Ten years on from the Arab Revolutions, it is essential that we think critically about the limitations and possibilities of image archives, lest it appear that the image of revolution is all we have left. Could a collection of worker strike photos help?
For the past decade, a surplus of images has captured the uprisings and revolutions across the Arab world. These “militant images” are almost interchangeable: the protesters are almost always young men. Often, they're yelling as their friends are shot. Occasionally they throw Molotov cocktails or rocks in retaliation to the cops or army. Sometimes the frame overflows with people, tear gas clouding our view. At times, the images feature women and are captioned to point this out, as if the women weren't always doing work behind the scenes or weren't physically intimidated from or harassed in the more public spaces of protest.
For a period in 2010 and 2011, it appeared that these euphoric images of previously inconceivable mass protests in the Arab world led to other protests. What Jane Gaines called “political mimesis” played out in real time—as bodies in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Bahrain mimicked the images of other bodies in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain moving down to the streets.1 Even Lebanon saw a few months of hopeful marches aimed at overthrowing the entrenched and multifaceted sectarian regime.
But soon the magic ceased.
The revolutions began to face near-universal suppression. The protesters' transformative aspirations were thwarted one by one. But even as euphoria turned to despair, with no accountability for the many lives lost, jailed, maimed, otherwise destroyed, the images remained, circulating as proof that all we had lived had actually happened.
These images started making their way into online archives, some open-source, some artist-run, and others maintained by academics or nongovernmental organizations. Most of these archives contain descriptive text situating the images in human-rights discourse and animated by the hope that the images—which often document state-sanctioned murder or other forms of state violence—could now or might one day serve as forensic “proof” in legal proceedings for rights violations.
Until now, such legal justice or reparations have been exceptions. This is in part because the wider political and cultural conditions that might lead to hoped-for trials are deeply entrenched in a wider neocolonial geopolitical context that allows, for example, the US State Department to publicly urge restraint by the Egyptian military against protesters while sending $200 million in military aid to the country each year. But this problem also has something to do with the political limitations of images and image archives and how they circulate.
With regard to such questions, filmmaker and internationalist Masao Adachi once commented, “Revolution is an image, the question is how to make it a reality.”2 At face value an appealing view, this popular position can also be a dangerous one: it doesn't ask which or whose vision of revolution is desired, and it threatens to turn the necessarily open-ended possibilities of images into something fixed or final.
Ten years on from the Arab revolutions, it is essential that we think critically about these limitations and possibilities, lest it appear the image of revolution is all we have left. Might another image archive help?
New Protests, Old Questions
In October 2019, a massive social uprising swept Lebanon. Suddenly, the country joined the ranks of highly photographed and widely circulated uprisings. As with 2018 Sudan (but unlike 2011 Sudan), women protesters were particularly visible. Even as the unprecedented protests began to generate their own iconography and potential image archives, I thought about the largely uncirculated images of another earlier, thwarted social revolution in Lebanon, which I had been investigating.
A segment of Lebanon's leftist population asserts that, in the years leading up to the country's civil war (1975–90), Lebanon was on the verge of a social revolution uniting powerful farmer, worker, and student movements across religious lines in alliance with the Palestinian national movement. This revolution aspired to transform the country's sectarian political system, distribute wealth, and end oligarchic political rule. As evidence of this, the left points to massive worker strikes that escalated in the lead up to the war. The Gandour factory strike in November 1972, the Nabatieh tobacco farmers' uprising in January 1973, and the fisherman's strike in March 1975 are only the most famous instances; all of these were violently repressed by the government as it tested the limits of its power on the organized working class. In this narrative, the repression of these strikes are framed as the early conflicts of the civil war.
On all accounts, the transformative project that united workers, students, and farmers in search of a more just country was cut short by the war. The revolution quickly devolved into a sectarian battle, losing its incorporation of working-class demands and the room for worker's political agency.
Yet in my search to see in detail what these movements were actually like, I quickly discover that images of those powerful worker and farmer movements are virtually inaccessible. They are absent from the archives of the country's leftist parties and trade union associations (these, I'm told, were burned in the Israeli invasion of Beirut), from the homes of trade union leaders (destroyed to protect their owners, or lost during displacement), or absent from official historical sources (which maybe would rather pretend such protests never happened). Traces of these moments of possibility exist only as scattered newspaper prints available on microfilm, or as congealed in the minds and bodies of those who lived them. The people who remember the strikes are the archive.
