The Visual Life of Revolution: Archival and Counter-archival Narratives of Revolt

Let us begin with two images of the Sudanese uprising. The first you will at once recognize – it is of one fearless Alaa Salah addressing a crowd at a sit-in outside Al-Qiyada (the Army HQ) in Khartoum. The second, released almost a year later, is of an impassioned Mohamed Youssef in Jabra (a neighborhood in the south of Khartoum) leading young protestors with a poem of revolution

Both photographs carry popular and institutional appeal. Captured by Lana Haroun, Salah’s moment swept through the digital landscapes of the internet following the ouster of the ex-military dictator Omar al-Bashir and has become inextricably linked to and representative of that moment in many people’s minds. In a clear break with the rigid and long-standing patriarchal, Sudanese political culture, Haroun’s image captures a tobe-clad woman at the center of political action. As the defining memory of the December revolution to the rest of the world, the image has become a pivotal reference point in transnational conversations on the Sudanese uprising and an iconic, feminist symbol of revolt celebrated globally. AFP’s Yasuyoshi Chiba’s photograph shows Youssef and his companions chanting in the darkness in defiance of a blackout created by the TMC to quell a general strike. Taken in the wake of the Khartoum Massacre, the image won the prestigious World Press Photo Award (2020), reviving a brief interest in Sudan’s transitional journey. 

Viewed side-by-side, the photographs mirror each other and move us in strikingly similar ways. They both capture an infectious bravado and an edifying spirit distilled in a compelling central figure leading a moment of collective transgression. Just as Salah pierces the sky with her fist, Youssef thumps his palm forcefully against his chest – gestures enunciating a daring and insistent occupation of space in the face of a brutal military regime. A sea of equally ardent faces engulfs each of them, seemingly lifting them higher or grounding them deeper into the song of their shared poethics

The photographs spell qualities characteristic of the spectacular images that come to represent revolution in our minds and which populate media coverage and visual representations of uprisings. A bold and emphatic singular figure who is emblematic of a movement’s unyielding convictions, often confrontational, always evocative of a strong sentimentality (nostalgia, pride, anticipation, indignation, or mourning) dominates. Think of Malak Alawiye, the “kick queen” of Lebanon, or the iconic photograph of Iesha Evans’ arrest in the US.  Even depictions that do not center a particular figure – such as photographs of the huge crowds in Chile and Hong Kong, the EndSARS movement in Nigeria, or those depicting the violent suppression of protests by police in the streets of  Iraq and Haiti and the burning carcass of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd Precinct during the George Floyd protests – still maintain an air of drama, intersecting risk and promise, a fierce, fabulous, and impending quality. 

It is of course the exceptional courage, remarkable circumstances, and unprecedented historical turning points visualized that move and enliven us. It is the hope and possibility of a different society, and new ways of feeling, thinking, being, and relating that burst through in the moments captured that inspire us, magnetize us, and make such photographs impossible to forget and needful to keep alive in collective memories of revolution. 

However, the same qualities of excess that exceptionalize and immortalize these scenes in public memory become reified into spectacle. The ubiquitous nature of these photographs and the cult of commemoration, celebration, and sentimentality surrounding them work to abort their meaning and render their representational value into trite self-referentiality. In their mediatized manifestations, the images primarily become emblematic of their luster – the events or conditions they actually portray and their visual dialogics made secondary, auxiliary.

Though these brands of images shock, excite, and perhaps terrify us with an intensity appropriate for a rare and monumental event like a revolution, they do so in incredibly predictable ways, converging on a primary narrative. The visual renditions of history we find in popular images of political unrest lend themselves to a formulaic conception of the life cycle of revolution. In an age of global revolt against the tyrannies of neoliberalism, we have become visually accustomed to the three phases that define this conventional life cycle: outburst, confrontation, and resolution. We almost expect media coverage to offer us photographic evidence of waves of furious crowds pouring into and reclaiming public space with valiant demands, followed by violent, often bloody, clashes with militarized arms of the state, and finally a rapid buildup of events towards a conclusive and unequivocal political crescendo. 

Our expectations of jacquerie supersede and are reproduced within its depictions. The consistent production and appeal of images that chronicle this manufactured sequence thus beg several questions: what kinds of meaning(s) are regularly and systematically constructed around revolution by such depictions? What are the social, political, and affective consequences of signifying and narrating revolution in this way? And what other kinds of visual grammars exist beyond what we have become familiar with in visual media? 

