisal

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=31376

Areeg Faisal: Screen Shots is an ethnography of photography, cameras as colonial barometers, in the hands of a broad range of actors and institutions, including both Palestinians and Israelis. To get started, how would you describe the main argument of the Book?

Rebecca Stein: Screen Shots is the second in a two book project that studies the relationship between the Israeli military occupation and the changing media landscape in Israel and Palestine. The first book in this series was Digital Militarism, co-authored with Adi Kuntsman, which examined the Israeli occupation in the social media age. We started writing this book in 2010 at the time of Arab uprisings, amid considerable investment among activists, both in the region and beyond, in the capacity of new digital technologies to serve as tools of grassroots activism and mobilization. Then, there was a shared hope that the networked camera phones held aloft by activists would be decisive in their liberation from authoritarian regimes. There was a dream of liberation technology, as some scholars have dubbed this phenomena.

Digital Militarism began as an attempt to temper some of this period’s techno-utopianism through a study of how digital technologies also function as perpetrator tools in the Israel/Palestine contexts.  For example, we studied the phenomena of Israeli soldiers carrying their mobile technologies on patrol into the West Bank, and considered how these consumer technologies could function as repressive instruments.  We also investigated everyday acts of digital complicity, such as the ways that ordinary social media platforms and practices, like the selfie, could be pulled into the apparatus of military rule.

Screen Shots pivots to the question how this political playing field has changed in the era of proliferating camera technologies. This is an ethnographic study which focuses on camera usage among many different political constituencies, from Israeli soldiers and settlers to Palestinian activists and human rights workers.  Screen Shots is interested in how all were pulling these new camera technologies into their political toolboxes, all taking aim at the scene of state violence.

Across these radical political divides, I argue, all were invested in a version of the same digital dream: namely, that greater visual exposure of the scene of state violence – resulting in an ever more perfect image — would advance their respective political agendas.  Screen Shots is an ethnographic chronicle of the ways that these digital dreams break down, albeit in very different ways, for these varied communities and institutions.  

Areeg Faisal: Thank you so much for such an insightful overview of the book. In this regard, how would you describe the scholarly contributions of Screen Shots to the existing body of literature that focuses on the entanglement between state violence and digital technologies, especially in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and Israel? I am particularly interested in learning more about the methodological shift Screen Shots demonstrates by focusing on what precedes image-making rather than what comes after.

Rebecca Stein: In the last 15 years, we’ve seen a growth in anti-colonial visual studies, including a wave of important Israel and Palestine studies scholarship.  While most of these works have focused on the politics of representations, Screen Shots is interested in the politics of image production, curation, and brokerage.  I am particularly interested in what precedes and enables the image-making practices of Israelis and Palestinians – the infrastructure, the labor, and the multiple constraints generated by a repressive and often violent military occupation.  Rather than merely attending to what comes after images arrive into the world – which tends to be the propensity of scholarship on the politics of representation —  this book considers what precedes and sometimes frustrates them.

In the process, I pay a lot of attention to images that fail at their point of origin. For example, I chronicle the story of Palestinian videographers working with the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem in a period well before the onset of social media and smartphone proliferation in the West Bank.  They were documenting, with video cameras, instances of military and settler violence against Palestinian communities living under occupation, using the rather rudimentary technologies of their day.  I focus on instances in which they failed to move their VHS cassettes or memory-cards, and associated footage of state violence, out of the West Bank.  For example, I tell the story of footage filmed during a military closure of the West Bank.  By the time the closure was lifted, and videographers were able to travel, the footage was no longer considered relevant to the Israeli media – one of the outlets of choice, employed by the Israeli NGO.  I conclude this chapter with an image of a pile of VHS tapes, filmed by a veteran Palestinian human rights videographer, gathering dust in his Ramallah home office.  This is a chronicle of state violence on camera.  But it’s equally a chronicle of how Israeli state violence has, historically, also made that footage impossible as a circulatory form.

Areeg Faisal: The term state violence is central to Screen Shots and has been utilized widely by scholars to different ends. That said, I’m interested in learning more about your definition of the term and what does count as state violence in Screen Shots?

Rebecca Stein:  Here, the history of terminology is interesting, and particularly where Israeli discourses are concerned.  When I started this project, settler assaults were not officially categorized as state violence within the Israeli human rights community – at least, not within much official human rights discourse.  While these organizations were very concerned with modes of state-abetted violence by settlers – with an emphasis on soldiers “standing idly by” in the midst of settler assaults — the language of state violence was not yet employed.  It was only a decade later that the state violence framing would be adopted, as we can see in recent reports from the Israeli NGO B’Tselem.  This shift is very interesting, as it suggests a substantial realignment in human rights paradigms. 

Digital Militarism, my previous book, focused on an allied issue: namely, the ways that Israeli civilians support and abet state violence through their ordinary social media practices.  As we propose, even as something as a banal as a selfie can be its vehicle.  And when one shifts one’s lens to ordinary cultural practices, the very notion of state violence is redefined.