For years, I obsessively collect fragments of these historical moments—chronicling individual stories, compulsively documenting the now-changed spaces where struggles once took place, patiently observing the aged bodies of the strikes' protagonists, hoping that the secret of what Henri Lefebvre calls the “genesis of the present” could be grasped through careful, slow filming. This inquiry will eventually become a film, A Feeling Greater Than Love.
Then, in 2013, a moment of deep political stagnation, I find the photos, stored in the back offices of the Dar Al Sayyad publishing house. Pitying my strange obsession, the archivist allows me to flip through the thick cardboard files: hundreds of pictures of our labor history, organized by factory name (Gandour or Jabr) or location (Nabatieh, Akkar, or Trablos).
I'm overcome by emotion: women standing in front of a factory, yelling. A cop grabbing a young man by the arm, his rifle raised as if about to strike. An empty street, half filled with smoke, with small figures in the background, and in the foreground, two cops pointing their guns.
I want them all. The utopian populist in me insists that these images must be for all to see! For how can we imagine a different future if we cannot see the past? But more sober questions arise, too: What do these images actually tell us? I know from Walid Raad, John Akomfrah, and others who have thought, made work, and written about such concerns, that images are not a clear window on the past.
I also have my own questions, sharpened by the mix of sorrow, anger, and residual hope which the uprisings have instilled in my body since 2011. Do these images also reveal past errors? And what can they tell us about our precarious present, about the boom-and-bust cycle of revolution-induced euphoria and disappointment? What is the bodily relation of these pictures to today—might they evoke more than nostalgia, more than fetish? Even if I could make these images into a strike archive, what function would it serve?
With each photo priced at fifty dollars apiece, my questions about image circulation must go unanswered. I don't have the funds to create such an archive. For the moment, I haven't been able to convince any art funders to finance my film about a stalled historical labor movement in the Global South. The documents (once used for organizing the working-class struggle) are available at a price that I cannot afford.
Making references for some future date at which I would have raised the capital, I snap photographs, liberating some fifty images from the private archive with my cell phone.
When Images Circulate, Where Does Value Accrue?
Speaking to us from a different spatio-historical moment, Allen Sekula addresses some of these concerns about the utility of archives in relation to a book of images taken by Canadian coal town photographer Leslie Shedden in the 1950s and 1960s. The book frames Shedden as a visual artist, subsuming photos that were initially taken for vastly different reasons—company accounting records, workplace documentation, individual workers' domestic use (keepsakes)—into one collection which is marketed as “art.” In the well-circulated essay titled “Photography between Labor and Capital,” Sekula discusses ways in which photography and image archives can serve to legitimate and normalize existing power relationships.
An archive is by definition a collection of images that relate to one another through some kind of logic or meaning. The problem with image archives, he surmises, is that they function primarily according to the logic of exchange. Within the logic of exchange, however, that meaning is “up for grabs”; it can change depending on the archive's owner. This necessarily tends toward images being read in “abstraction from the complexity and richness of use.”3 This logic is what threatens to depoliticize even the best-meaning revolution or protest archive.
More precisely, Sekula identifies the mechanism of “aestheticism”—the assimilation of images into the discourse and market of the fine arts—as a danger that can easily occur as soon as images are removed from their initial context. Such aestheticism is a constant threat to the spectacular Arab revolutionary images that I have started this piece by discussing (but not showing). Sekula cautions that as soon as images find their way off organizers' WhatsApp chats or Twitter threads and enter the “archive,” they readily become commodities. In circulation within the art market or human-rights discourse, their function (whether originally to agitate or bear witness to state violence or creative resistance) shifts, sometimes to accruing attention and value to individual art careers or to nonprofit funding portfolios, regardless of whether this has been the intention. There is no outside of capital—and revolutionary images are no exception.
While this dynamic certainly varies depending on who has organized the archive and to what ends (an artist-run, open-source archive certainly functions differently from say, Amnesty International), it seems to me that there is much more to think about as we make sense of those recent histories and the ways they are re-presented.
