Ezra Nawi, Ta’ayush, and 30 seconds of video

Ezra

Ezra Nawi, May 31, 2014

“Just as they film, so we film as well”

How powerful is a photographic medium? In Israel, thirty seconds of it is enough to arrest a man and keep him incommunicado for days without access to his lawyer. Enough to prompt from the Prime Minister a vicious condemnation of those who would hide behind the hypocrisy of “caring for human rights,” and, from the Defense Minister and the Education Minister, even more extreme attacks against human rights organizations. At best, there are calls for the “moral left” to repudiate the man who is under arrest, to condemn him without a trial, as well as “to thank the two journalists for their courageous, professional work.” You can read this piece by Ari Shavit here. The officials posted their remarks on their respective Facebook pages.

So: how powerful is a photographic medium? The question has occupied me for a few decades. Most recently, on-and-off over the last year and a half, I have been using my own camera to investigate how human rights groups in Israel use their cameras. One especially has absorbed my attention, the group Ta’ayush (the name is Arabic for “living together”), a rather small all-volunteer organization that works through legal channels to win back land stolen from Palestinians in South Hebron and prevent further robberies and demolitions. On Saturdays members accompany Palestinians to their lands to protect them from settler violence while they plow, graze their sheep, plant and harvest crops. Their cameras are always in action. You can see some of my results and a few of my anxieties in past posts on this blog. Their work is heartbreaking but still manages to inspire hope. To me the group means far more than an academic exercise.

But my epigraph is not from my own research. It is a translation of some of the first spoken words in an incriminating half hour video that appeared on January 7 on Uvda, a major Israeli investigative news program. Author of the report is Omri Assenheim, an award-winning journalist. The report is about two members of the far right organization Ad Kan (meaning literally “up to here” and figuratively “enough is enough”), who “infiltrated” Ta’ayush, filmed its activities, and zeroed in on its most loud-mouthed member. The two, a young man and his girlfriend, eventually succeeded in goading him into saying something outrageous. He said that he hands over “them” (we eventually find out that “them” means Palestinians who sell land to Israelis) to the Palestinian Authority. The infiltrator asks him what happens to the people after that, and he answers that the Authority kills them, after first subjecting them to beatings. There are many problems with the “facts” that the video claims to document, and some good commentary on the film points them out.  In English I recommend David Shulman’s report here. You might also read the report in Haaretz by Amira Hass here. I will add only that I know Ezra Nawi through Ta’ayush and while he might say anything at all, he would never knowingly send anyone to his/her death. Indeed this case is no exception.

Here I want to concentrate on the video itself. When I first saw it I found it hard to imagine that anyone could take it seriously; it has all the hallmarks of a hack job, a video tabloid. Clips taken on different days are bunched together randomly and accompanied by scare music and voice-over narration that romanticizes the investigators. Images of Ad Kan members setting up their cameras are interspersed with those of scary-looking Ta’ayush volunteers. It is possible that one of those alarming “lefties” hiding behind a camera could be this writer, an aging, but not-very fearsome scholar like several other members of Ta’ayush. The founder of Ad Kan says he was horrified to hear a few such people make demeaning remarks, right in front of a young soldier, about his failure to remember the values he must have been taught in high school. The identities of the moles are hidden. The young woman’s face is blacked out in an interview, but not before we are treated to a tantalizing silhouette of her slim body in profile as she tosses back her long silky hair. I have seen many similar videos, some, for example, from anti-abortion groups in the United States seeking to discredit Planned Parenthood. The word “heavily edited” was on everyone’s lips concerning these videos, but other methods are often used to enhance such editing. Shooting so as to conceal the lips of the speaker for example, can hide the cuts that leave out words central to the speaker’s intentions.* Most of the planned-parenthood videos are far more subdued than this sensationalized video by Uvda, however. While watching it eyes roll. At least they should.

The crux of the video from Uvda centers on Nawi. There is a good deal of discussion of a putative land sale by a Palestinian who, we are given to understand, Nawi wishes to lead into a trap. But perhaps the decisive moment takes place in a car, in footage made with a hidden camera and first aired two minutes into the program. There, in less than 30 seconds, Nawi makes the above-mentioned incriminating remarks. The visuals are terrible. It is impossible to see him as he talks. Lights flash twice in the middle, blotting out everything.

But this is just a teaser toward the beginning of the program. The same conversation reappears twenty minutes later in the course of a longer discussion of the deal with the Palestinian selling land.

