The Image as Battlefield in the Global Cold War. From the Revolutionary Image towards the Humanitarian Misunderstanding

Lecture by Doreen Mende
May 13th, 2015

Between 1980 and 1986 a number of four-week courses for photography took place in Beirut, Aden (Yemen), Berlin, and Tunis. The participants were wounded, aged or young revolutionaries of various Palestinian organizations and communist associations in Lebanon who in cooperation with Horst Sturm – photojournalist of the East German news agency ADN – discussed the possibilities of using images in the struggle for liberation of Palestine.

The photographic collaboration comprised a range of practical forms such as laboratory work, photo exercises in the streets, joint image analysis, photo theory, walks, informal visits of families, secret meetings with Yasser Arafat, excursions to militant training camps, joint meals, long conversations, friendships for life, and international exhibitions. The courses happened at a time when the PLO was transitioning from a revolutionary movement to a political party and advocated for the internationalization of the Palestinian question.

In this context, the technologies of the image mark »entangled geographies« (Gabrielle Hecht) along the global Cold War, which is a war that was not only enacted in the German-German issue as a symptom of Moscow and Washington with its ideologies of socialist internationalism and the western liberal culture of remembrance, but also in proxy geographies, e.g. as it took form in the Middle East region with its ongoing conflictual situation between Palestine and Israel.

At the same time, a shift in the image policy occurred: While the 1970s moved the »militant image« (Kodwo Eshun/Ros Gray) or the revolutionary to center stage, in the pictures of the courses’ participants in the 1980s mainly women, children, or wounded people are seen. How can we understand this transition, particularly in relation to the Human Rights discourse as »last utopia« (Samuel Moyn) as it was propagated from the late 1970s on? To what extent do the conditions of image production contradict official picture policies? What contemporary processes are necessary to make this image practice useful as a geopolitical concept for current contexts?

Doreen Mende is a curator and writer based in Berlin. Archival research on the relationship between economy, image production and geopolitics in contemporary exhibition processes offer a point of departure for her conceptual projects. In her practice-based PhD she focused on the function of photography as a declaration of solidarity of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) with Palestine from a contemporary perspective. Her research work and lectures involve collaborations with, amongst others, Arab Image Foundation, International Art Academy Palestine, UNESCO Ramallah, Birzeit University, Qalandyia International, Beirut Art Center, Goldsmiths London, Bard College Annandale-on-Hudson, and Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig.