Perspective Is Everything

From 1891 until 1948 the Jerusalem photographer Chalil Raad documented Palestinian society of the time as well as Zionist land settlement. An exhibition of his work, now on view at Tel Aviv's Nachum Gutman Museum, shows the paradoxes of his work

Dana Schweppe
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Dana Schweppe

In the first season of the television series "Mad Men," the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency receives the Israeli Tourism Ministry account. Don Draper and his staff are asked to transform Haifa into an attractive tourist destination. "If Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East," they are told, "we'd like Haifa to be the Rome."

From the outset, Israelis were less disturbed by the country's appearance than by how it looked to others. The aesthetic potential was clear since the period of the First Aliyah (the mass influx of Jewish immigrants from 1882-1903 ): It could look like an exotic biblical land, like a wonderful wasteland, like a ripe fruit waiting to be picked. All that was needed was the right lens. This was the prevailing mentality when Chalil Raad (whose first name is often given as Khalil ) first picked up a camera and learned to use it. The idea was to photograph Eretz Yisrael not as it was, with its vibrant Palestinian towns and villages, but as the West world wanted to see it: mostly empty and available for the conquering.

"Ruth the Gleaner." Biblically inspired Orientalism.Credit: Chalil Raad

The Lebanese-born Raad is considered the first Palestinian photographer, or at least the first whose work has survived and gained exposure. He was active for nearly 60 years, from 1891 to 1948, but he and his work remained unknown.

The photography curator Rona Sela first encountered Raad's work 10 years ago, while gathering material for her book, "Photography in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s" (in Hebrew ), which dealt with the two narratives of local photography, that of Jews and that of Arabs. Some of Raad's images appeared in the accompanying exhibition, at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, but Sela did not stop there. She continued her research into his work, poring through archives and collections and conducting years of correspondence with relatives (including Raad's son, who lives in the United States ), institutions and scholars. Gradually she put the puzzle pieces together, into a portrait of Raad as a man and as a photographer, and collected more than 1,000 of his photographs.

Chalil Raad's photo titled The Seller of Bread.
Photographer Chalil Raad and his family.
Chalil Raad's photo of Tel Aviv port, late 1930s.
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Chalil Raad's photo titled The Seller of Bread.Credit: Chalil Raad
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Photographer Chalil Raad and his family.
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Chalil Raad's photo of Tel Aviv port, late 1930s.Credit: Chalil Raad
Chalil Raad photos of pre-1948 Israel

Sela completed her research a few months ago. The results will be on display until October 2 at the Gutman Museum of Art in Tel Aviv. The exhibition catalog (in Hebrew ) includes includes articles about Raad's life and work in addition to reproductions of his photographs.

"The Zionist and Palestinian narratives exist in parallel but do not converge into a dialogue," Sela says. "The photographs tell about two different places that do not interface, even though this is one small country. Each side describes its own fantastical reality." What sets Raad apart, Sela says, is that his work incorporates both narratives.

Chalil Raad was born into a Christian family in the Lebanese town of Bhamdoun in 1869. After the death of his father, Anis Raad, his mother sent him to study at the Jerusalem monastery school where his uncle taught. It was in Jerusalem that Raad met the Armenian photographer Garabed Krikorian, who took him on as a photography student and apprentice.

Krikorian opened a studio outside the walls of the Old City in 1885. In 1895 Raad opened his own studio, directly across from that of his teacher. In 1890 Raad went to Basel, Switzerland, where he studied photography and steeped himself in Western culture. In a later visit to the city, just before World War I, he met Annie Muller, a photographer's assistant. After the war they wed and settled in Jerusalem, where their children, Ruth and George, were born.

The family lived in Talbieh, then an Arab neighborhood, where they owned land and were considered part of the local elite. Raad was evidently a social animal, with many friends and acquaintances, who was so involved in the life of the community that he was dubbed "the mukhtar of Talbieh." In around 1900 he was appointed "photographer to the Kingdom of Prussia," which gave him diplomatic immunity and mobility. He traveled throughout the region, taking photographs in Egypt, Beirut, Damascus and Transjordan. Raad's knowledge of languages - English, German and Turkish, in addition to Arabic - facilitated his work. Years later he was invited to take photographs for the Turkish army.