Or rather, the same audio reappears, but the video is different. This new video, also in the car, has a different time stamp about 15 minutes later than the first one. Or perhaps it was taken on a different day altogether, since there is only a time stamp and no date stamp on the first video. The camera angle is different. A paper in the foreground on the first run-through has mysteriously vanished and there are no blinding flashes. Only in the later video does Nawi wear sunglasses. In the middle of this new video, after Nawi says that he turns people over to the Palestinian Authority, but before he is asked what happens to such people next, there is a cut, and suddenly the time stamp registers a six-minute long gap. Were there two – or three – hidden cameras? I doubt it. Did Nawi repeat the same words with exactly the same inflection after fifteen minutes, then after another six minutes, or on other occasions altogether? I doubt that as well. Only the speaker, whose mouth is invisible in both versions, connects the visuals. At the end of the new 30-second clip you can finally glimpse his mouth and it is smiling. Is Ezra’s “vicious smile” (in the words of the Jewish Press) the reason that the conversation was attached to these visuals and not to others?

Why does the altered video matter? Am I acting like an academic book reviewer who discredits someone’s hard-won argument because of a misplaced comma or a typo? I don’t think so. At best the discrepancy reveals sloppiness in the television producers and at least one place where the video takes words out of context. We should consider the possibility that there may well be more. The incriminating words could have been spliced into the program at nearly any point. Perhaps this thirty seconds is indicative of the false premises on which the entire thirty minutes were constructed.

On this basis, a man has been subjected to death threats and then arrested. Worse, all human rights groups and especially Ta’ayush are immediately drawn in and subject to wholesale condemnation although there is no suggestion that they had anything to do with the land deal. And this at a moment when the government is in the midst of a campaign against them. As I write, Ezra Nawi is about to come before a judge. His guilt or innocence or whether he is charged at all will presumably be decided without the help of this doctored video. I hope he is released unharmed and soon, but whatever happens, it should not affect the work of Israeli human rights organizations. Any Jerusalem resident reading this might consider accompanying Ta’ayush to South Hebron one Saturday.

Epilogue: Soon after I posted this, two more arrests were made; two more dedicated activists were held behind bars with no access to lawyers, without formal charges, their names under a gag order. They were released after about a week. The cases, however, were kept open.

*On March 28, 2017, the two moles who infiltrated Planned Parenthood were indicted in California on 15 criminal counts of illegal recording and conspiracy and a warrant was issued for their arrest. I am not informed that any members of Ad Kan have been subjected to anything similar.

Thanks to Yagil Eliraz for assistance with Hebrew.

 

Text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2015Project20140531_0532-crp2

 

 

 

 

Photographic Aggression, Trust, Shame: Susiya, Sheikh Jarrah, June 5, 26, 2015

20150626-IMG_6883lvlcrvYou 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

20150626-IMG_6889crpcrv2Local 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.

20150626-IMG_6877distcrvSix 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. 20150605-IMG_5803crvA few Fridays ago, on June 5, the anniversary of the occupation attracted a larger crowd of peacefully chanting protesters.

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A panicky police force arrived and set off a stun grenade

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There were three arrests.

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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. 20150626-IMG_6882crvOr they show settlers on the same sidewalks where we are now, with police or soldiers or Palestinians

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“The photographs are proof.”

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“That’s this yard right here. Can you believe what he’s doing?”

I would photograph the settlers now living in Palestinian homes across the street,

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but they are leaving for Shabbos.

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“These people have other places to go. They don’t even live here on the weekend.”

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.

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text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2015

 

 

 

March 14, 2015: Zanuta and Rahwah – Guest Post by David Shulman (photographs: Margaret Olin)

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Four happy months in India, and today I’m back in south Hebron. Before leaving I asked my friends to finish off the Occupation before I returned, but somehow they haven’t managed this. Yesterday I meet my neighbor Rama in the street, and she asks how it is to be home. It’s good, I say, at first I was even high, but little by little despair seeps in. “That’s right,” she says, “here everything is really fine except for the despair.”

It torments me all the way down to south Hebron, a dark and acrid journey. Why why why? I remember this: when you’ve been away and you come back, at first you find the reality of Palestine unreal. Unthinkable. A kind of lunacy. The colonial project, the horrific crime at the heart of it—it all looks mad, and beyond fixing. Nothing we do can change it. Nothing we say matters.

