Remember Sa’id and his many children who accompany him every week to the fields? I hadn’t seen them for nearly three years, but I could recognize them at a distance from Jibrin’s pastures (if you can call a rocky patch with a few scrubby thorns a “pasture”) as they arrived for their weekly visit on the ridge far above us. Then they descended into the next wadi and disappeared.
We have visited Sa’id more times than I can count. We’ve written about his dogged, steadfast attempts, for years and years to regain his lands. We have photographed the children who tease and chase each other or play soccer or “hugging games.” My camera fascinates them, so just before the pandemic, I bought an inexpensive one for them to use during my next visits. A plaything? An educational tool? “Photographic empowerment”?* I really just wanted to see what they would do.
Then — the pandemic. By the time I returned in 2022, circumstances had changed. After Sa’id recovered from the injuries he had suffered in an attack the previous year, soldiers curtailed his access – and ours – to his fields. Soldiers sometimes barred all activists from Sa’id’s lands, sometimes just internationals. This meant that when I returned after the pandemic, I could only just barely survey the field.
Bored activists built small constructions out of rocks above.
I tried to figure out what the ‘Awad family was up to through my long lens. Clearly they were not playing games. From what I could tell, there was no soccer. The field was empty.
It turns out that the field was empty because soldiers had barred Sa‘id and his family from it. Instead the family cleared the adjacent ground of rocks. With these rocks they built a border between the forbidden field and the new earth just outside of it that eventually they would be able to plant.
Finally one day we were allowed down from the hilltop and could watch the action close up. Everyone pitched in. If they would not be allowed on the field then they would move it. They had been engaged in this activity for the past two years.
That first day, I let the children begin using the camera I had brought for them. But the next time I came, we were again forbidden from entering. When their father stopped his van to talk to us on the way home, they saw me and screamed for the camera. I let them photograph from the van for the minute or so that the van stopped. Both times, they photographed mostly predictable subjects: each other. me. and especially blur:
Other photographs surprised me. One child, Kamar, was interested in the work, the terracing. To make her shots she had to dodge some of the other children who stuck their fingers in front of the lens.
My last day this summer was tense.
A settler family came to visit.
Perhaps the father wanted to see the effect of the settler’s demolition project, completed the night before: Sa’id’s terracing was gone, its rocks now in heaps on the side of the field closest to the settlement.
Sa’id started to work. Volunteers and the children helped as well. Police arrived.
And soldiers. Their response was to forbid Sa’id and his family from working.
There was a lot of standing about, explaining, arguing,
Activists watched and photographed.
The children photographed, too. They still chose some of the usual subjects,
But now they concentrated mainly on the lines of ominous cars, and especially the soldiers: the befuddled expressions on their faces as they contemplated the marooned pile of rocks, or the remonstrances of the childrens’ father as they surrounded and pestered him, explaining the unexplainable. When photographing, the children moved and looked like little professional photographers engrossed in their work.
I watched Kamar carefully compose her shots. Nur tried to compose his, too.
Sometimes he knelt down to get just the right angle.
Eventually the settler family left, and the soldiers, too. Sa’id took up his work once more. For him, starting over from scratch is part of his routine.
It’s part of the children’s routine, too. They have been coming to this field for nearly their entire lives, watched their father stand up to soldiers, watched settlers beat and nearly kill him, and then they help start over. And over. photographic empowerment? Perhaps a little. But what they learn from their father does far more to empower these children.
Kol Nidre, the beginning of our Jewish Day of Repentance, begins tonight. Is anyone still looking for a sin to repent? Any of us might consider the injustices facing Sa’id and his family and ask whether we, or our governments, by our actions or through our silence, have a share in them.
text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2022, except those photographs identified as by children
- A photographic practice often referred to as “photographic empowerment” involves an outsider, usually a professional photographer, who intervenes in a threatening, dangerous, or impoverished situation to place the means of representation in the hands of the affected people. I wrote a chapter about the practice in the 2012 book for which this blog is named. The power relations between the outsider and the insider, the efforts to overcome inequality but sometimes to exploit it, fascinate and sometimes repel me. My feelings about “photographic empowerment” are ambivalent, but I have occasionally been tempted to try my hand at it.
3 thoughts on “Photographic Empowerment. Umm Al-‘Ara’is, spring and summer, 2022”
the camera is almost but not quite the witness. Remember the photographer in Blow up saying to the girl next door “I didn’t see it,” both looking at what seems to be a gun. Next she says, aren’t you going to call the police? But he needs another witness in addition to the camera. Separation anxiety.
It is fascinating to think about how this applies to my project. I may be my own “other witness,” or rather, my text is.
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