Raad was highly educated, Sela says. "He was an expert in the history of the region, knew the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible and through them the history of the country. He photographed a great deal of archaeology and it is plain from the captions he gave his photographs that he knew exactly what happened and where. He was informed and had broad horizons, though I think he was an autodidact."

In 1899, four years after opening his studio, he published an ad in the Hebrew newspaper Havatzelet: "It is hereby announced and made known: Anyone desiring photographic pictures of all kinds, most elegant but at reasonable prices, should apply to the undersigned, and I am ready at any time to fulfill the wish of all applicants in the best possible way! Chalil Raad. My workshop is outside the [Old] city, next to Howard's Hotel in the establishment of the bookbinder Reb Leib Kahana from Safed."

Raad was in fact at the center of the photography world of the period. "Much of the work of the time passed through his hands," Sela says. "For example, many visiting delegations used his services, and his work was in books about Palestine published in Germany, England and the United States. Many photographers were aided by him, including the Jewish photographer and artist Ephraim Moshe Lilien. I found a letter from Lilien to his wife in which he writes, 'Photographing all day in Jerusalem and in the evening I go to Chalil Raad to develop plates.' He was very well connected, was located on a main street and people came constantly to hire his services," Sela relates.

When Raad launched his career, the most common local photography genre was Western-colonial. In the late 19th century many scientists, government officials, writers, painters and photographers came to the Holy Land as scholars or as sightseers. The Western world's acquaintance with Palestine at the time was refracted through the prism of the Scriptures. The image was of a land frozen in time for 2,000 years, where nothing changed and people lived as they did during King David's reign. "The Great Powers had interests here," Sela notes. "Israel is located at a very significant geographical nexus and they wanted to conquer it. The colonial agenda is reflected in books and paintings and also in photographs from the period," Sela says.

"Photojournalism started after photography was introduced to Palestine in the late nineteenth century by the British who undertook the first archaeological excavations in the Holy Land and tried to document their findings and the areas they investigated by pictures," Iqbal Tamimi wrote on aljazeera.com in February 2009. "The British were followed by the Germans, and eventually by the Americans. Photography was introduced by people who came searching for evidence about biblical subjects and connections. Some elder Palestinians claimed that these excavations were part of a planned agenda to pave the way for the Jews to occupy Palestine well ahead the Nazi's aggression on the European Jews."

Sela believes the Zionists adopted a similar photographic approach, of portraying Palestine as empty, ruined, barren and waiting for the Zionist redemption. But there was another, critical component of Jewish-Zionist photography: the pioneer who was bent on redeeming the soil. "The photographs are always very idyllic," Sela says. "The Jew is very happy as he sets about realizing the Zionist idea. Palestinians were rarely seen in these photographs, and if they were it was to serve the idea in a paradoxical way: They are there to assist the new Jewish community and to benefit from the modern way of life the Jews introduced. Jewish photography documented the tilling of the soil, the 'conquest of the land,' building, the tower and stockade settlements, celebrations. The photographs were perfect and beautiful. They did not show the difficulties and the suffering - after all, people had left their home countries and had problems of language, of acclimatization, of hard physical labor. The happy images were marketed as posters, postcards and stamps both here and abroad."

Raad, too, "transgressed" by depicting the country from a viewpoint that Edward Said would decades later term "Orientalism." He photographed a young Palestinian woman working in a field and titled the result "Ruth the Gleaner"; an Arab in a kaffiyeh evokes the New Testament parable of the prodigal son; and three Palestinians next to a tree are said to be at Gilgal, where the manna ceased to fall. But Raad went beyond the photographic mainstream. He was the first photographer who created an Arab-Palestinian identity by photographing both the Arab community and the rich local life. He photographed the society in which he lived - villages and cities, commerce and industry, agriculture and family life - and informed it with a presence that had never before been reflected in photography.