As in the aftermath of all revolutions, so many are still living with the nonspectacular, everyday, debilitating consequences of those romanticized events. What is presented as the courage of the masses is largely experienced outside the limelight—at best, as individual transformation, and at worst, as personal tragedy. What was once the cause for celebrated collective rage and action becomes relegated to the suffering of communities, friends, or families of those killed, imprisoned, maimed, or otherwise traumatized, in ways that are inevitably gendered, racialized, and experienced more intensely along class lines. Do image archives honor the pain of those who have lost loved ones, or limbs? Might they change the future circumstances of those still indefinitely imprisoned or disappeared? I am quite sincerely unsure.
Walter Benjamin uses the phrase “aestheticization of politics” to describe spectacular displays of self-expression and working-class politics that leave the underlying ownership structure intact.4 To be clear, by aestheticization I am not referring to “aesthetics.” Aesthetics involves a sensitivity for the visual, the pleasurably sonic, for joy, excitement, and beauty, all of which are essential to transformative politics.
Aestheticization instead involves a fixity, an almost formulaic employment of form without regard to the spatio-historic moment. A good example of this could be seeing “experimental film” as a repertoire of techniques rather than a mode of working that searches for an appropriate audiovisual mode to convey particular contextually situated feelings or ideas. Another might be seeing the “militant image” as a genre in and of itself rather than as a variable approach to using images at the service of transformative politics.5
Understood in this way, aestheticization works against the political function of the image in what Leigh Raiford refers to as a “critical practice of memory.” Also invoking Benjamin, she urges that we “consider memory as a mode of criticism ‘that makes visible what has been obscured, what has been excluded and what has been forgotten.”’6 Viewing images of the Arab uprisings through the lens she offers could allow us to ask of the images more difficult historical and political questions, such as: What kinds of horizons of change are the Arab revolutions archives representing, or perpetuating? In turn, what horizons do they make invisible? Whose political labor is seen, and what remains unseen? These are urgent questions to address if we wish for political futures distinct from the present.
Dangerously, aestheticization erases this political function by turning action—which is necessarily fraught with many complications, contradictions, and alternative possible futures—into fixity. And, as Benjamin suggests, fixity by turns always threatens to become “a tool of the ruling classes.”7 Communism, he reminds us, “responds by politicizing art.”8
This danger can be observed within the intentional ambiguity valued so greatly within the genre of contemporary art. While performative uncertainty certainly opens paths for thoughtful and open-ended reflection of images (think, for example, of Rabih Mroué's The Pixelated Revolution), that same potentially productive ambiguity is also subject to the rules of the extremely lucrative art market. Artworks that take a clear position on the gendered and racialized accumulation of capital are often labeled didactic (I know this from experience). Explicitly political art is generally devalued on the international art market. It is definitely more difficult to sell.
In the absence of contemporary alternative networks for reactivating and keeping images alive—like the discussion screenings of the Third Cinema Networks of the 1960s and 1970s, Indymedia, or the fleeting screenings of Cinema Tahrir—fixedness reigns prime. The question remains: Is there another way?
Is Another Archive Possible?
I began making A Feeling Greater Than Love in 2009, in a moment of relative political quiet, because I wanted to recuperate energies and possibilities from the past to activate the present. The film takes a critical feminist look at two of the monumental uprisings mentioned here: a worker strike at the Gandour chocolate factory in 1972 and a massive tobacco farmer uprising in South Lebanon in 1973.
The scant materials I could find written about these events when I began all portray the uprisings as monumental events that held the power to transform the country and even the broader region. The film, which eventually premiered in the 2017 Berlinale Forum and won the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Critics Prize, mixes observational footage of the strike's rank-and-file protagonists with oral history, landscape studies of the now-transformed spaces of the strike, textual observations and interventions, and some of the still images presented here. It seeks to uncover these obscured histories and to ask: Why did these revolutions fall short of their transformative aspirations? What lessons might they hold for the present?
At first, I could only find men to speak with. They all insisted that while women had been involved—indeed, the chocolate factory work force was mostly women, and rural women are active in tobacco production—they never played a significant political role. I suspected from my own experiences as a woman in social movements that this wasn't the case. Political organizing, like all forms of labor, is highly gendered: the person-to-person work key to a movement's success is often performed by women and is regularly devalued as less important than the more glamorous work of, say, giving speeches or fighting openly with cops. The women workers I painstakingly tracked down confirmed my suspicions: they were active in the strike's organization, but, without exception, they downplayed their militancy. Only one admitted to being arrested or fighting the state: a charismatic former worker who eventually married her fellow militant coworker, the president of the Gandour strike committee.