Then, after an hour on the hills with the shepherds, the craziness begins to feel natural, normal, and I know what I have to do.

I’m lucky to be with Guy today. He turns out to be a hardened optimist: Maybe the elections this week will bring the beginning of the change. But even if they don’t, we’re coming closer to the point of decision: either full-blown apartheid or a peace agreement, whose details are anyway well known. If Israel opts for apartheid, the Netanyahu way, then the world will force a change. The pressure is building up. The boycott will do it. One day we will come down here to visit our Palestinian friends, we will remember these bad days, we will have coffee and laugh, we will say: “Do you remember that hot day in March when the soldiers came and arrested Hatim and Guy and Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim, when they cooked up this idiotic rule that you can’t graze the sheep in the wadi or on the slopes to the east, and they held them for hours in the jeeps and then finally let them go?” Those good days will certainly come, Guy says, it could, it should, be paradise here. In the meantime, we have to do what we do to keep things from getting worse.

There are lots of sheep—four or five herds from Zanuta, we count about 300 heads; and another four or five herds from Rahwah, to the south where the wadi takes this grand ravishing curve. Rashad is responsible for one of the herds. He has a story to tell, which goes like this, in his fierce and fluent Hebrew:

“It was years ago, this crazy settler, Avi, came with his brother and another man and they picked a fight with my brother, who was out with the sheep. They beat him badly, and another shepherd too, and they threatened to kill them. My brother called me and I came fast, walking over the hill with my shepherd’s staff. “We’re going to kill you,” they said. They made us sit down on the ground and wait. They had heavy guns. I was afraid of them, they’re bad and they’re crazy, you can tell a bad man when you meet one. There’s room for everyone here, we don’t care if they’re here, but they want only to hurt us and take the land. [Guy interjects: “We’ll kick them out of here, don’t worry.”] So we’re sitting there and waiting, and the settlers have their guns pointed at us, and luckily an army jeep came by on the road, in those days the roads weren’t so good, I ran to the jeep and stuck my arm through the window and said to the officer that he has to come with me. He didn’t have much choice. When he got to where my brother and the other shepherd were sitting, the settlers started beating them again, and they said to the soldiers, ‘Look, this one has a stick,’ meaning my staff, so the officer drew his pistol and cocked it and made sure the bullet was in the barrel and then he pressed the pistol against my forehead and said, ‘Get rid of that stick or your brains are going to be blown to heaven.’ I said I don’t need the staff and I threw it away. Still, they hit us some more, and they told us they’d come back to kill us some day, for sure, and they went away. In those days we didn’t have friends like you to help us.”

Rashad has a permit, which means he can work inside Israel; so he’s in Beersheva most days of the week and out on the hills with the sheep only on Saturday. He’s rough, good-natured, utterly and oddly innocent, as innocent as a human being can be. He thinks people have the option of being good. He laughs a lot. I like the idea that we’ll come back some day to laugh again with him.

Pastoral interlude. We lie in the sun, resting against the rocks, waiting. A delicious silence soaks the green slope—green as Ireland, after the rains. Everywhere the anemones are straggling into the sunlight, and there are daisies and dandelions and tiny nameless purple blossoms and thick green reeds as well. A partridge flutters over the stream. Happiness. Guy says it’s the silence before the storm.

Of course he’s right. Above us, across the wadi, there’s the settlement of Har Hamor, where a single settler family lives. They’ve cordoned off huge chunks of the ancient grazing grounds, and, as always, they’ve got the soldiers to guard them and do their bidding, which means driving Palestinian shepherds off Palestinian land. It’s no surprise when two drab khaki-grey jeeps turn up on the path near the tiny stream, heavy with the sewage of Kiryat Arba, at the base of the hill. Then they are upon us.

20150314-IMG_5127-SheepLooking-crpThere’s a vanguard. “Get these sheep away from here,” they order us, but of course we demand to see the signed order, and all too soon the Big Officer comes with those foolish fancy stars on his uniform and his big heavy gun and with the piece of paper signed by the Brigade Commander and the map on its inverse. It decrees—illegally, of course—that the wadi and the hill where the settlement sits and about a third of the hill where we’re standing are all now a Closed Military Zone. In itself, this wouldn’t be so bad, though it’s a crime, and cruel, and, more simply, wrong. What makes it worse today is the Oral Law, the torah sheba’al peh, that accompanies the order and that declares the whole rolling expanse of the slopes, all the way uphill to the highway a mile or two away, to be forbidden to Palestinians, since these lands, says Big Officer, are “Jewish grazing grounds.”

