Worth a Thousand Words: Photos Highlight Victims' View of Gaza War

This week's Solidarity Festival in Jaffa will feature an exhibition of unusual photos by the anti-establishment Activestills collective of the 2014 operation.

Anne Paq / Activestills

For the past 10 years photographer Keren Manor has been documenting injustices in the occupied territories and in Israel from the victims’ point of view. Even after being wounded in the leg by a rubber bullet fired by a soldier during a 2008 demonstration in the Palestinian village of Na’alin, Manor did not abandon her dangerous mission.

Together with members of Activestills, the photographers’ collective that she helped to create, she continues to breathe tear gas, to be beaten and arrested, to risk her life and to take pictures constantly.

Beginning Thursday (April 30), the Jaffa Theater will host an exhibition of photos by members of the collective, entitled “Summer 2014,” as part of its Solidarity Festival – an event that focuses on activism and human rights, running through May 3 and featuring films, political theater performances and discussions.

The name of the photo show says it all: It's about the Israel Defense Forces' Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip last summer. The angles from which the photos are shot are unique: Most were taken inside Gaza itself by members of the collective, including Palestinian photographer Basel Yazouri and French photographer Anne Paq. Their photos reflect the tremendous destruction caused by the war, the death and despair, in images barely seen in local media during the operation, and certainly not since.

In addition, Activestills members who were in Israel proper at the time will be displaying pictures of anti-war demonstrations – another subject that was not emphasized in the media then – as well as of rocket and missile barrages aimed at the southern part of the country.

“The objective," says Manor, "is for the first time to bring photos from Gaza to Tel Aviv. I think that the horror and the destruction there are very powerful and are expressed in the photos. The media also ignored the anti-war protest and participated in [supporting] the 'national effort' – in the belief that during wartime we have to be united. This voice was aggressively silenced by the public and the media.

Injured Gazan girl by Activestills' member Basel Yazouri, June 2014.

“Our photographers went through a difficult period. Not only were they in a hermetically sealed area that was constantly shelled [in Gaza]; they walked around all day among the dead, among the ruins. Basel is still there for lack of choice. I don’t think any of us can imagine what it’s like to live in such a place for so long. It’s very depressing for young people with dreams and desires who want a chance for freedom and choice about their lives.”

Manor, 37, and three others – Yotam Ronen, Oren Ziv and Eduardo Soteras – often used to meet and take pictures together at demonstrations against the separation barrier in the Palestinian village of Bil’in in 2005, when Manor was studying photography. She says she was very influenced by her teacher, veteran photographer Miki Kratsman, also a member of the collective.

Manor: “There was no media outlet that wanted to publicize what we wanted to publicize. So we decided to create an alternative and direct channel in order to reach people.”

Their objective, she adds, is “to use photography as a tool to create awareness of certain subjects and to support struggles of which we feel a part, in the belief that a photographer can help raise people's consciousness or tell stories that aren’t necessarily told.”

Taking it to the street

The first project undertaken by Activestills – which now includes 10 photographers including Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners alike – was an exhibition mounted in the streets of Tel Aviv in 2007, focusing on Bil’in’s residents.

The ruins of buildings in Gaza. Photo by Anne Paq

“We wanted to bring Bil’in to a place where people don’t necessarily want to see it. Although Tel Aviv is only half an hour from Bil’in the distance is very great. Street exhibitions are part of our attempt to find direct and independent ways to reach the public, bypassing the media,” Manor notes.

The collective’s members also document other social struggles in the country: of the Bedouin seeking government recognition of their villages, the battles for public housing, women’s rights and animal rights, and the plight of African refugees.

“We see ourselves as part of the struggles against oppression, discrimination or exclusion of various populations. We find a common denominator, the oppression, which is hurting weaker or non-Jewish populations here. Each of us photographs things close to his heart. I personally prefer small stories about the daily reality of people who live with discrimination, oppression and despair.”

What is actually the difference between members of Activestills and other press photographers?

A demonstration in Haifa against the Gaza war, July 2014. Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh / Activestills

Manor: “We don’t have editors sending us out. We document things depending on our own motives. Nor do editors decide how to use the pictures or what captions to write. We also keep in contact with the people and the communities. We won’t just take photos and continue on our way. We often return to the same places and follow up what happened to the people.”

The members make their living from independent photography ventures, rather than their work with Activestills; some work in the established media despite tension that may arise with their colleagues there.

“We’re often accused of lack of objectivity," says Manor. "We don’t believe there is such a thing [as objectivity]. You have to realize that the media are motivated by political considerations. We’re aware of how our photos are used, that’s part of our agenda and not something we hide.”

Did your enhanced political awareness develop because of your photography?

Palestinian photographers in Nablus show solidarity with their colleagues in Gaza, July 2014. Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh / Activestills

“I’ve been taking pictures since I was 14. I was always attracted by documentary photography, of the environment, people, places. Until 2005 I was mainstream, didn’t ask many questions. I thought I was a leftist but I didn’t really have any idea what was going on. I first came to the territories in 2005 with my camera... I think that both I and my camera underwent this process together and simultaneously. Naturally, as a photographer, in order to show things you have to see them first. The more I walked around the more I saw with my own eyes. My insight and understanding of things that repeat themselves, of pain, became sharper."

Does anyone try to stop you from taking pictures?

“Absolutely. We’ve all been wounded, arrested, or both. At demonstrations I see the soldiers or police are aiming at us deliberately. They want to silence us if we endanger their ideology, if they think we’ll change people’s minds. But the photographers aren’t the victims here. I’m still aware of my privileges; I don’t want to describe what goes on as though we’re the ones suffering from this situation. We are not the story.”