Is the visual political? The question has long preoccupied those who work in the field of visual culture. After all, as Barthes told us, photographs carry studium, but it is only the rare ones with punctum that make us stop and take note. What Barthes did not tell us was that even straight documentary images, informative, one-dimensional images that capture events in passing, can help build dreams and engender vision when what they frame is precisely the making of a dream in action.
If ever there was a doubt about the political force of images, then it should have been laid to rest this year as never before. For the tumultuous events unfolding before our eyes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East have unleashed in unprecedented ways image upon image of collective enterprise to claim democratic rights of citizenship. These photographs speak repeatedly not only of civil unrest, but of a vision of civil dignity shared by none other than the people of the ‘Orient.’ By so doing, they force Western viewers to rethink and reposition their own, historically entrenched view of the Middle East. For let us not forget that the Middle East has long been the object of Orientalist conjecture by colonial powers. Let us not forget that Orientalism has reached new heights of stigma, not to mention terror and phobia, in this blood-soaked millennium of ours, so scarred by the events of 9/11 and all that has come in its tragic wake. Let us not forget that in 2003, Western powers justified the unleashing of war, death and untold pain in Iraq under the false and transparent rubric of a ‘democracy’ that has yet to take root.
How could we forget? The tragedies of the millennium are ongoing. And it is against this backdrop of the failure of Western ‘democratic’ action that we view the images that now come to us from North Africa and the Middle East. The media is replete these days with photographs of people from these parts of the world, who till now were scarcely noted abroad. We see them joining forces in spirit and in practice by the shared dream of democracy, as they make their presence felt and their voices heard in public spaces. The photographs that we have been seeing daily in the press are forceful indictments of oppression. They are also immensely powerful in their documenting of the claim to citizenship. These are images of collective action, of people from North Africa and the Middle East, be they Christians or Muslims, embarking together on a common cause, of peaceful solidarity in the struggle for democracy. Of young people, committed to their will to claim a voice against all odds. Of resistance to oppression. Of popular dissent and the will of the common man. The images come to us against the backdrop of Islamophobia, the ‘war on terror,’ the tacit assumption that only the West understands the precepts of democratic citizenship. They do not just relay the news: they also, very forcefully, overturn stereotypes -- age-old, fossilized, colonial ones, now turned aggressive and harsh in the orange light of terror. One image after another strips the ground further away from Orientalist presuppositions of Muslims, Arabs, ‘Moors’ and ‘Orientals.’ The images are testament that the prejudices of latter-day Orientalism are as unfounded as they are pervasive. They do even more: the photographs also confirm that democracy is not a Western prerogative. They frame the fact that there are many routes to democratic citizenship
Tahrir Square: the name has already become iconic. It resounds with the will of the collective. In more ways than one the square of liberty, it has become symbolic of this struggle. A common trope across these photographs of peaceful resistance is that of people praying. To the eye shaped by the discourses and phobias of the ‘war on terror’, it sheds new light on Islamic practice – not as companion to violent action, but as part of organized and peaceful resistance to oppression. Over and again, the images frame the role of religion in the struggle for democracy. They frame citizenship in action and confirm the priority of popular determination over historical subjugation. By overcoming stereotypes, these photographs that we see in the press dissolve the boundaries that have so long fettered the Orientalist mindset. They alter vision.
OECUMENE’s project of Citizenship After Orientalism could not have been more timely or more apt. We are living through times when the concepts of both Orientalism and Citizenship are being refigured. They need to be re-viewed. Envisioned, no doubt, in the light of what these photographs suggest. Photographs do not just relay events or give us the news. They also direct our vision, urge us to rethink and to gain new vision. To see Tahrir Square reflected in the frame of an image is to look at citizenship and democracy in the making through another lens.