You won’t see the touching photograph I took at a memorial wall in New York after September 11, 2001, when a woman’s smile gave way to tears as my shutter clicked. It amounted to inadvertent aggression. Some regard all “street photography” categorically as aggressive and unethical. But I think photographic aggression needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis, even when that can be difficult. Such moments arise frequently during and between my intermittent visits to Palestine this past year, where I have been thinking about and documenting photographic practices while engaging in them. As a foreigner I learn local customs slowly. In my effort to do no harm, I navigate photography’s interrelations and worry about breaking photographic taboos.
For my last post (here) I emailed a photograph to a subject who had not wanted me to take her picture. I planned to add it to an urgent report by David Shulman about the immanent demolition of the Palestinian village Susiya in area “C” in the South Hebron Hills. David has been sharing and following the travails of these families for years, but I am only beginning to know them. It might make sense to illustrate his post with pictures of ragged tents and sad-eyed children. But those images could feed into a patronizing justification for the demolitions, according to which villagers, and especially women (“to improve the(ir) status” in the words of the Civil Authority) would be better off further straining the resources of an already over-crowded, under-served town elsewhere. I prefer to visualize the villagers’ determination to make their tents and temporary structures into a livable town in the face of settler harassment and Civil Administration obstructionism, and even under the shadow of immanent demolition. Fatma’s picture could help me add a hint of this subtext with the face of a strong woman. She granted permission almost immediately; to me the photographic exchange signified trust. You may learn more about Fatma’s organization, The Rural Woman’s Association, here.
The rest of this post is the one I dropped last week in order to concentrate on Susiya. It also concerns street photography and photographic interaction around it, but on a real street, in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. While my own worries remain with Susiya, still in grave danger, Sheikh Jarrah is worth a detour if only because it involves patterns of appropriation similar to those of Susiya, patterns that involve refusals to issue construction permits to Palestinians, eviction on the basis of missing permits, court cases that drag on for years, and settlers who are welcome in the meantime to stay and build on the “vacant” property and live in the “abandoned” homes, with or without permits. I won’t, however, discuss the details, readily available on the internet, for example, here.
Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, June 26, 2015
Local residents are waiting for me on a sidewalk on Othman Ibn-Affan street in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. They are members of three families who were evicted in recent years from homes behind us and across the street.
Six years ago, Israeli Jews took over the houses, aided by an NGO that seeks to turn East Jerusalem into a Jewish neighborhood. They set off a complex series of legal proceedings as well as Friday afternoon protests at a nearby intersection. A few years ago, these protests were large and boisterous, and attacked by an equally loud and boisterous police force. They were “a scene,” I am told. The court cases and the protests continue and the families remain locked out of their homes, but the land grabs have slowed. The demonstrations, now smaller, are thought to have had an effect. In early June the anniversary of the occupation attracted a larger crowd of peacefully chanting protesters.
A panicky police force arrived and set off a stun grenade
There were three arrests.
Saleh, a Palestinian activist, promised to tell me about Sheik Jarrah over coffee after the rally but he was arrested. Although no charges were filed, no one was released until after midnight. I did not manage to return for three weeks, but finally I am back and Saleh still remembers. Now it is Ramadan, so we have our discussion without coffee – but with, and about, photographs. He flips through a bundle of well thumbed pictures at a breakneck speed that makes them as hard to focus on as the confused action they depict. They are faded and crinkled, but with them Saleh relives moments in the story and he pulls each one out like a trump card. They show evictions. Or they show settlers on the same sidewalks where we are now, with police or soldiers or Palestinians
I would photograph the settlers now living in Palestinian homes across the street,
but they are leaving for Shabbos.
Eventually a settler parks a motorcycle on our side of the street.
“Please photograph him,” requests Nabeel al-Kurd. “He lives in my house.” The settler turns around as I raise my camera. The other settlers are Americans, but apparently not this one. In labored English, asks me not to take pictures:
“They forget something. The house it is not Jewish, but isn’t the land Jewish? I know, I know. These houses are Palestinian. But anyway I do not want to live here. This is uncomfortable. It is too hot. I want to move. I have only lived here six months.”
He is pleading now.
“Do not take my photograph. It is my private self. I am really no more than just a visitor. It is not my fight. I do not want it. We are friends, right?”
He addresses all this to me. He says nothing to Mr. al-Kurd. After he leaves Nabeel says, “He knows what he is doing is wrong.” He fears that his picture could be used, like the one in Salah’s pack, as photographic ammunition. Any photograph is like an assault, a small thrown stone, and the man with the motorcycle does not want one aimed at him.
But sometimes photographic aggression is warranted. “My camera is my weapon. No one should go into the field without a camera,” I am told by Guy, who works with the human rights organization Ta’ayush and Rabbis for Human Rights. What weapons should they use instead? No one would argue that it is unfair to film or photograph a crime in progress. In the United States, film and now videos have played an important role in the opposition to police brutality. Maybe they will help to reduce it some day. Even an aggressive, hostile look deserves an aggressive, hostile look back through the eye of a camera.
Is photographic aggression called for today in Sheik Jarrah or is this settler’s near admission of wrongdoing, his awareness of the complexity of the situation he has waded into, enough to justify deleting the photograph? Will he move out soon? When he does, will the al-Kurd family get its home back? If I show it, will my photograph follow him wherever he goes and cause him harm? And why is the prospect of the photograph so frightening? After all, unlike Saleh’s photographs, mine can show nothing but a man parking a motorcycle on a city street. The only explanation we can come up with is that he does not want to face his own shame.
“May I take your picture?” I ask Mr. al-Kurd.
text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2015