Answering this requires that we move past the impulse to dwell on the particularities of each image and see the photographs described as part of a larger corpus, as a set or an archive of revolution. Archives are necessarily reductionist, incomplete, and by nature engineer a logic that discovers an order/regularity in their materials’ heterogeneity/dispersion. Thus, we can imagine popular images of revolution in visual media as forming an informal archival configuration that is organized along a particular logic or order – of outburst, confrontation, and resolution – which remains active whatever the country, city, peoples, historical/social/geopolitical context or cultural terrain engaged. 

Reading disparate images of revolution archivally for the hidden relations and implications they carry achieves two things. First, it coincides with the imaginative ways in which we progressively construct visual meaning, sense, and sensibility around notions of change and revolution through our distinct but connected interactions with such images. It foregrounds the emergent chains of related concepts evoked in successive viewings of images, the metanarratives, metafunctions, collective utterances, and interconnected speech of the images, rather than their individual narrative scripts. 

Second, a relational reading examines the photographs in relation to wider forces that may structure their patterns and consequences for the viewer. As the late anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminded us, archival assemblages do not merely document the past but in fact produce history, shaping not just a culture’s way of thinking about revolutions but what we do with that knowledge, informing our relationship(s) to power and sense of what is politically possible. In this way, a selective account of revolution is not just about producing knowledge about the near/far past but also – as Edward Said put it – implicitly about “present actualities and future priorities,”1 the work and politics of memory, the nature and limits of the political imagination, and the conditions of futurity. 

An Archival Reading

Outburst. Confrontation. Resolution. Thinking back to the formulaic life cycle of revolution revealed to us when we read the images archivally, what do we carry away with us from such a revelation? 

The main story imparted to us by this expected sequence is one of tragedy and triumph – the two poles of any heroic tale – and one that strives to accomplish a distinct finality of purpose, marked by definite and definitive victory or defeat. And facilitated by heroes against villains. This linear rendition encourages us to treat heroes of revolution with a metric of absolute purity, obscuring the processes through which heroes and villains are constructed in relation to power, capital, colonial history, class, gender, race, ethnicity, and so on. The Manichean binarization of the two groups also precludes an examination of the competing and contradictory interests that exist within them. We assume that the characters in the story occupy stable roles, leaving no room for the contestation, continued popular vigilance, or accountability of the “heroic” figures to the public. 

In addition, this purported chronology of events assumes that the project of revolution against the power bloc arrives into people’s consciousness already fully formed and articulated, requiring only projection into the public sphere in order to manifest into transformative change. It neglects revolution as the site of project formation and negotiation, where the transformation of consciousness and soul must happen. Where demystification of power relations is continuously earned and transcended. Where a series of initiations, battles, and coming-togethers matures us and generates new contradictions, insights, imaginations, pains, joys, cultures, and socialities that propel the movement, not towards outright resolution, but further ahead on the journey towards a liberatory horizon. 

By extension, this simplified account of revolution flattens the complex development of events and renders the reality of the situation subordinate to the given storyline. Moving revolution “from the raw state to the finished state,”2 as the political writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh describes it, has implications for the forms of solidarity that arise in response to it. Following the prescribed plot of outburst, confrontation, and resolution, our solidarity with international causes emerges for a brief moment during a point of crisis (the violent, bloody clash) and slides back into total slumber upon the story’s conclusion. As the wisdom of the heroic would have it, inevitably, the brave must either win or lose, the villains either vanquish or triumph, and so we turn the page or else shut the book and place it back on the shelf. 

Given the ephemeral nature of solidarities, the proliferation of attention-grabbing images can be explained as an attempt to shape causes “in the manner that secures the largest yield of solidarity possible; that is, in the manner that guarantees it entry into the solidarity marketplace, to compete with other causes for promotion and returns.”2 Internalizing this fictitious narrative thus disempowers us from authoring our own connections to struggles to which we bear witness and abstracts us from meaningful solidarity. 

In this sense, the linear chronology narrated by popular images does not serve to illuminate the nature of the ultimate victory or defeat – which would impart something instructive. Instead, the order itself becomes a prescriptive, artificial phenomenological account of the world of change that presupposes answers to questions we might ask about failures or successes, internationalism, what people might be mobilizing for, with whom, and how. 