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He’s made it up. There’s no legal basis to this draconian restriction. We tell him so, but it makes no difference. He’s given us 10 minutes to get the shepherds uphill before he arrests them. We Israelis, he says, can remain on the “Jewish grazing grounds” if we agree to move a few hundred meters up the slope. The 10-minute deadline applies to us too, and the clock is running.

Here’s a little mini-apartheid moment, as we firmly inform him. “You can’t make one law for Palestinians and another for Jews,” we say. It’s infuriating. I can feel the rage welling up in me, and the morning’s despair is also kicking in, along with the sick feeling of helplessness. We call Amiel, who confirms our reading of the law. Now it’s up to the shepherds to decide; we will follow their lead. I rush over to explain to them in Arabic what the soldiers are demanding; I tell them that the law is with them if they move the herd just a little ways up the slope, but that there’s a danger that the soldiers will arrest them anyway. Several shepherds immediately start moving the sheep. It’s not so easy. Sheep are notoriously slow about such things. They’ve been feeding ravenously on the rich diet of thorns and greens in the wadi and they don’t seem to feel any particular respect for Big Officer who, looking around for a potential victim, settles on us. We’ve started walking backwards, very slowly and deliberately, as he barks at us and counts the seconds left.

Is Big Officer a bad man? Let’s leave this question in abeyance. I’m not sure what it means. He seems unhappy that his order and his deadline have not been honored with alacrity. I wonder if he’s put out at having to waste a beautiful spring Shabbat morning chasing hundreds of stubborn sheep over the rocks. I also wonder if he has any inkling of how much harm he is doing to himself, to his manhood, to the subtle, hidden places of his mind, by inflicting cruelty on innocents, by humiliating them and treating them like children and by exiling them from what is theirs. These thoughts flit rapidly through my mind and vanish into the sunlight because Big Officer has lost patience and arrested Hatim Suleiman Shafiq, though he was actually trying to obey the order and get the sheep going, and Guy rushes down to try to protect him so they arrest him too.

The soldiers march their hostages to the jeeps. By now the police have also turned up, and Hatim and Guy are locked into their blue-white wagon. In the wadi, considerable chaos reigns. Oblivious, joyful, untold numbers of sheep are doing what sheep do, dotting the wadi with a furry beige. Two or three of the shepherds have managed to pry some part of their herds away from the thick foliage near the stream and to prod them some ways up the slope. They’re still far from the highway. Surprisingly, the soldiers, perhaps content with the initial arrests, seem to have forgotten all about their own arbitrary Oral Law. One contingent of them is poking with sticks through the tall grass as if they’d lost something of value there—as indeed they have.

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The Rahwah shepherds are still deep in the wadi to the south, and they seem to have found a creative solution to the soldiers’ threats: they’ve sent young kids, maybe eight or nine years old, to follow the sheep there, on the tenuous assumption that the army won’t arrest children. (It does it all the time.) I join Amir and Peg on the southern ridge. Time slows down, as if high noon had brought it to a leisurely boil. We wait. We call the lawyer who will take care of Guy and Hatim when they reach the police station. We chat with Murad and the other shepherds, who want to know why the soldiers took Hatim. “Who can say?” I answer, a non-answer, since there is no answer    20150314-IMG_5232-lvlCrvCrpFlt

Just when I come to the conclusion that the men with guns have resigned themselves to recalcitrant ovine reality and the danger has passed, they suddenly arrest two more shepherds: Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim. The arrests are swift and brutal, with much shoving and poking. We’re too far away to be of help, but I can’t bear watching this: despair again. Is it the good despair I’ve written about, the kind that makes you act and take risks and not think about results? I doubt it. It’s a black viscous feeling that goes well with the liquid gold washing over the hill.

