Morgan Ashcom’s Open
Featured within are images from unprocessed film, exposed to light by Israeli security forces at a checkpoint.
(Gnomic Book, 2023)
What happens when the integrity of a work has been compromised? Can it reflect the way the integrity of a population has been compromised? It’s a question posed by Morgan Ashcom’s photobook Open. To access it, the reader is required to make the same transgressive gesture that shaped the work. His book, encased in a Kodak-like yellow-and-black box, is taped shut with a red band marked “WARNING EXPOSED FILM OPEN IN A DARK ROOM ONLY,” signaling that to cut the tape is to breach its interior. The images featured within are of unprocessed film that was exposed to light by Israeli security forces at a checkpoint while Ashcom was traveling in Palestine in 2009. The act of trespass on a light-sensitive process is similarly baked into the reader’s act of opening the book. Its conception illustrates the issues of crossed boundaries and compromised ethics. The book's design fights against the political status quo tacitly but unequivocally, illuminating themes of suppression. It successfully connects material and content, embedding the metaphorical role of censorship into the work and into the reader’s experience of it.
Thinking the original images were ruined, the artist left the film idling in his studio for over a decade. (It is never articulated what Ashcom’s initial mission in the region was.) In 2021, he revisited the negatives and, rather than deeming the film irreparably destroyed, the thinly visible images reflected the fragility of the embattled land. The result is a series of thirty-four photo-text diptychs, combining C-prints and html code.
The soft-covered book, imprinted with silver calligraphy, opens with three images that look like abstractions in yellow and black—like off-brand color field paintings by Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko. Next, a poem: “The Passport” by Palestinian poet and author Mahmoud Darwish. The poem is in Arabic and English, printed back/front on a gossamer-like translucent page, each version visible while reading the other. “To them my wound is a showroom / For a tourist who passionately collects pictures,” Darwish writes. The passport is a regulatory instrument, and marginalized identities are most injuriously affected by these official forms of identification. The passport classifies populations, enabling or preventing their sense of agency, problematizing diaspora and otherness. Darwish’s poem asks for empathy that transcends territorial demarcations: “The heart of every man is my nationality; / So rid me of this passport.”
Following this text, the book contains Ashcom’s pictures centered on the flimsy pages peppered with code fragments scattered across the page. These fragments are in fact extracts from bureaucratic communications between international financial institutions and a Palestinian-run non-profit that had raised funds. The bits of code read at once as nonsense—a mess of zeros and garbled digital language—and as chilling outcries representing the loaded reality of this territory, with salient keywords surfacing like “border,” “compliance,” “withdrawals,” “boundary,” “trust,” “safety,” and “response required.” The code acts as a jagged expression of struggle against military oppression and day-to-day violence, as well as the regulatory forces at work. The translucent overlays and the disruptions around the photographs reflect the sense of disorder and interference that surrounds those who live in these settings: the layers involved must be peeled back to show beyond the physical parameters.
In the apparition-like images, one can discern the top of a palm tree against a yellowed sky; a shadowy man under telephone wires; a leafy branch in rainbow hues (variations of which recur throughout); a mustachioed man against a brick structure in an ombré range from sepia to orange to yellow, his silhouette disappearing below his shoulders. As one flips further through, there’s the emergence of posters, stacks of concrete blocks, suspended butchered meats, a wall of keys, an arched window, and partial pieces of mechanical machinery. One of the only complete images is a portrait of a young woman, her full frame visible, her long hair parted over her right shoulder, her patterned scarf standing out against her floral dress, the whole palette discolored in an Orangina-tinged glare. The images portray quotidian glimpses that aren't wound as showroom, and in their ordinariness, the conflict becomes even harder to digest.
There is little doubt that the eerie and diaphanous light of the film’s premature exposure has ultimately rendered them more powerful and more interesting. If photography is a means of witnessing, here its spectral quality supersedes its testimonial function—it is poetic and soured, warped and elegiac. In all the ways photography can be manipulated, here its unintentional manipulation is as resonant as could be: the sense of trespass seeps out, the photos have been diluted and skewed by volatile invasion.