The appearance of the images also makes fundamental claims about what counts as revolution and what doesn’t. The forms of action played out in the images – public demonstrations and violent altercations chief among them – come to define what we regard as revolutionary. Being in revolt and mobilizing is then limited to public strategies, tactics, and maneuvers. Hinging the thrust of political insubordination on public confrontation neutralizes the full polysemic formation of what it means to be in a transformative moment like a revolution. This works to exclude other less arresting but necessary forms of movement work and resistance (more on this later) as irrelevant and apart from the process of insurrection. 

Moreover, in the case of the Sudanese uprising, a division of revolutionary labor was slowly constructed between protestors and neighborhood committees on the one hand, and the SPA and the FFC on the other. The former group were gradually restricted to street-level battles with the government and military and symbolic acts of redress (such as lighting candles for the fallen martyrs) by the latter group who assumed the role of the political architects and interlocutors of the revolution. Any challenge mounted by neighborhood committees to this forced equilibrium was heavily resisted and rebuked by mouthpieces of the new/transitional political establishment. By identifying protestors solely with acts of public confrontation, popular images of rebellion fail to question this binary, reasserting and normalizing it as organically produced, thereby reproducing vanguardist/technocratic biases. 

Finally, the implied victory/defeat dichotomy imposes an absolute finality that renders the post-revolutionary space as separate from the social and political experimentation of revolution. In the absence of this laboratory of struggle, the tools we need to sustain a shift in the existing balance of forces cannot develop from the revolutionary process itself. The vacuum created by the death and displacement of ongoing process and spaces of possibility is then filled in with the pre-existing certainties and molds of ideology that harken to the status quo and which calcify human choices and potentialities. We expect the values that enable revolution to die with it and not to evolve past the event itself. 

These underlying ideological fixations are automatically evoked in our visual transactions with the images; they infiltrate before and despite a closer inspection of their assumptions. The power of myths evoked in these transactions lies in their invisibility, which the illusive nature of photographs partly aids. The photograph conceals the intentions of the photographer and the logic of its archivization, thereby naturalizing a process by which it produces what it purports to capture, perpetuating a myth of innocuousness/transparency. This assimilation of intentions and choices, and the mythologies they engender, into a seeming record or transcription of the real (real events, chronologies, histories) enables popular visual representations and media coverage of revolution to appear outside of a political economy and matrix of power – even as they narrate fundamentally political events – and obscures the discourses they enshrine.

If the photographic corpus of revolution expresses a certain uniformity, then what does its imposed regularity leave behind? What counter-archival visual languages exist in the economy of images beyond what we have become familiar with in visual media? What alternative ways of seeing and representing revolution do they make available? In what ways do they contest, parallel, or diverge from the current record of revolution? What unique interruptions, ruptures, breaks, and transformations are enunciated in the counter-archival? 

Alternative Visual Grammars (of Futurity) 

Far less popular or well-distributed than the spectacular/bold depictions are the images that capture the everyday realities and complications of revolution. The unglamorous, mundane but consistent political work that builds the body of collective resistance. Human relationships that ignite, carry, and inform struggle. The diverse personal stakes in and experiences of uprisings that interrupt assumptions of a cohesive, effortless mass streaming in concert into the mouth of political objectives pre-divined. 

Women’s social knowledge of the private forages itself through their cameras in spaces of rebellious worldmaking, reviving intimate dimensions of open revolt. We encounter in Metche Jaafar, Duha Mohammed, Hiba Ismail, and Suha Barakat’s stunning photographs* not just the ecstatic, the dramatic, and the theatrical, but more prominently: the tender depths, the quiet conviction, the soft embraces of camaraderie, unkempt yearnings and fears, incongruent spacialities, and the meetings of worlds long divided. 

The rich emotional tapestry of the images curated here emerges from the deeper emotional investments that build the serial digital records to which they belong. Serial documentation calls for the photographer’s active and continuous participation in and documentation of the events captured, rather than their brief involvement/spectatorship in a protest during an assignment or sporadic attempts at snapping an auspicious shot. The resultant photographs are therefore simultaneously depictions of events, instances of revolt, and a record of an ongoing and evolving dialogue with the actualities of revolution. The seriality of this collection thus articulates not a momentary or incidental event, but the longevity of struggle and the intentional production of alternate relations. 