"I'm not sure he was aware of what he was doing," Sela says. "Palestinian photography bore no political awareness and was not channeled into a particular agenda, as Western photography was. Raad was more a photographer of individuals and produced social photography of everyday life." According to Sela, this dualism in Raad's work - the influence of colonial photography and the way the Palestinians are given a presence in his work - makes his photographs riveting. "He was a believing Christian who was raised on the New Testament," Sela adds. "He did not work in a vacuum; the photography he knew was the colonial photography. He also took commercial considerations into account, realizing that this genre sold well in the West." She rejects the suggestion that Raad was a kind of double agent, who left room for two viewpoints in his work. "Although he had Western influences, his identity was distinctly Palestinian and consolidated. He lived amid the Palestinian elite and gave this marvelous expression, including visual expression."

The political significance of his work, even in retrospect, is subtle. Primarily it lies in the fact that he gave concrete expression to the Arab community and offered an alternative to colonial and Zionist photography. An example is "Picking Oranges," in which this super-Zionist image is restored to its legal owners. (Even the boys' hats recall the kova tembel, almost turning them into the Arab version of the iconic cartoon character Srulik, the epitome of the native-born Israeli sabra ). Raad's photographs chronicle the development of the towns and villages, of the local agriculture, and show the Palestinians' strong bond with the land. He also took many photographs of family life, social events and tradesmen (such as a skinner and a lemonade seller ).

There is also a very impressive series of studio portraits in which he glorified his subjects, shooting from below in order to vest them with strength and power. In some of his portraits of women there is a clear nod to Vermeer, attesting to Raad's broad education. "He contributed a great deal to the construction of a Palestinian language of photography," Sela says. "He has a personal signature. His importance lies both in aesthetics and in content, both in formalism and in essence."

Some images have a distinctly political cast, such as those documenting opposition to the Balfour Declaration. These are relatively rare, however, and do not typify his oeuvre. "His rebellion is quiet," Sela says, "and takes the form of giving expression to the banal elements of everyday life. His resistance is precisely through the banality, by showing the strength and power of the Palestinian entity that existed here. Not in the form of disturbances but in normal life."

Raad's main significance today is in the historical revision he offers, Sela says. "This is a collection of images that is not very familiar to either Israelis or Palestinians. The exhibition makes it possible for Palestinians to return this collection of images to their collective memory."

Raad discriminated against no one, capturing both the Arab community and the Yishuv, as the Jewish population prior to 1948 is known. He did not ignore the people who settled next to him, even if they ignored him, documenting mainly the architectural and industrial development of the Jewish society: the port of Tel Aviv, laboratories in what is today the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Dead Sea Works.

Raad was very orderly, captioning every photograph and recording all of them in a numbered catalog (included in full in the book accompanying the exhibition ). Following the practice of the time, however, they were not dated or placed in chronological order. Sela says a ballpark dating of each photograph is possible, but suggestes that Raad's body of work must be viewed "in a general, comprehensive manner, rather in a chronological or developmental way."

Raad's work came to an abrupt halt in 1948. A few days before the end of the British Mandate he fled to Jericho with his family. They were prevented from returning to their home in Talbieh, which remained in Israeli territory, and moved to Lebanon, where Raad died in 1957. He did not resume photography after his forced exile, whether due to his advanced age or due to the fact that his equipment was left behind in his Jerusalem studio, to be plundered by soldiers and passersby.

An Italian friend who worked in a nearby bookstore rescued Raad's archive of negatives. During a lull in the fighting he slipped into Raad's darkroom and brought what he found there to Raad's daughter, Ruth, who donated the archive to the Beirut-based Institute of Palestinian Studies.

"What was most important for me to achieve in this research," Sela says by way of summing up, "was to restore Raad's photographs to the collective consciousness and through them to reopen the discussion about Palestinian life in Israel."

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