Between Martyr and Individual

Having come about during a long stay on the West Bank, the series West Bank Walls
by photographer Sander Buyck investigates, on a specific micro-level, the presence of
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in day-to-day Palestinian reality. Focusing on posters of
martyrs, Buyck’s photographs portray a fundamental facet of Palestinian society—
the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Abu goes so far as to describe these posters as “an
expression of Palestine itself.”1 The photographer, however, does not provide a full
view of the poster phenomenon; instead he explores the areas where this practice
contradicts itself and gives rise to questions. He finds that perspective in the weathered
appearance of the posters, capturing its poetry on one hand and presenting it as
a reflection on the cult of martyrdom on the other.

Weathered, torn and thereby almost completely indecipherable, the martyr posters
shown by Buyck seem part of a distant past; that distance is heightened in the series
by distinguishing pale bluish hues and a bleached-out contrast of black-and-white. Attesting
to the continuing struggle, these worn posters, juxtaposed with recent brightly
colored versions, currently characterize the streets of Palestinian villages, cities and
refugee camps. They dominate public space, not in terms of scale but numbers. For
every martyr who has died in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a poster is produced and
distributed. The public nature of death, generated by the ubiquitousness of these posters,
supports the ideology of martyrdom which has both religious and secular meaning
in Palestine. As expressed by the iconography of the posters, the willingness to die
‘in the way of Allah’ equally implies a sacrifice for the sake of the nation.
Generally speaking, posters of martyrs are uniform in terms of their design and
message. Placing emphasis on the birth of a new martyr, the poster glorifies, in text
and image, the death as an important and inevitable act rewarded with eternal life. As
the text from the Koran, frequently quoted on the posters, says: “Do not regard those
who have died for the sake of God as being deceased, for they live on and will receive
their reward from God.”2 The photographic representations of the martyrs manifest
and confirm this verse by depicting the martyr alive, though without any pronounced
emotion, as the eyes stare straight ahead and are free of a concrete context. As such
the photograph gives the portrait subject a timeless, unassailable iconic status. In addition
to this, national and military motifs, such as the Palestinian flag and weapons,
bring a heroic narrative to the posters and upgrade the martyr to a national hero.3

The tale told by the posters is not that of an individual but of the martyr. The personal
history of the deceased is played down in the posters and transformed for the
purpose of a collective narrative to which every Palestinian can relate. As a result, the
posters convey only fragmented information on the person concerned, such as the
name, the date and the place of death.4 That which remains absent in the depiction,
however, lives on among the local population. In fact every poster, aside from those of
major political figures, is linked to a neighborhood. Generally this involves the martyr’s personal environment; those public surroundings as well as homes of relatives are
filled with the posters.5 Each neighborhood consequently has its own martyrs.
In search of a personal narrative on the martyrs, the photographer contradicts,
with his West Bank Walls, the repetitive aspect inherent in the poster phenomenon
and concentrates on the unique quality of certain posters. What has been distributed
in large numbers has been distilled by him into one unique example, which is both a
portrait of the poster and of the martyr as a person. The individual stories cannot be
retrieved, however, by Buyck’s portrayal; but the singularity of the posters can indeed
be regained as an analogous compensation for the lost individuality of these people.

The promise of everlasting life, propagated in posters of martyrs, is negated by the
weathered posters in the series West Bank Walls. Ephemeral by nature, the posters
cannot withstand the fluctuations of the climate. Gradually they disappear, though not
without being replaced by new posters of other heroes. With their emphatic registration
of time in the form of transitoriness, Buyck’s poster-portraits portray a conceptual/
critical shift. Stripped of their symbolic ballast—only a few of the images still bear
traces of Arabic text and religious/nationalist signs—the posters in Buyck’s photographs
show the vulnerability of those depicted. The theme of vulnerability is presented
in a context where immortalization once appeared. By focusing on this vulnerability,
the photographer seizes the moment at which the mechanism of the martyr
posters begins to wane. The difference between martyr and individual, between ideological
gain and human loss becomes visible. A complete subversion of the heroic status
is not the result—the martyr remains a hero, but a forgotten one who slowly vanishes
from the wall, from the street and thus from public memory.

Through the deterioration of the posters, we see the supporting wall—not the dividing
wall, but simply an average ‘West Bank Wall’ on one of its streets. The damaged
surface of these walls, cracked or marked by shrapnel and bullets, concretizes the
presence of the conflict in day-to-day reality. Yet the photographs involve no explicit
reference to the concrete context. We see only wall and poster. The wall dominates and
its harsh, rough texture contrasts with the fragility of the posters. The faces of the
martyrs are marked by the hard, stony background. As such West Bank Walls portrays
a dialectic relationship between image and wall, which synthesizes the contradiction
inherent in the poster practice. The posters transform Palestinian walls into
spaces, by way of which ideals of martyrdom are communicated. They take away the
reality of the wall, as a wall, by approaching it as a site of resistance and commemoration.
But, as West Bank Walls demonstrates, the wall conquers the image.

1. Mahmoud Abu Hashhash p. 399.
2. Lori A. Allen, The Polyvalent Politics of Martyr Commemorations,
p. 117.
3. Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, pp. 391–392.
4. Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, p. 401.
5. Lori A. Allen, The Polyvalent Politics of Martyr Commemorations,
p. 115.