Skip to main content Start of main content

Walls, No Bridges: The Relation Between Revealing and Disguising in Ahlam Shibli’s Photographic Practice

Al-Yasmina neighbourhood, Nablus, 1 November 2011. Hisham, a police officer and brother of the prisoner ’Ala’ Akoubeh, sits in a coffee shop. The posters depict Basim Abu Sariyah, known as al-Gaddafi. Ahlam Shibli, Untitled (Death, no.46), 2011—12, Palestine, chromogenic colour print, 38 × 57cm. All images courtesy the artist
Christian Höller examines Ahlam Shibli’s move to ‘conceal the visible’ in her photographs, and her opting for a different mode of representation for her subjects.

‘Photography’, Ahlam Shibli once said, is ‘a practice of actively revealing and disguising at the same time.’01 This active revealing and disguising, precisely by occurring simultaneously and entering into play in one and the same pictorial act, impedes the readability of the images. The process of showing whilst concealing refers, in Shibli’s work, to those peoples or issues that generally evade our media-saturated perception; but it also refers to the fact that her photographs avoid ‘pinning things down’ or any spectacularisation of these issues. Shibli’s practice shows — or rather, renders visible — precisely the act of drawing subjects out of invisibility and seeking in the same act to subvert a certain regime of rendering visible, namely the ad hoc and irresponsible dragging-into-the-light favoured by the mass media.

However, the question that immediately springs to mind when considering this is how such a contradictory act of simultaneously revealing and disguising can be possible. How can photographs ‘reveal what is hidden and at the same time […] disguise what is visible’?02 One key to answering this question is to be found in the specific subject matter Shibli has concentrated on since she first exhibited her work. First of all, there are the photographic series on the living conditions of the Palestinian people, within the borders of Israel, in the Palestinian occupied territories that are now partly self-administered territories, and in exile, be it in Jordan or elsewhere in the diaspora. Some of her earliest works address this situation, for example Voyage in Mt. Tabor (1998), Wadi Saleib in Nine Volumes (1999) or Unrecognised (2000), which addresses Palestinian villages that are not recognised by the state of Israel and which therefore do not appear on the official Israeli maps. Shibli has returned over and over to these and similar locations, as in the series Goter (2002—03), Arab al-Sbaih (2007) and The Valley (2007—08), which can together be read as a discontinuous but cohesive narrative, or in more personal works tracking down vestiges of the past, such as Self-Portrait (2000), in which Shibli casts a small girl as the protagonist, returning with her to places where she lived as a child.03 A common thread running through all these works on the situation of the Palestinian population is that they bring to light, and indeed draw into representation, facts and circumstances that in some cases are non-existent — or rather, ‘unrecognised’ — in official agendas. At the same time, reflecting the inherently dialectic nature of these works, scarcely any of the individual photographs present a readily identifiable or clearly codified state of affairs. Instead, the momentum informing these works tugs in two opposing directions at one and the same time: ‘fulfilling the need to show what is forbidden to be seen and resenting reification and commodification of what is shown’.04

This holds true in particular for Unrecognised and Goter, but is a constant feature running through to the newer Palestine series such as Trackers (2005), The Valley or Death (2011—12). ‘To make visible what has been made invisible in Israeli public space’05 — that is how Kamal Boulatta described the impetus underlying these two earlier series, underscoring this in terms of three different modes of spatial distancing that are manifest in the work. Boulatta characterises them as the ‘space separating the world from the [depicted] village’, ‘the yard that lies between the private place of residence and the environment’ and, finally, images shot ‘within the living space’; together these constitute a kind of diagram of the way in which Shibli moves ever closer to the circumstances that shape life in the unrecognised towns and villages she chronicles.06 Goter also refuses glib monosemy, combining images of unrecognised villages with photographs of townships established by the Israeli state, making it at times difficult to identify immediately which of these is depicted in a particular shot. Whilst this tactic undermines any decisive position on the visualisation of the invisible or ‘nonexistent’ — because both ‘non-existent’ and officially existent are equally pictured — a further relativisation is mapped in the photographic series: any ‘reification’ of the subject or victim status of those depicted is reduced to a minimum, for the people portrayed are seldom captured in a frontal or statue-like composition. At the same time, Shibli does not hesitate in certain cases to portray a family as proud and self-confident subjects ‘dwelling’ in the midst of adversity (as in the photograph of Umm Mitnan in Goter, no.42).