The images in this counter-archival collection communicate in a frequency that is unlike the popular renditions of revolution. There is a quality of removal in the way they register, a different charge that is elusive and allusive. This separation illustrates the always existing distance between looking and meaning, and the defamiliarization of revolution emphasizes the automatic laws of seeing, modes of intelligibility, and mythological technologies to which we adhere.  The unwavering distance of the unfamiliar requires that we visually ruminate in order to do the work ourselves to close it. This work is what the black feminist cultural theorist Tina Campt describes as “the affective labor of feeling with or through”3 the photographs, the special attention and imaginative efforts they demand so that our preconceived notions of revolution naturally fall away. 

In Listening to Images, Campt refers to this type of photography as quiet photography. Quiet in the sense that it is subdued and reverberates with “a level of intensity that requires focused attention” so that “before [the photographs] are analyzed, they must be attended to by way of the unspoken relations that structure them.”4 The tenacious distance is maintained by a lingering tension one feels while looking at the photographs. This tension is a balancing act that holds the complex set of forces that produced and surrounded them in suspension. It is a tension that is fleeting but not fully realized in bold and spectacular images. Cultivating this tension generates a less satisfying emotional response that is fraught and unclear and which invites an attentive invention for attending to the affective afterlives of the images. In this way, the photographs reproduce the heuristics of revolution within the work they demand for their interpretation. 

Mohammed and Barakat’s photographs draw on this collaborative affective labor of the viewers so that we must confront and take seriously the unfamiliar. The black and white images create a temporal dilation, a lull, lengthening our experience of time and therefore allowing for the study of the photographs’ contents and embodied meanings to be possible. In such an attentive/analytical state, the photographs become a scene of encounter requiring more than the act of seeing, but of witnessing, feeling, and grappling with. These images do not allege a grand narrative, they are ripe for invention, speculation, and curiosity about the worlds that populate them. In this sense, they are also ripe for the cultivation of a politics of solidarity that is more authentic and enduring in that they enable us to rethink our relationships and connections to struggles and peoples beyond predictable, manufactured narratives of unrest. 

Dimly lit and rich with earthy hues, Ismail’s photographs nurse ample space, flirting with the unknown, the spectral, and the mystery of what lies beyond each frame. The glaring lights compound the sinister; their halos play a haunting refrain into the gaping, foreboding darkness of the night sky. There is a conscious foregrounding of people considered “social outcasts”: tea ladies, “street children,” hustlers, petty traders, young mothers, manual laborers, handymen, women activists. Maligned and abandoned by high society, they appear in Ismail’s shots as agents and guardians of revolutionary change, carving out a physical and discursive space for a dignified existence. 

The heavy shadows and contrast blend the photographed subjects into the happening history of revolution while simultaneously highlighting the weight of each individual in making that history possible. Every presence is accentuated. Equally, every absence is accounted for. Ismail remains cognizant of the losses – vacant chairs, tents, and streets quite literally bear the mark of the absences and the absented, a sobering reminder of the price many pay for freedom and the spaces and traces they leave behind. Hovering between remembrance and commemoration, Ismail’s photographs move us to engage with the trepidation and uncertainty of change-making and the personal sacrifices revolutionaries make in the name of something bigger.

Jaafar’s shots in particular offer powerful meditations on and proximity to the daily work of political disobedience and the unsung joy of being in open, transformative relation to others. Her photographs often feature protestors carrying out tasks: building barricades, serving tea and food at the sit-in, drawing on the city’s walls, extracting rhythms from the bodies of bridge structures, street poles, buckets, and pots; vigilantly guarding the neighborhood against RSF soldiers or hiding protestors escaping arrest by them, galvanizing and cheering people onto the streets, and so on. These are the makings of community and kinship, of the human bonds that sustain the life of a revolution.

Charting a proliferation of sites and modes of resistance, Jaafar sketches a multiplicity of points of refusal and a cartographic reconfiguration of the city into a new terrain of struggle, one in which revolutionaries have control over geographies of space and power. Against the singular and unique, these collectivized assemblages – working against and within power networks – assert what Michel Foucault described as “no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead, there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case.”5

This web of agents dissolves simple notions of good and bad and instead highlights the composite framework of relations and the complex construction of something that is “simultaneously no one’s and everyone’s”6 as poet and labor organizer Mark Nowak puts it. Such an interdependent and evolving network of agents is obscured by popular narratives of political upheaval which lionize individuals and canonize portrayals of inspiring turning points in history while stripping them of context. The predictable, rapturous images which bolster anemic narratives of change work to overshadow the existing social and political conditions that overdetermine people’s realities and which remain intact beyond the frame. 