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It may make you feel better to know that eventually all those arrested were released; that the police refused even to accept Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim at the station and sent them back to the soldiers, who had to let them go; that the other hostages who had been captured at Shweike and Umm al-Ara’is were also freed. It was a messy, foolish day, maybe because the settlers are full of hate and fear as the elections come near, and they know that this time they may lose, so they pick on their usual victims and command the soldiers to do the same. Or maybe there’s no logic to it all except for the random but systemic logic of the Occupation itself, perhaps stirring itself awake in the first real week of spring. You might also feel better if I tell you that I figure that if we keep coming back week after week, the Palestinians may eventually get their wadi back and the herds will flow past the ravishing curve and happily blanket the hungry hills. What is required of us is no heroics but a dull steadiness and perseverance. I think it will work. Speaking of happiness, Peg told me when we said goodbye that she’d felt it today, and then I knew that I, too, had tasted that unthinking, unreasonable joy, the South Hebron happiness, unlike any other I have known, the kind that comes from looking straight at wickedness and not looking away.20150314-IMG_5215Looking-lvlcrpflt

text © David Shulman 2015    photographs © Margaret Olin 2015

Photographs in Gaza 2: “I don’t really know what I am doing here.” Eduardo Soteras Jalil

 

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“Eso: una esperanza.” Just a hope. At the Kamal Aduan Hospital, Jabalya, while injured people and bodies arrived after the attack at the UNRWA School in Jabalya. Gaza, 30/07/14 Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

Some of the people I respect most in Israel and Palestine have been writing posts with the word “hope” in the title and gloom in the content.  The “hope” of this picture’s title refers to the dashed one reflected in a message on a tee-shirt, but the photograph says more. Here hope looks like worry.  The photograph is not an iconic image; it will not change the world or last for the ages.

It is not a photograph of despair either. The people in this set of photographs for the most part just try to cope.

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General view of the UNRWA School at Al Shati Refugee camp.The school hosts more than 2000 people. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil.

They do laundry; they leave ruined houses; if their houses have been spared for the night they return.

Inhabitants of destroyed Kuza'a leave with their belongings.

Inhabitants of destroyed Kuza’a leave with their belongings. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

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Daily life in Gaza: a girl returns home after spending the night in a supposedly safer place. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

Photography itself is a way to cope.

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People take photos of the destroyed Mosque of Elsussi, in El Shati refugee camp, Gaza. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

The Argentinian photographer Eduardo Soteras Jalil photographs everyday life under difficult conditions. I met him this past spring at Dar Al-Kalima University College in Bethlehem at his exhibition “Masafer: Life in the Interstice,” the product of two years spent photographing people living in caves in South Hebron.

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Eduardo Soteras in Bethlehem, June, 2014. Photograph: Margaret Olin

He had been in Israel and Palestine for over ten years, but when I last saw him in Ramallah, he said that it was time to do something else with his life and to go somewhere else to do it.

He went to Finland, but when I caught up with him by email last week he was back, and in Gaza. In his blog, which you may read in Spanish here, he writes: “no sé muy bien que hago aquí.” I don’t really know what I am doing here. He is not looking for the iconic picture (see my previous post); he does not want to cover “current events,” an expression that seems to leave him cold. A photographer of everyday life, I sense he has little experience and perhaps little interest in photographing death.

Unlike some gruesome photographs from Gaza, the piled bodies, the blazing neighborhoods, the weeping parents, these show the everyday weariness that such catastrophes leave and that can last for years. Sensational pictures draw urgent attention to what is happening now, but we can look at these pictures longer. They offer a space to let the people and their predicament sink in.

Or better, they leave room for imagination – not that imagination that conjures images of the exotic or the impossible, that provides extreme experiences vicariously, but imagination that unites our horizon with that of others – the everyday imagination within which we envision our lives while we live them.  We can see ourselves as these people trying hard to keep living such lives. We connect with them as the two young men above connect warily to one another and to the photographer, through crossed arms and a gaze that passes from one to the other to us.  I hope in future posts to flesh out the role of imagination in photography.

Here, however, imagination imputes resilience to the people in these photographs, or in the environments shown in them. For the most part they do not appear to be victims.

They cope and above all wait, each in their own way.

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A boy performs parkur in front of a destroyed Mosque in El Shati Refugee Camp, Gaza. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

 

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Displaced families in one of the rooms of the Greek Orthodox Church of Gaza. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

The photographer waits, too.  To photograph in this manner means to settle in for the long term. Two weeks will not do.

During the brief cease-fire, Eduardo posted a photograph that speaks to imagination and hope:

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Gaza, mañana. Algo se termina, algo continúa. Gaza, tomorrow. Something ends, something continues. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

I expected him to translate “mañana” as “morning.”  Morning in Gaza would have had symbolic resonance, but a photograph taken today and labeled “tomorrow” solicits the imagination.  The first comment begins “OJALA,” a Spanish word that appropriately comes from Arabic

إن شاء الله   inshallah

In  Hebrew:

כן יהי רצון    ken yehi ratzon

in English:

God willing

text © 2014 Margaret Olin

Photographs in Gaza 1. “What contribution am I making?” Tyler Hicks

Cover of the New York Times, July 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Tyler Hicks

Cover of the New York Times, July 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Tyler Hicks

The photo may endure even if its subject does not.