Exceptions such as this exemplify a dialectics that curator Ulrich Loock has expressed succinctly:

[I]n a situation wherein people are denied the fundamental rights that would empower them to constitute themselves as autonomous subjects, it seems that, in order not to constitute them as victims of their own adverse living conditions, they must be denied the right to theirown photograph.07

Here the ‘right to one’s own photograph’ would be a form of representation that depicts the individuals in question without visual obstruction or interference from contextual elements — as if they themselves had full control over the mode of formation of their image. Such a representational form would show them as free from obstacles to their portrayal, and hence without obstacles to their autonomy: without there being ‘either a gap or a wall in front of the spectator’, as Loock notes with reference to Goter’s landscape photographs, which are generally taken from a considerable distance.08 This touches on a decisive and integral aspect of the process of rendering visible the invisible in Shibli’s work: the deprivation of visibility, and with it the stripping away of the illusion of direct and untrammelled awareness of the subject in question (which is the objective of contemporary photojournalism, above all with reference to theatres of war or so-called flashpoints).

In this respect T.J. Demos has drawn attention to the ‘frequent elisions, lacunae and fragmentations’ that disrupt any reading of the photographs as simply representational.09 Shibli’s method, by recognising ‘first and foremost […] the gaps and fissures within the image’10 and thus ‘its own representational limitations’,11 gives expression to a further important restrictive component in the ‘paradigm of revealing’ (as one might call it): namely the rejection, where individual people are made visible, of the state of ‘being-a-subject’ that is one of having been ‘seized’. Instead, the type of self-transcendence that emerges in these images pertains to the way in which the living conditions, the way of being-a-subject and the mode of existing of the people depicted transcend the existing representational framework.

This becomes clear in both The Valley and in Trackers. The first series comprises 28 photographs of the Palestinian village Arab al-Shibli in Galilee. (Until 1948 this village was called Arab al-Sbaih; it changed its name after the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948.) Symptomatic of this series, which contains almost no depictions of people, is the photograph of a small area surrounded by a makeshift fence by the side of a road. History has it that this is where the inhabitants of Arab al-Sbaih and those of the nearby Jewish settlement Mas’ha met with a view to reconciliation after a violent conflict in the early 1940s.12 The very emptiness of this image, together with its ‘protagonist’, the fragile fence, alludes to a utopian dimension that seems virtually impossible to portray with human representatives. Any suggestion of a reconciliatory utopia is absent from Trackers, Shibli’s 85-part series about Palestinians of Bedouin descent who serve voluntarily in the Israeli army (IDF). In seven chapters Shibli unfurls an exploration of the nexus of problems around this small group, who primarily want to improve their standard of living, and in the process jeopardise their identity (or at least the identity ascribed to them by others). She works on an epic scale here, yet does not choose spectacular events or monstrosities as the subjects of her depictions, and does not make hasty moral judgements about the people portrayed. Instead, the hallmark of this series, as for most of Shibli’s works, is a ‘calm, patient persistence with these situations of reality’:13 the images render visible the circumstances in which this particular group lives and works, whilst at the same time reflecting on ‘the price a minority is forced to pay to the majority, maybe to be accepted, maybe to change its identity, maybe to survive or maybe all of this and more’.14