In the mediatized usage of fierce and fabulous images, one finds no sense of a continuity, an afterlife, or a relationship to the conditions that produced them. The immediate spectacle of showdown that dominates media coverage of uprisings does not inspire us to think beyond the moment: what happens once the euphoria of revolt dissipates? What happens when the resolute faces pictured are forced to go back to low-paying jobs? When courageous women challenging the patriarchal moral order go back to unsafe streets and homes? When “street children” guarding barricades with their smiles become invisible and socially disposable again? When people in “peripheral” states are once again driven into silence and marginalization? When the reality of extremely precarious forms of living, punctuated by so much suffering and impossibility, becomes inevitable again? 

By inhabiting the psychic space of the spectacle as a remedy to the traumas of despotism, we fail to see how revolution moves through and within people and what deep, collective healing, recovery, justice, and liberation truly require. In contrast, in returning again and again to the street over many months, the photographers become embedded in the conditions that incite the history captured, enabling their developments to be directly engaged through the camera rather than as an analytical afterthought.

The arid logic of iconification is interrupted by the dynamic nature of shots like Jaafar’s. Being alive to the activity that animates her photographs gives one the sense of something being in motion, something in the making and thus something ultimately incomplete, suspended, and continuously in process. Something stirring, ongoing, and unreconciled that demands our undivided attention, urgent investment, and which maintains the space/work of dreams and the entanglements of our collective aspirations.

This horizontal space of action is unmediated by fantasies of heroism or a calculated consciousness. The counter-archival images curated here invite us to participate, feel, and lay bare the very foundations of liberating, autonomous relations. What we see exercised in Jaafar’s photographs is the practice of freedom, an envisioning of “somewhere in advance of nowhere”7 in the words of the late poet Jayne Cortez. It is a grammar of futurity which Campt describes as a “politics of prefiguration that involves living the future now – as imperative rather than subjunctive – as a striving for the future you want to see, right now, in the present” while “inhabiting its potential foreclosure at the same time.”4 An effort to actualize that which will have had to happen if we are to see a future that is not yet.

The photographs collected here venture an alternative visual vocabulary for political transformation that embraces the collective with all its wild contradictions. They subvert the expectations we bring to them, visualizing revolution in unanticipated forms and places, and display struggle not in heroic and spectacular acts or events, but in the quotidian. From the badlands of worldmaking comes a visual language that pluralizes our conceptions of what is politically possible when people come together to speak a different world into existence. These images do the work of both expanding and critiquing our current notions of revolution. They disrupt and disorder the existing logic of intelligibility that governs the way we understand the historical and visual record of revolution, while at the same time articulating the power of subjectivities and laws of visibility precluded from this record. 

Reclaiming the visual life of revolution through these independent acts of archivization restores a vibrant responsiveness to the visual act and makes us responsible for our actions in the field of visuality. This counter-archival reclamation constructs a perceptual counter-memory of change based not on established narrative, but on relationships, affiliation, and ongoing participation. It widens the notion of memory to an act of remembering that is collective and collaborative. Our archival readings of revolution must transcend the ideological fashionings of memory as historical genesis, inventory, nostalgia, redemption, past glory, or lost dream. They must surpass revolution’s memorialization as a project of recuperation and recovery or reassembly and return to the conditions of an idealized insurrection. Instead, we must pursue a re-engagement of past insurrections, a present questioning of their values and (cor)relations, a renewal of their agitational potentials. This is the enterprise of a dynamic and fruitful archival encounter with revolution: to rediscover and mobilize the means of futurity in retrospect.

Leena Habiballa is a PhD student studying the cellular and molecular biology of ageing at the Mayo Clinic and Newcastle University. Her essays have previously appeared in The Third Rail and Media Diversified.

References

  1. Said, Culture and Imperialism, p3.
  2. al-Haj Saleh, A Critique of Solidarity
  3. Campt, The Visual Frequency of Black Life: Love, Labor and the Practice of Refusal.
  4. Campt, Listening to Images, p6 & 17.
  5. Foucault, History of Sexuality, Volume 1, p96. 
  6. Nowak, Social Poetics, p168. 
  7. Cortez, Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere.

* I am incredibly grateful to Hiba Ismail for sharing her work with me and introducing me to Suha Barakat, Duha Mohammed, and Metche Jaafar’s serial photography.

An abridged version of this essay will appear in Locale Sudan’s upcoming anthology on the Sudanese archive.