When I finally found images of the strikes in 2013, I didn't know what to make of them. All the women. Throwing rocks at police. Struggling with soldiers as they take them into detention. Marching in the front lines alongside the men, proudly carrying banners that are deliberately signed “men and women factory workers.” Yet none of the women workers whom I have managed to track down can (or will) recognize their former militant selves—or any of their coworkers—in the photos.
Moreover, I've discovered these mysterious images just as the abundance of new Arab revolution images begins to wane, as the uprisings are repressed, one by one. The ongoing resistance to overlapping forms of oppression moves offstage, where it had been in the intervening decades. How should I view these mysterious past images in relation to contemporary ones? Are the uprisings they represent comparable to our contemporary ones? Are images of striking factory worker women and rural migrants throwing rocks at cops equivalent to images of cross-class masses occupying Cairo's Tahrir Square and demanding their unelected president's resignation? And why are all the women unable (or unwilling) to recognize their former militant selves? What does this foreshadow for future contemporary revolutions?
Moreover, when, how, and through what venues might militant images help us to reconsider political practice and decolonial horizons? Certainly not through a photo essay alone.
A Strike Archive “From Below”
When I finally raise a bit of money for the film, I return to the newspaper. The archivist searches diligently, but he has misplaced the folder I set aside. I'm now especially grateful for having captured the previous set of images. My distorted phone photos are the only proof that they existed. I buy a few of the remaining images. But there are so many more left behind in the archive: images of women and slogans and smoke filling the frame. There are also more obscure images where, if not for the archive's meticulous organization, and the work uniforms I've now memorized, it isn't apparent that we are seeing workers on strike.
The photographers have at times chosen to document from behind police lines, so I get some of these images too. These show repression in action but also attempt to humanize those doing the repressing. I am not always able to capture the opposite side of the photograph where the captions live. Most of the images don't have captions anyway. And so the dates and times and contexts run into one another in my secret “at home” archive, brought together by an anarcho-communist feminist curatorial vision.
Even after I leave the physical space of the archive, it stays with me. I scheme to acquire all the photos, to build an open-source archive that says the revolution has a precedent. That women have always been on the front lines and in the rear guard of struggle, whether or not they admit it. That if something is going to change, we need the past to guide the future.
But then, the paper's owners divorce. They sell the publishing house to a buyer in Dubai. The photo archive is dismantled. On the phone, the unemployed archivist promises he can find some photos . . . if I want (he means, if I have the cash). I could read this as a metaphor for a stunted labor movement, but that would miss the point.
The point, rather, is whether there is something distinct about strike images that would make it important or worthwhile to gather them and put them in some publicly accessible place. This is the question I've been asking ever since I found, but couldn't acquire, these images. I have been exploring the potential pitfalls of such an endeavor in this essay.
Amid the ever-increasing surplus of contemporary militant images from across the Arab world (now including Lebanon), with many now neatly placed in revolution image archives and with their radical potential in danger of being subsumed by the international art market or human-rights discourse, what use is a set of worker-strike photos from the 1970s? Could a strike image archive somehow subvert the logic of accumulation—and point us toward new paths?
In thinking about this, I return to Sekula and Raiford for guidance. Raiford reminds us that questions around images and revolutions are always gendered. She points to the necessity of expanding our notion of a movement archive beyond the sometimes staged images of iconic events. Reflecting on the spectrum of images of the US civil rights movement, she insists we attend to images of the everyday work of organizing but also to images of street protests—both of which feature Black women front and center.9 Sekula seeks to resolve such tensions by suggesting we learn to read an archive “from below.” He clarifies this means of operating from a place of solidarity with those made “invisible by the machineries of profit and progress.”10 Like Raiford, he insists we interpret an existing archive by always articulating what the archive also leaves out. I take this to mean that the images we don't see in a revolution image archive are as important as the ones we do.
Strikes involve workers collectively withholding labor. They use this withdrawal of labor, practically the only means at their disposal, to disrupt the reproduction of capital and to shift the balance of power that favors “owners” of capital. In this sense, worker strikes are always about interrupting the smooth logics of ownership. And strike photos are not about political mimesis—akin to the endless circulation of images—but rather about interrupting that circulation. A strike image archive “from below” must somehow interrupt networks of ownership by undermining the easy slip back into contextless fixity or fetish.