Even when Shibli addresses the appalling situation facing the Palestinian people, most recently in the 68-part series Death,15 it would be simplistic, or rather highly one-sided, to reduce her work to this thematic aspect. She does indeed return repeatedly to this situation, which is also part of her autobiographical experience, in a sense remembering, repeating and working through it. She has produced, however, a number of other series, which, adopting a similarly structured approach, focus on the lives of the ‘ostracised’: the living conditions of orphans in Poland, for example (Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away, 2008); lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from Arab, Muslim or Eastern backgrounds, who can only express their sexual preferences publicly in large cities in the West (Eastern LGBT, 2006); or the situation of private care workers in Barcelona (Dependence, 2007) or of migrant street traders in Turin (Market, 2005). All of these social hotspots point beyond the focus of the ‘Palestinian catastrophe’. But unlike the Palestinian refugees and those living under occupation, the orphans, LGBTs or migrants appear instead in a kind of existential limbo, depicted in equal part as active agents and as being restricted by the situations they confront. Simultaneously life and vitality under adverse circumstances become visible, whilst at the same time an attempt is made to render invisible that all too unambiguous burden, the stigma of this form of existence.

The sixteen-part series Market makes this clear in a particularly striking fashion. The photographs move cautiously from the peripheries — the outlying neighbourhoods and highways that lead to the marketplaces — to inch closer and closer to the living and working situation of the street traders who offer their second-hand goods for sale in central Turin every Saturday. The mise en scène depicts the predominantly migrant salespeople somewhat on the margins of the images, as if their environment — the spatial and social context in which they conduct their business — expresses more about their existence than any kind of portrait or close-up could. It is only in the sixth photograph in the series that we see a trader, but even this figure seems somewhat incidental, squeezed up against the left-hand edge of the image and partly cropped out of the frame. In contrast, the photographs showing the clients, such as three young people looking around the market, or the somewhat bizarre junk on display, are larger in size than the other works and are, notably, often shot in colour. The small-format black-and-white photographs mostly show goods for sale that are not always easy to distinguish from the packaging material or rubbish that collects around them on the street. It is only in the final segment that we see traders in action, although here too it is often not entirely clear what is being sold. Shibli’s representational arrangement concentrates primarily on drawing into the image the external (urban, social or interactive) circumstances of this type of work, whilst avoiding any stigmatisation or ‘coagulation’ into a fixed typology (in the sense of: this is the whole story about how street traders look).

A similar point could be made about Dependence, in which the work of Filipino, South American and Eastern European care workers in Barcelona takes centre stage. Here again the representational modus is indirect and careful; in some cases the type of work or the circumstances in which the care workers exist only becomes visible in the portrayal of the people they care for. The same holds true for Eastern LGBT, which, once again via the rhythmic grouping of images, sheds light on the way in which communities take shape under repressive conditions and looks at the question of the extent to which one’s own body can be a ‘home’.16 Shibli has been concerned with the distinction between ‘house’ and ‘home’ ever since she began to address Palestinian villages and refugee camps.17 In the course of engaging with this issue, in 2008 she took photographs in eleven Polish orphanages, for the series Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away (the literal translation of the Polish expression ‘dom dziecka’ is ‘house of the child’, or ‘children’s home’). The 35 photographs, selected from hundreds of shots, depict the children in everyday situations: playing, eating, praying or hanging out together. There are only occasional shots of individuals on their own — and only when they are asleep, in images that always include within the frame important details of whatever is around the bed (such as cuddly toys, posters of cars or a painted computer screen). Shibli explains that she was surprised to note the ‘close physical relations’ among the children, and the manifestation of a ‘collective body’, which not only substitutes for traditional family relationships but articulates these in a new way.18 Successively, unfolding across a broad canvas, a collectively formatted — but in no way de-individualising — ‘social body’ is thus revealed. At the same time, the photographs again do not cast the children as underdogs, nor indeed are their circumstances painted as ‘oppressive’. The images resolutely strive to undermine all forms of stigmatisation or any hint of ‘disenfranchisement’. In this context, ‘disguising what is visible’ means sweeping away the visual obstructions that would turn the subjects portrayed into representatives of particular existential damage.19


Ahlam Shibli, Untitled (Horse Race in Jericho, no.2), 1997, Jericho, Palestine, gelatin silver print, 57.6 × 37.8cm
Ahlam Shibli, Untitled (Horse Race in Jericho, no.3), 1997, Jericho, Palestine, gelatin silver print, 37.8 × 57.6cm

