Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who's the Fairest Soldier of them All?

By Ruthie Ginsburg
Translated into English by Ami Asher

In the summer of 2010, Israeli and international media circulated two photos showing a young woman in IDF uniform smiling at the camera. In the first photo, she looks directly at the camera, with three blindfolded and handcuffed Palestinians sitting behind her on concrete slabs. In the second, sitting next to one of the detainees, she turns her head towards him. These were some of the images she produced, tagged and saved on her Facebook wall, titled “The Military – the Best Time of My Life”. After the photos were uploaded to the Internet, they were copied onto a popular Israeli blog called Squares – They’re Everywhere” – through which they later reached the press and TV news media (Haaretz, August 17, 2010). The photos of IDF servicewoman Eden Abergil with Palestinian detainees in the background as published on Facebook were met with severe public criticism. In subsequent interviews, Abergil responded to her critics by saying she didn’t understand “what was wrong.” In her view, these pictures were taken “innocuously,” in an attempt to communicate her personal experience of serving in the IDF and not to offend the detainees (Haaretz, August 16, 2010). When a local radio station tried to explain to her why shooting those pictures and uploading them to the Internet were seen as problematic, she asked defiantly, “When you shoot handcuffed detainees do you ask their permission for it?”


Breaking the Silence, an organization of veteran Israeli soldiers working to raise awareness about the daily reality in the Occupied Territories, quickly responded to the widespread criticism in the public sphere by uploading similar photos on Facebook, showing servicemen (rather than women) photographed next to Palestinians. Ignoring the gender aspect, they sought to demonstrate that Abergil was not a “rotten apple,” but rather represented a commonplace phenomenon. Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence said the following in an interview for leading news website Ynet:

Every soldier gets used to seeing handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinians as part of his service routine, and having seen this so often, he becomes blinded to the fact that these are human beings. The public outcry only attests to the huge gap between our self-image as a society and our image as reflected in the mirror and in photographs. We believe it is time to break the silence which facilitates this culture of denial.[1]

The response by Breaking the Silence emphasizes the dichotomous relations between occupier and occupied with the photos serving as a representation of that reality. Interpreting those images through this prism of polarized relationships between soldiers shooting themselves in various poses next to Palestinian detainees is compatible with a binary distinction between the image’s producer and the image, or what has become an image. In other words, it structures one party as a sovereign of the image and the other as an object or background for his actions.

Like other NGOs combating human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, for Breaking the Silence these photos stand as testimony for “what was.” Another NGO, B’Tselem, distributes video cameras to Palestinians, aware of the power of visual documentation and its potential to cause public “unrest.” However, as evidenced by the response of Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem views the films as primarily documentary reference to events. The pursuit by these organizations of the “thing in itself” in these images, argues Ariella Azoulay, reduces what is actually captured in the frame (Azoulay 2010:25). When we cling to the “facts,” further political relations manifested in the image become marginalized, such as its conditions of production, the motivations for taking it, its production and distribution contexts, and the options of its viewing and interpretation. Emphasizing these relations not only expands the possibilities for interpreting the image, but also challenges the binarism of image and artist/producer.

According to Azoulay, every photograph is made up of two key elements: the photographed act and the act of photography (Azoulay 2010). These elements are inseparable and the relationships between them testifies to the medium’s inherent complexity.

The Space, the Time and the Spectator
In order to analyze this complexity, I would like to refer to the publicly available state-of-the-art Internet technology. In the following discussion of IDF soldiers taking pictures of themselves in the Occupied Territories I will focus on Abergil’s photographs as well as on the clip showing soldiers dancing in the Hebron Kasbah, uploaded to YouTube that same summer. By analyzing these two visual events, I seek to elaborate on the sociopolitical dimension of the photographed act and the act of photography.

Present-day technology enables users to share images through communication networks. This in turn enables far-reaching social dynamics among individuals and groups. Networks such as Facebook offer a platform for social contacts that cut across geographic boundaries and cultural conventions. Producing visual narratives using software (such as Pixa or Flickr), which organizes digital photographs and helps design private histories, as well as branding through video clips uploaded to YouTube, blur the boundaries between private and public. On the one hand, these new technologies make one’s home accessible to remote events and on the other, through networked sharing, make the private sphere ever more public. Not only the boundaries between private and public melt down – distances are no longer experienced as they used to be. For example, photographs that document not only an image but also its geographic location enable unprecedented monitoring of locales and locations of people, objects and structures. In the immediacy of sharing over the Internet, the delay in transmitting information between remote locations, as in tourism photography, has been virtually eliminated. The delay in communicating data from one place to the other, formerly a constitutive element in spatial relations, is now all but gone.