Partly, this is a matter of contextualization. For example, an archive could be framed and structured to resemble the messiness and uncertainty of strike work. It could explicitly reflect upon the complications of organizing, maintaining, and documenting a strike and the ways such difficulties are historically repetitive—rather than neaten and elide those uncertainties. But constituting a strike archive in solidarity also means acknowledging the ways images and workers complicate those same categories by unsettling who and what a strike looks like. It's often the opposite of a regimented image of clean and orderly factory work, for example, and it's also not always as spectacular as a Molotov cocktail.
When I screened A Feeling Greater Than Love in Beirut to a packed theater in 2018, one of the woman workers whose voice and hands appear in the film—here, I will call her Zeina—recognized her sister and father in a photo shown on screen. Later that evening, I got a frantic but amused voice message: “What is my father doing in this photo?” she asks. Over the years since we met, we often exchange voice messages, sometimes making jokes. This one felt a bit different. A brilliant orator and historical analyst, Zeina had agreed to be in the film on the condition that her face not be shown. She gathered alongside her sister and another former coworker, and I film their hands as they describe working at the biscuit factory and the conditions that led to the just and necessary 1972 strike. Still, despite our friendship, Zeina has maintained for years that her father forbade her and her sister from participating in this particular strike and the stunted social movements of which it was. The photo—and her voice messages—suggest otherwise.
These strike images and their afterlives, to evoke Kristin Ross's phase, shift our understanding not only of the agent of revolution but also of revolution's temporality. The inspired, tough, young rural migrant woman who is arrested after throwing rocks at the police is essential to the strike, as is her sister, who has participated in the strike but in a less spectacular form. But read through the distance of forty years and the transformed political conditions that led to her concealing her past militancy as a now-pious grandmother and family matriarch in a different political climate, the time frame of revolution and the labor needed to make it change as well.
Here, our image of militancy is transformed when seen in a continuum with the social reproductive labor of grandmotherhood in a present dominated more by religious political parties like Hezbollah than, say, the Lebanese Communist Party. Through this particular image, the moment of woman workers' militancy comes to incorporate multiple related forms of labor through which that moment now is, or is not, legible to spectators as well as to its participants. That is, the labor of grandparenting becomes a substantive and constitutive part of the political aftermath of this particular strike and the stunted social movements' aftermath of which it was a part, as does the work through which Lebanon's political landscape has been so dramatically transformed that a woman would no longer recognize (or willingly identify) her former militant self. This too unsettles the category of “labor” itself as it relates to social transformation.
This expansive view of the category of labor allows this particular image to hold multiple possible futures. We can imagine, for example, a future where the labors of being a rural migrant woman, mother, and militant, urban labor movement leader are all perfectly compatible and valued in their richness. Many of these alternatives are preemptively foreclosed by revolution image archives, which predominantly stage a certain, more spectacular, and usually masculinist type of confrontation with the state and other repressive forces.
This essay has been characterized by speculations, and here is yet another: How might we construct a social movement with space for such disparate forms of labor and subjectivities? Can images help? This question is as relevant in the post–Arab Revolutions context as it is for 1970s Lebanon. As the image miscaptioning experiment with which this essay began suggests, the meanings of archives and images are never fully closed. Perhaps the work of building solidarity with revolutions and their images—past and future—is to create space for such multiple meanings and forms of labor to thrive and coexist.
To build a strike image archive from a position of solidarity is an ongoing aspiration but never a guarantee, like that of building a movement itself. But it is essential if our work with images is to do more than solidify the same ownership structures that made movements necessary and urgent in the first place.
Research for this text was supported by an Arts Research Grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and the Arab Council for Society Sciences Research. Thanks also goes to Alia Ayman, Tareq Rantisi, and Merve Unsal for their invaluable comments and to Kristine Khoury for her expertise in image acquisition.
For precision's sake, I offer Simone Bitter, Jeff Derkson, and Helmut Weber's definition of militant image as an image “of any period [which] is in dialogue with its historical present at the same time as it contests the shape of the present” (Bitter, Weber and Derkson, “Militant Image Picturing”).