This interplay of revealing and concealing was already present in Shibli’s very early work, which was mostly accomplished on a smaller scale. In the six-part series Horse Race in Jericho (1997), distinct, scattered moments from the context of a horse race are combined to form a mini-narrative. First we see two boys standing alone in the landscape next to a child’s bicycle lying on the ground. Hugging each other, they are looking at something just outside the frame. In a subsequent photograph another two boys stand on a hill, also turning their gaze to something we cannot see. A couple of external elements project into the image from the bottom of the frame: shadows, with the one on the left cast by the photographer. The third photograph finally draws what was previously not visible, namely two riders charging wildly towards the viewer and into the centre of the composition, whilst a security guard watches over the spectators, who can only be seen in the margins of this photograph. The next shot once again shifts its attention, this time to focus on the spectators; sitting on a long row of chairs or standing on trucks behind the seated figures, they trace a horizontal line through the frame. The following image again depicts the riders hurtling along, whilst the final photograph depicts the two boys from the second photograph again — this time in a landscape format, with two further silhouettes, both with their backs turned to us, visible on the right. The sequence effects a compressed interaction of rendering visible, shifting focus and repetition; on the other hand it also evades, indeed evacuates, the appearance of something eventful and spectacular. Although material that is to an extent spectacular enters the image in the form of the boisterous race, this focus inexorably shifts to the watching figures, framed as a concentrated collective, or as individual subjects standing somewhat desolately in the midst of the landscape. The visual displacement to the seemingly passive crowd constitutes a kind of transitional or tipping moment: within this crowd a multitude of (at least potential) active figures are represented, without spelling out the details of their agenda or their tenuous existence in Jericho, in occupied Palestine.

Trauma (2008—09) could be described as being diametrically opposed to this early series, particularly in terms of its epic breadth. Like the Palestine series, the 48 photographs shot in central France (around Tulle and the surrounding parts of Corrèze) demonstrate the continuing repercussions and dislocations of a specific historical trauma. The massacre committed by the Nazis in 1944 in Tulle is still commemorated with much pomp and circumstance, and several monuments are dedicated to the victims. However, a peculiar historical layering mixes with this commemoration of the dead. It is not just that certain monuments are dedicated, indiscriminately, to the victims of Nazi atrocities and to soldiers killed in World Wars I and II, as well as in the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria; over and above this, Shibli portrays — without making accusations — some of the numerous local inhabitants once active in the French Resistance who later took up arms against the insurgents fighting for freedom in the French colonies. Migrants from those former colonies now live around Corrèze, as well as people who came to France as forced labourers. All of these elements render the image of a simple course of history much more difficult, adding complexity to a notion of ‘home’ that can no longer be unambiguously determined.20 The trauma experienced cannot provide a guarantee that those who suffered will be forever embedded, in commemorative mode, in this specific place; nor does this place now (or in the future) embody a homogenous frame for lived experience or memory. Instead, as portrayed with great precision in Trauma, thoroughly heterogeneous narratives, which cannot be broken down into a reductivist understanding of history, are laid one upon another around the central fulcrum of commemoration of the dead.

Tulle, 7 June 2009. Wreath-laying ceremony at the cemetery of Puy Saint Clair to commemorate the fighters of the FFI (Forces françaises de l’intérieur), including members of the FTP (Francstireurs et partisans), who fell during the Resistance attack in Tulle on 7 and 8 June 1944. Ahlam Shibli, Untitled (Trauma, no.4), 2008—09, Corrèze, France, chromogenic colour print, 38 × 57.7cm
Tulle, 28 May 2009. On the table are the clothes Françoise Bonneau’s father was wearing when he returned from the Dachau concentration camp. Later he would fight in the First Indochina War. Ahlam Shibli, Untitled (Trauma, no.28), 2008—09, Corrèze, France, chromogenic colour print, 57.7 × 38cm

Compared with Shibli’s earlier works, Trauma functions on a genuinely epic scale, with accompanying texts and long captions. The photographs depict a whole host of historical documents — letters, maps, identity cards, etc. They feed into a process of rendering visible that which presents a nuanced view of history, a process of ‘uncovering the visible and that which it concurrently renders invisible’.21 On the contrary, a sense of disjunction inevitably looms in this process of showing multiple fragmented snippets, photographing old photographs and private documents, and in the depiction of embodiments of the official culture of commemoration: the divergence and heterogeneity of personalised histories all point back to a historical primal scene that is impossible to ‘capture’. In these diverging histories, irrespective of all the differences within them, the central issue is the shared desire, which is however hard for all to attain, for an event that will provide an assurance of identity, an event that is increasingly at risk of dwindling away as it recedes into the past.