As in the past, photographs shot at tourist sites serve as proof to family members and friends that the photographer has indeed been there. Similarly, for Abergil as well, documenting a situation that was beyond the visual range of her loved ones on camera served as irrefutable visual testimony of her service in the Occupied Territories. A soldier who also shot pictures during his service in the Occupied Territories described the purpose of walking around with a camera in similar terms:

[The purpose of the camera was to] document what we’re doing; to show friends and family; to keep as a souvenir and show off with the pictures at home. The camera was used to document moments of glory, what you felt enthusiastic about.[2]

while old photographs fill our mental image of the past, wrote Susan Sontag, recent photos, like past images, convert the present to a mental image. Our attitude towards the present is determined by the traces reality leaves behind in cameras. Memories are stored and reproduced through photographs.

When I asked him where these pictures were now, he answered that they used to be in an album, but were no longer there. He served before Facebook became widely popular. Even if his words indicate an attempt to structure identity using photographs, circulating them online to other viewers sharpens and intensifies this possibility. The difference between the observational space of looking through albums and the web’s virtual space transforms the relationship between the picture’s owners and observers. While an album is usually observed with its owner’s controlled permission, Facebook images are available to total strangers as well. Thus, in Abergil’s case, her photos were downloaded from Facebook and circulated among others. These other viewers, she argues, have misinterpreted her photos and the title she had chosen for them. An alternative photography creator/producer-oriented interpretation is always possible. However, it seems that online sharing technology not only provides a platform for interpretive practices, but also facilitates them. For example, clicking on an image in Facebook and YouTube opens a box for sharing and commenting. Even if you do not intend to use too many words to comment on the image, you can just press a key to share it with others and indicate your attitude by clicking “like.”

Like in the business world, photographs circulated on the web help brand oneself. Uploading the pictures involves selection, location and choice of title. The photos are classified under titles chosen by their Facebook profile owners, helping one’s identity be told and shared. One of the most common approaches to such self-branding is using photos to create a private history book. Sometimes, the profile designers not only upload pictures but, as in Abergil’s case, top them with headlines suggesting their sentimental value. Although her photographs were tagged shortly after the end of her military service, they represented a time she relished reminiscing about. This served to create a self-image interweaving nostalgia, sharing and belonging. Using these photographs, Abergil sought to create a nostalgic product (“the best time of my life”), while using Facebook’s sharing option to create a sense of belonging. In other words, the image and its production are not dissociated from their context of observational space. The social network has a key role to play in the photographed act and the act of photography. In fact, only in reference to it can we understand the extent to which the photographed act is designed to serve the act of photography, and the act of photography reflects the photographed act.

Me, Me, We

If nostalgia is a feeling of missing something that is no longer there, visual representation not only awakens these sentiments, but also brands them (Schwarz 2009). Souvenir photos produced by teenagers and “twenty-somethings” are used not only to document the past, but also to establish ownership by branding it. Even before the advent of sharing technology, Susan Sontag argued that photography represents “time.” It shapes experience and is used to validate it. This provides experience with a face; undergoing the experience becomes identified with shooting it, and taking part in an act becomes more and more similar to viewing it in its photographed incarnation. For example, many photo albums of Israeli Jewish families include pictures documenting family members during their military service. The normative framework of Israeli society, as manifested by these albums, shows parents, and then their children, in uniform. Members of both generations can be seen at the entrance to boot camp, leaning on the ubiquitous eucalyptus tree with a new beret on their head or shoulder, marching and saluting in their first parade. The picture is one of the main proofs of having experienced something – in this case military service – as the ticket to normative Israeli society. A similar practice is currently being played out on Facebook. However, the relationship between photographed past and present does not occur exclusively in cyberspace. Already in the 1970s, Sontag pointed to the mixture of mental relationships created in photographs shot across time. She suggested that while old photographs fill our mental image of the past, recent photos, like past images, convert the present to a mental image. Our attitude towards the present is determined by the traces reality leaves behind in cameras. Memories are stored and reproduced through photographs. One can even say that photography is the basis for selecting what will be saved on the basis of what is “photogenic.” That is, photography not only provides a memento, but also a new way of relating to the past (Sontag 1973).

By shooting her pictures and placing them on Facebook, Abergil sought to create an image of herself. However, even if the photos suggest an attempt to act out an individual self, Abergil’s facial expression is similar to many others tagged on Facebook pages. Even if it seems that visual documentation collects singular events that outline a unique character, reviewing online photo albums reveals considerable similarities. The posture in which Abergil chose to document herself is reproduced time and again in many other photos of this genre. Paradoxically, creating her self-image by photographing herself in the company of Palestinian detainees was designed to help her find a place for herself, somewhere to belong to just like the others. However, by focusing the camera on herself with handcuffed and blindfolded detainees in the background she actually distanced and alienated herself from the world. According to Sontag, the two uses of the visual image are complementary. Through the simple act of clicking a button, the camera creates a habit that combines both involvement and estrangement (Sontag 1973:164). The recording device allows its users to be involved, and yet further enhance their involvement by sharing the image on the web, while the ease of producing and embedding that image also enhances alienation.

Everything is OK

Similar feelings are also evoked by a short video clip produced by IDF soldiers, titled “Rock the Kasbah in Hebron”

My analysis of this clip will emphasize another aspect of visual self-documentation following Abergil’s example: the enabling condition of the image’s production.

