‘Open in a dark room only’: Salvaged images of Palestinian resistance

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All images © Morgan Ashcom.

This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography: Performance. Sign up for an 1854 subscription to receive it at your door. 

For almost a decade Morgan Ashcom thought his images of Palestine’s West Bank had been destroyed – now, after rediscovering the corrupted film, he considers them a metaphor for oppression

In 2009, American photographer Morgan Ashcom travelled from his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the city of Nablus, nestled in a valley in the West Bank, Palestine. “I was interested in photographing daily life,” reflects Ashcom, who immersed himself in the routine of the community. “I ended up hanging out in the pool hall, just doing many of the typical things you find in any other city.” However, the artist never saw the photographs he made of the intimate scenes to which he bore witness. The trip was punctuated with countless searches by Israeli security forces, and his box of unprocessed 4×5” sheet film was corrupted. “There’s a tonne of checkpoints when you’re separated from your things,” says Ashcom. “You’re brought into a room and asked questions, and you have no idea what they’re doing to your stuff.” Any one of these searches could have exposed Ashcom’s film to the sliver of light that transformed it from a series of observant frames into colour fields with suggestions of the images he had made. The exact moment of its demise, and whether it was intentional, remains a mystery.

Back home, he relegated the ‘damaged’ images to a drawer in his studio, where they remained for over a decade. “I was in tears when I realised,” he recalls. “I felt I’d wasted a lot of people’s time.” Ashcom had travelled to Palestine to meet his partner at the tail end of a several-months period she had spent working with Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, which provides education and support to refugees and marginalised communities across Nablus, particularly children. He had been introduced to the community after meeting Wajdi Yaeesh, the director of humanitarian organisation Human Supporters Association (HSA). “Working with [Yaeesh] guided me,” says Ashcom. “He introduced me to many people – from members of the church in Nablus to individuals maintaining the martyrs’ graveyards.”

Ashcom’s film had unwittingly become a different, and in many ways more profound comment on the situation in Nablus and Palestine more broadly. “It took me 10 years to realise that when the world intervenes – and it can seem like a dark intervention – there is a way to take the weight of that action and turn it against itself and change it into something positive,” says Ashcom. That film is now a witness to both the everyday lives of Palestinians in Nablus and the violence of an intervention made without permission as the security forces rooted through his belongings. It is an intervention that irreparably altered the chemistry of the medium – a metaphor for the violence inflicted on Palestinians marginalised by the Israeli-imposed apartheid.

An escalation in violence in spring 2021 incited Ashcom to work with Yaeesh and sell the images to raise funds for HSA. The violence had intensified following Israel’s attempted eviction of Palestinian families in east Jerusalem by Jewish settlers and later an Israeli police raid on Palestinian worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque. However, the money raised was not easy to transfer to HSA. Back in Nablus, Yaeesh struggled to gain access to the money held by fundraising sites, which were emailing him to request he verify his identity. “The Israelis blocked him from doing this,“ explains Ashcom. “It’s particularly poignant that he was being asked to verify that he existed in the midst of an ethnic cleansing.” Indeed, Yaeesh was experiencing a much more banal form of violence than that playing out on the street, but one nonetheless. His experience echoed the slow and deliberate marginalisation of Palestinians across the region over many decades; a constant reality, yet one less visible than the flashpoints of violence dominating global headlines. As Ashcom articulates it: “In the context of the apartheid, bureaucracy becomes a means of violence. And because it’s polite, it hides the extent of the oppression.”

Despite the complications, the fundraiser encouraged Ashcom to appreciate the images as embodiments of the oppression experienced by Palestinians: performative as opposed to documentary. His photobook, Open, published by Gnomic Book, reflects this. Packaged in a distinctive yellow box and bound with red tape that reads: “Warning: Exposed Film – Open in a dark room only”, the publication forces viewers to enact the violation committed to Ashcom’s film. “The experience of the book is intended to mirror the initial invasion of the box,” shares Ashcom. “And, as an American citizen, that was important to me because my tax dollars are funding the apartheid – so there is a level of complicity that I wanted people to experience.” HTML code fragments trail throughout the pages, lifted from communications with international financial institutions. This alludes to the frustration that prevented them from logging into the fundraising sites.

At its core, Open embodies the erasure inflicted upon Palestinians – those erased from the images and beyond. However, there is also a semblance of hope within the book’s design. Together with Gnomic Book, Ashcom explored how to “posit the possibility for a reversal of that erasure”, eventually landing on the introduction of translucent pages. “If you hold the book and flip through it quickly, you see the images through translucent paper, which makes them more muted than the prints themselves,” says Ashcom. “It’s only through deliberately turning the pages that the image reveals itself as more vibrant and vivid.” Experiencing the images in this way also allows one to appreciate symbolism within them: a partially visible wall of keys, for instance, or the recurrence of olive trees; both symbols of Palestinian resistance and demands for the right to return.

The images feel amorphous and unfixed; the ghostly haze that obscures each one speaks to the fragility of the lives of individuals caught up in an apartheid designed to oppress them. The frames are strangely beautiful but also unsettling; a reminder that over a decade on, there is still no end in sight to the persecution of Palestinians, with a hard-right coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party having recently formed a government. Indeed, Open remains as timely as it was when Ashcom first made the photographs. As he asserts: “I hope the book incites curiosity; that people remain curious about Palestine and remain thoughtful about the places they interact with that have a hand in the apartheid.” Replete with layer upon layer of symbolism and meaning, Open is well-placed to help its readers do just that.

OPEN by Morgan Ashcom is out now (Gnomic).

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she was Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.