The disguising always involved in Shibli’s work contests the tendency to fix a specific historical catastrophe with an overly homogenous, almost unblemished ‘casting in stone’ of events or subjects — whether in a photographic history, textual account or stone monument. Shibli’s move to ‘conceal the visible’ is not concerned with relativising or symbolically casting off injustice suffered by historic victims, whoever they might be. Trauma rather subverts the regulated, simplistic pictorial regime that aims to pin down visual subjectification into facile categorisations of victims and perpetrators. Such a subversion is effected not by blurring any distinctions of victim and perpetrator in a given historical situation, but rather by drawing attention to the fact that one can turn, over time, into the other. In this endeavour, the series is paradigmatic of Shibli’s entire oeuvre.


Translated from the German by Helen Ferguson.


  • Reinhard Braun and Ahlam Shibli, ‘Ahlam Shibli: Objecting to Imposed Invisibility’, Camera Austria, no.114, June 2011, p.19.
  • Ibid.
  • Such as Arab al-Shibli in Palestine, where Shibli was born in 1970.
  • A. Shibli in ‘Objecting to Imposed Invisibility’, op. cit., p.20. Emphasis the author’s.
  • Kamal Boulatta, ‘Cassandra and the Photography of the Invisible’, in Ahlam Shibli: Lost Time (exh. cat.), Birmingham: Ikon Gallery, 2003, p.58.
  • See ibid., p.58ff.
  • Ulrich Loock, ‘Goter’, in Ahlam Shibli: Lost Time, op. cit., p.31.
  • Ibid., p.29.
  • T.J. Demos, ‘Recognizing the Unrecognized: The Photographs of Ahlam Shibli’, in Hilde Van Gelder and Helen Westgeest (ed.), Photography Between Poetry and Politics: The Critical Position of the Photographic Medium in Contemporary Art, Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2008, p.133.
  • Ibid., p.136.
  • Ibid., p.137.
  • See Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, ‘Disclosure and Seclusion, Declaration and Disguise’, in Ahlam Shibli — Go there, Eat the mountain, Write the past, Amman: Darat al Funun — The Khalid Shoman Foundation, 2011, p.20.
  • U. Loock, ‘Ahlam Shibli: Resisting Oppression’, Camera Austria, no.93, March 2006, p.45.
  • A. Shibli, ‘Trackers’, in Adam Szymczyk (ed.), Ahlam Shibli — Trackers, Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2007, p.43. See also Rhoda Kanaaneh, ‘Tracking Bedouin Soldiers’, in ibid., p.31ff.
  • To be shown for the first time in 2013 in the exhibition ‘Ahlam Shibli. Phantom Home’ (MACBA, Barcelona; Jeu de Paume, Paris; and Museu de Arte Contempor.nea de Serralves, Porto).
  • See Lisette Lagnado, ‘Home and Homeland: About Ahlam Shibli’s Photo-Series Eastern LGBT’, Nafas Art Magazine [online journal], February 2007, available at (last accessed on 11 November 2012).
  • See A. Shibli, ‘Goter’, in Ahlam Shibli — Go there, Eat the mountain, Write the past, op. cit., p.97.
  • See A. Shibli, ‘Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away’, available at (last accessed on 11 November 2012).
  • A. Shibli in ‘Objecting to Imposed Invisibility’, op. cit., p.19.
  • See U. Loock, ‘The Trauma Work’, in Ahlam Shibli — TRAUMA (exh. cat.), Tulle: Peuple et Culture Corrèze, 2010, p.26ff.
  • Adania Shibli, ‘Uncovering the Visible’, in ibid., p.33.