The clip shows six soldiers in full combat gear on routine patrol. They walk along a desolate city street, turning their bodies here and there with weapons pointed sideways in preparation for any eventuality. Once the voice of the Muezzin calling for prayer is replaced by the sounds of Kesha’s pop hit, “Tick Tock,” suspicion is replaced by wonderment, and the soldiers’ stiff military gait is abandoned for a well-rehearsed humorous dance. The dance begins with steps that could still be part of a military march, but continues with a swing of the hips that would be more appropriate on the dance floor. The pairing clearly indicates preplanning. Facing one’s dance partner is clearly different from facing a suspect. The carefully edited clip has been inspired by many other online clips of amateurs dancing to popular tunes.

Both the six dancers and the photographer had to plan the setup carefully in order to produce this unusual clip. While Abergil’s photos were received with astonishment as soon as they leaked to the mainstream media, here the element of surprise was carefully planned in advance by the participants themselves. The amazing act of dancing the “Tick Tock” in the Hebron Kasbah is intensified by the choice of the documentary point of view. Shooting the scene from a high vantage point, which captures most of the street’s length in the frame, is reminiscent of a surveillance cam. The camera is remote and has apparently been placed there in order to monitor suspicious movements. Within its panoptic view, strange movement does indeed seem to be detected, but it is in fact neither strange nor suspicious, but eerily innocuous. The routine patrol produces an unintended outcome.

The purpose of the camera, explained to me a soldier who shot pictures during his service in the Occupied Territories, was to document what we’re doing, to show friends and family, to keep as a souvenir and show off with the pictures at home. It was used to document moments of glory, what you felt enthusiastic about

This clip was aired several months after a similar clip produced by US soldiers from the 82nd Airborne stationed in Afghanistan.

Servicemen move their bodies gracefully to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” Unlike the IDF example, this clip was shot inside a military base. The erotic gestures exchanged by the dancers and their physical intimacy captured on camera with the singer’s sensual voice in the background emphasize male homosexuality. This experience of military service – conventionally perceived as a masculine experience – is reminiscent of the embarrassment felt when looking at Abergil’s mischievous grin with helpless Palestinian men in the background. The homosexual sensuality in the Afghanistan clip touches on what has not yet been commented on regarding Abergil’s pictures – their homoerotic aspect.

Despite similar responses to these clips collected in YouTube, expressing affection and empathy for the jaded GIs, the context, as in Abergil’s case, is far from neutral. However, despite the fact that the clips were shot was on an empty street and at an Afghanistan army base clip and both are products of military occupation, there is still an important difference. To illustrate my point, I would like to compare the planned and controlled choreography of the IDF soldiers with another planned and controlled act –”Accident” by the Israeli art group, Public Movement.

Public Movement, composed of artists of various disciplines, started operating in 2006. The variety of events, ceremonies and parades created by this artist group are the result of their intention to expose our conduct in the public sphere. By way of emulation and simulation, it emphasizes the way bodies move in space and particularly, whether individually or in groups, how the movement of bodies represents authority. It is hard to see any reason for the events in the work by Public Movement, nor is it possible to recognize any overt purpose in the choreographed situations. It seems the meaning lies in the meticulous insistence on the particulars of appearance in shared spaces. One of the group’s first works was “Accident,” a simulated car crash created to disrupt the flow of vehicle and pedestrian traffic. A rectangle of curious spectators formed around the simulated crash and demonstrated how an urban “disaster area” is articulated in public space. The work points to a variety of spatial possibilities and prohibitions derived from an organizing social order. In other words, the disturbance – which is considered the exception to the norm – indicates and defines the normative.

Public Movement stopped traffic in the heart of Tel Aviv, while the IDF troops danced in the middle of a Hebron street. Patrolling a street under curfew establishes a suspension of the law of free movement, just like the law is suspended in during a disaster.  The curfew continues without end ostensibly for security reasons, while similarly, “normal” activity on a Hebron street is suspended as it becomes a temporary dance floor. The condition enabling this unusual act is the Occupation, and the dance is performed by troops – the governmental agents and representatives who are responsible for creating and maintaining the condition of suspending normal social order.

We can look at Abergil’s photos from a similar perspective. The creation of her images, their (erotic) potential for branding her, their simultaneous articulation of belonging and alienation, and their nostalgic value are inseparable – both in the images themselves and in the public responses to them – from the conditions enabling occupation. As this analysis has attempted to show, the photographed act and the act of photography are intertwined with one another as well as with the current situation in Israel-Palestine; these photographs can only come to be as long as normal social order is suspended, and therefore by default they articulate that suspension.

[1] Boaz Fyler: “Photographed with a Detainee: Eden Abergil is Not Alone”, August 17, 2010, http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3938196,00.html.

[2] This soldier told me about another function of picture shooting during military service. He described how his commander showed the troops pictures of bodies of Palestinians on the wanted list to stir their “fighting spirit” (personal communication, January 10, 2011).