Areeg Faisal: As I read your book, I can’t help but think of some methodological, political, and/or ethical challenges that might have arisen throughout the fieldwork. Would you mind speaking about that?

Rebecca Stein:  The most challenging work happened with the official branches of the military – in particular, in the military spokespersons’ unit, where I conducted research.  I was given very limited access to their offices, but always on the basis of an ethnonational presumption that I — as an American Jew who spoke Hebrew – would be an ally, bent on supporting the state story.  After one interview that I conducted with a senior military spokesperson about the 2008-9 war on Gaza, and the military’s emerging social media work, I was asked: “you’re going to blog about this, right?”  It wasn’t a question, but an invitation.  At that time, the military’s social media unit was actively courting bloggers.  That was part of the bargain that enabled me to enter their offices.  As I published more, my ability to get into those offices broke down.  But the terms of my original access were very clear.  I presume that Palestinian ethnographers wouldn’t have been granted the same access.

Areeg Faisal: Thanks for sharing all of this honestly. Finally, last year witnessed a surge of the Israeli state violence against Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza, greatly captured by Palestinian activists on various social media platforms. This digital uprising and activism provoked a unified flow of solidarity and support for Palestinian liberation and influenced some of the Israeli supreme court decisions regarding the forced removal of Sheikh Jarrah families. Given that Screen Shots is concerned with moments of breakdown and failure, how would you situate those recent moments within this analytical framework of failure? Is the camera letting Palestinian activists down again?

Rebecca Stein: It’s a great question.  Many activists and pundits have positioned the May 2021 war on Gaza as a landmark shift in global media ecosystems and positions regarding Palestine.  Israeli state violence was viral as never before. There was sudden flooding of social media and mainstream media spaces with Palestinian imagery from Gaza and Jerusalem, with Palestinian voices. 

I’m proposing a degree of skepticism about this formulation, based on a longer historical view.  Here, we hear a familiar dream rearticulated: if only the pictures of injustice and atrocity are crisper, clearer, and more abundant, then justice will follow. Alas, there is nothing new about this dream. We saw it rearticulated in the midst of the Syrian revolution, once dubbed the YouTube revolution.  And we saw it tragically fall short.  This drive for the perfect visual archive, or the total archive, is particularly pronounced in times of war and conflict, especially when there’s a concurrent shift in media regimes.  I’m proposing that our political investment can’t be in visibility or media alone.  That’s not adequate for the job. 

Ali Feser takes the page 99 test

On page 99, I get to the Kodak. The fixed focus, single aperture lens camera was patented 1888, and it sold for the not insignificant price of twenty-five dollars. The first Kodak product intended for use by the masses, rather than professional photographers. The Kodak was marketed to a growing class of middle-class consumers, and as advertisements suggested, it was simple enough for a woman or child to pick it up and start snapping.

There were no settings to adjust.It came preloaded with a hundred exposures. The consumer didn’t even touch the film. The tagline was literal: “You press the button, we do the rest.” She wound the key, released the shutter, and mailed the entire camera back to Kodak’s factories in Rochester for developing. Workers submerged the film in chemical baths, brought out the latent image, and fixed the molecules in place. They projected the image on emulsion coated paper, made prints, and mailed it all—photo, negatives, and camera, refueled with fresh film—back to the consumer. The Kodak system materialized an emulsive loop between mass industrial production and intimate, domestic life, but it disappeared from consumers’ view the messy, chemical labor of photography.

The simplicity of the Kodak system made it possible for ordinary people to objectify their worlds in chemical form. At the same time however, because the Kodak system attenuated users’ capacity to intervene in the photographic process, it precipitated a mass standardization of consumers’ visual habitus. The fact that there were no adjustable settings meant that the Kodak could only be used within a precise arrangement of photographer, subject, and light. Hand drawn illustrations in the instruction manuals offered normative templates for how to see the world. They simulate portraits at distances of three, six, and nine feet and the right way to photograph babies, buildings, and pets. Get to their level, hold the Kodak steady, hold it level, hold your breath and disappear, face in the direction in which the sun shines, press the button, turn the key, repeat. With every snapshot, consumers learn to see as the cameras see. They learn the difference between good pictures and bad and how to domesticate the visual conventions featured in Kodak advertisements and other mass media. Especially after the launch of the five-dollar Brownie camera in 1900, Kodak’s system would radically transform subjectivity and social life, reorganizing perception along patterns engineered by a single corporation.

Page 99 doesn’t include everything. There is no attention to the utopian aspirations of twentieth century social welfare capitalism; the chemoaesthetics of fascism and the historical imbrication of corporations and the imperial state; the racial politics of emulsion and fantasies of the white, American “good life”; the longue durée, ecological impacts of chemical manufacturing; or how photographs and fantasies endure and transform over time. What page 99 does capture, through a description of the Kodak system and early instruction manuals, is the moment in which Kodak began to remake the world.

Ali Feser. 2020. Reproducing Photochemical Life in the Imaging Capital of the World. University of Chicago, Phd.