In the New York Times Lens Blog, the recently returned photographer Tyler Hicks talks with James Estrin about his search for the “enduring photo in Gaza” during his stint, covering the conflict in his first two weeks.

You can see the edited interview and a slideshow of his work in Gaza here:

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/05/looking-for-the-enduring-photo-in-gaza/

Hicks: “So I ask myself, what contribution am I making as an individual when I show up and there are 10 other photographers on the scene? How are my photos going to make a difference compared to the others’? My goal is to find that specific image that is going to have a lasting effect.”

For Hicks, that photograph was “a man running with a lifeless body of a boy on the beach. That one photograph was my contribution of my two weeks there. It’s like distilling everything down to one photo or one scene that you photograph.”

In his own view, Hicks’s contribution was to create the iconic picture that shows us the essence of what occurred on his watch. But for some others, his purpose should have been to create a balanced photographic reportage that would tell the entire story in pictures. Criticism has been leveled against the alleged partiality of his pictures, and to the New York Times for choosing biased photographs. Hicks, so goes the argument, failed to photograph any Hamas combatants that might illustrate the motivation for an attack that caused an unintended massacre on a beach. The argument makes grand claims about photography’s seemingly limitless power.

A more legitimate complaint, if it is that, might follow from photography’s limitations: because photography shows only the visible, photographs can be coopted precisely by the people who make the first complaint. Any child killed violently in Gaza is an affront to morality. But to whose morality? For one speaker, an opponent of the Israeli strikes, the child shows the ruthlessness of an Israeli military that kills civilians indiscriminately or even viciously. To another, who supports the strikes, the child represents a Hamas public-relations coup. One argument goes: Every dead child discredits the Israeli army and thus helps Hamas’s cause. Therefore they use such children as human shields, launching their weapons from their midst. For what it is worth, Hicks’s own account of the process resembles the Israeli government’s account of the civilian killings, according to which the Hamas’s fighters are invisible: Hamas does not distinguish them through uniforms, and it launches its rockets from within the civilian populations who then become targets. In part, this argument is a response to the criticisms about his partiality, mentioned above. He knows that most people looking at this picture will blame Israel and its army for this death.

Even if the evidence for one or another view were in the picture, few people could look at it long enough for more than the simple fact of the horrific act to register. Even if they share the photograph or join in the outcry against the bombardment, they will nevertheless turn the page, click on the next photograph, and try to put it out of their mind.

Another complaint with some legitimacy is that the very artistry of such photographs paints the people in them only as victims. They seem to be passive and nameless. Our right to see this child’s suffering is legitimized by the fact that this one child stands for other children. To show his suffering to others may help end the situation, once the right words manage to tie the picture to a convincing argument for the cause and the solution. If Hicks is right, this child’s image could help end this war, as still images once helped end America’s war in Vietnam. Moreover, the picture will stand not (only) for the child who is its subject, not (only) for all Palestinian children killed in this war, but for all children killed in all wars, for a long time to come.

For the record, I find that civilian deaths rather than photographs of them are doing a good job of discrediting the army and the Israeli government, but I do hope that the photographs help to put an end to this war – or to make permanent the ending that at this writing seems to be in the works. I am sorry if the photographs also help Hamas.  There are, however, other ways in which photographs are being deployed in Gaza, which I will hope to discuss in my next post.

text © 2014 Margaret Olin

 

 

 

 

A lovely day in South Hebron: first story

7 June, 2014, Umm al Amad

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watching a shepherd tend his flock

 

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It is a pleasure to be here . . .

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and were we not here, there would be no grazing

 

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because of these houses.

 

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To keep their land, Palestinian shepherds must graze their sheep close to the settlement.

Otherwise, the land is abandoned and free for the taking.

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But the shepherd refuses to move closer.

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He has already moved his flock close enough to see the settlement,

far closer than when the Ta’ayush volunteers first came two years ago.

 

 

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He cannot be persuaded to advance further this week.

 

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All photographs and texts © 2014 Margaret Olin.