Taysir Batniji commemorates pre-war Gaza via ‘poor images’

All images © Taysir Batniji. Courtesy of Loose Joints Publishing

For two years, Batniji took screenshots of the glitchy video calls he made to his family back in Gaza, now compiled into a book

Born in Gaza in 1966, Taysir Batniji studied art at An-Najah University in Nablus, Palestine. In 1994 he was awarded a fellowship for the School of Fine Arts of Bourges, France, and since then he has divided his time between the two countries, and developed a multimedia practice.

Batniji made the series Disruptions between 24 April 2015 and 23 June 2017 by screenshotting digitally degraded WhatsApp calls he made from Paris to his family back in Gaza; in January 2024, he published the series as a book with Loose Joints Publishing, in support of the NGO Medical Aid For Palestinians. Here, Batniji continues his conversation with French-Algerian-British writer and curator Dr Taous Dahmani, who contributed an essay to Disruptions.

Taous Dahmani: How did the series Disruptions come about?

Taysir Batniji: In a sense, it was born out of chance, even though I don’t believe in coincidences per se. I have a habit of paying close attention to small things, like the pixelation of video calls with my family in Gaza, where a part of the screen would turn green or would be distorted. Intrigued, I started taking screenshots of our conversations. During our chats I would make as many or as few depending on my attention span and on the content of the exchanges. We often talked about everyday life: health, children, projects, the weather… I still don’t know why these conversations would suddenly lose their visual quality, probably due to the weak network in Gaza or its disruption by Israeli drones. But when my mother passed away in 2017, the phenomenon disappeared.

TD: I intentionally crafted my essay for your book to be non-academic, yet I wanted to delve into the concept of the ‘poor’ image, as articulated by Hito Steyerl in her essay In Defense of the Poor Image (2009). A ‘poor’ image is characterised by its low quality or resolution in photography or video. Its imperfection lies in its compromised visuality, often bordering on abstraction. An essential aspect is that the ‘poor’ image lacks societal recognition; it carries an illicit aura. I’m curious to discuss with you the significance of these images concerning the Palestinian question.

TB: In Disruptions, the value of the image does not reside in its content or in what it shows, as there isn’t much to see, even though one can discern shapes and faces. The value of the image lies instead in its material experience. This poverty, fragility, or disruption of the image provides insights into the conditions under which the images were taken, reflecting a situation that is beyond the frame. In my series Miradors (2008), inspired by the approach of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the making process – it aimed to establish a typology of Israeli watchtowers in the West Bank – did not allow for strict adherence to the German photographers’ protocol. The technical precariousness of these ‘stolen’ (unaccredited) images, compared to the perfection and mastery of the Bechers, makes the contextual tension more palpable, thereby increasing its significance and intensity. Similarly, the screenshots in Disruptions evoke the inability to be, the communication difficulties, and, of course, separation.

“I realised that photography aligned with my need to be close to reality, to document my everyday life, not to mention its capacity to work with immediacy”

TD: I also wanted to explore the theme of movement within the series and the rhythmic flow of the images. This is evident not only in the sequence of screenshots but also in how you choose to share and show the project.

TB: I understand your question in two ways. Firstly, there’s the transfer from the digital image onto the pages of the book. This requires interpretation, adaptation, and thus a ‘movement’ or shift. These images, which I do not manipulate – meaning there’s no post-production or colour correction – are given their own interpretation by the printer. Similar to the translation process, these choices result in losses and alterations. Moreover, since there is no real-world referent for the fragmented images in Disruptions, the digital image is potential, evolving and dynamic, but once on paper, it becomes fixed. These are two distinct states of the image.

Next, there is the subject of the images. The movement between the interior (the family home, bombed in November 2023) and the exterior (the neighbourhood seen from the gate), the various ‘portraits’ that tend to fade behind pixelation, as well as the variation in colours, the back-and-forth between the faces on the video call and the green mass that appears and disappears, partially or entirely covering them. In contrast to the exhibited work, where the photographs are presented through several lines on a single plane, the composition of the book, with its successive sequences, induces a jerky scrolling from one image to another, emphasising this sense of rhythm.

TD: Examining the work you’ve created throughout the decades, I wonder about the delicate equilibrium between the conceptual, with its accompanying protocols, and the intertwining realms of the political or the personal experiences within the political landscape of Palestinian life.

TB: In my view, one doesn’t preclude the other. On the contrary, my trajectory into conceptual art emerged from a contemplation of political, societal and artistic contexts. Personally, I was born into a political environment that’s difficult to detach from. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve found in conceptual practice a means to situate my work within the art of my era and to offer a ‘distanced’ perspective on the history and current affairs affecting my country.

TD: For an extended period you practised painting, yet you’ve embraced various mediums, with a notable and recurring (re)turn to photography. What prompted this transition?

TB: Above all, practical considerations drove my shift towards photography. Between 1997 and 2006, due to frequent travels, I no longer had a studio, making painting logistically challenging. Photography, on the other hand, proved adaptable to my lifestyle; it is transportable and shareable.

Subsequently, I realised that photography aligned with my need to be close to reality, to document my everyday life, not to mention its capacity to work with immediacy. Gradually, it became central. I would even say that my works, which are not ‘photography’ in the traditional sense, are inspired by the photographic process: the revelation of the image, its development. For instance, in my series To My Brother, I hand-engraved my brother’s wedding album. From a distance, it appears to be white paper, but as you approach, you discern lines, contours, bodies, faces.

I am attached to photography, but I don’t resort to it automatically. This brings us back to the question of the conceptual. What matters is the idea; afterwards, I seek the process, the medium, and the support that aligns with it.

TD: Disruptions is a tribute to your family. It serves as a poignant trace of their lives – an enduring means of preserving their presence and paying homage to their existence.

TB: In recent years, my family has played a significant role in my work. In particular: Pères (2006), To My Brother (2012), a tribute to my brother, who was assassinated by an Israeli sniper in 1987, and finally, Home Away From Home (2017), a focus on my American cousins. Disruptions is a tribute to my mother, as she is, in a sense, the central figure of this series, around whom my sisters, brothers, nephews revolve… Indeed, this book is dedicated to my mother, whose passing in 2017 concluded this series, and to the 53 members of my family killed since October 2023 under the bombs of the Israeli army. It is a way to perpetuate their presence and honour their lives, and, from an existential standpoint, to affirm their being.

Taysir Batniji, Disruptions, is published by Loose Joints. One hundred per cent of the profits will go to the NGO Medical Aid For Palestinians

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy