Photojournalism has been catapulted into a place of honor in the art world in recent decades, with photojournalists exhibiting their work in prominent galleries and museums throughout the world.
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In Israel, photojournalism has sometimes assumed a life and death quality. This is not just because many photojournalists risk their lives when they take their camera into areas of conflict, but also because the PR war between Palestinians and Israelis has become a critical issue in and of itself.
While the country’s Jews are quick to pronounce Israel’s public relations efforts a failure, and are convinced that the world sees only the Palestinian position and images from the “other side,” many Palestinian believe the truth is just the opposite: It’s Israel’s position that is largely accepted worldwide, they think, thanks to the sounds and images emanating from the Jewish state. In an effort to tilt the balance, several young talented Palestinian photographers have been publishing their images in the local and international press, mounting exhibitions and publishing books of their work. They also try to reach a wider audience by uploading their photographs to social media.
One member of this new generation is Hamde Abu Rahma, a Palestinian photographer from Ramallah, who recently published his first book of photographs, entitled “Roots Run Deep: Life in Occupied Palestine.” Abu Rahma is not only a photojournalist, but also a social and political activist. He was born in the village of Bil’in, which has been in the news regularly because of the demonstrations held there against the construction of the nearby separation barrier. When his cousin Bassem was killed during a demonstration in 2009, after being hit by a tear gas cannister fired by a soldier, Abu Rahma decided to become a photojournalist to document Palestinians’ day-to-day struggle against the occupation.
Santa at Bil'in
The photographs in Abu Rahma’s book have a poetic element: a tear trickling down the cheek of a frightened Palestinian girl, an improvised shack leaning on the separation fence, and nearby a Palestinian boy and a dog with missing limbs, or activists wearing Santa Claus suits demonstrating in Bil’in near the fence. But hardest of all to see are the images from Gaza that Abu Rahma uploaded to Facebook, the likes of which can be seen only on Al Jazeera and on the Arab television channels: babies with terrible wounds, mutilated corpses of children, a funeral procession in which the bodies of the small children are carried away. These are photographs that are difficult, if not unbearable, for any human being to see.
Another impressive and talented Palestinian photojournalist is 26-year-old Eman Mohammed, who was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in Gaza where she still lives. She began working as a photojournalist when she was 19, documenting the daily lives of Palestinians in Gaza. Among her big projects, she documented a Palestinian family from Gaza whose home was demolished by the Israeli army during Operation Cast Lead. The family continued living in the ruins, refusing to move to alternative housing. Since then, Mohammed has won several photography prizes and her work has been published in major newspapers all over the world, including The Guardian, Le Monde, The Washington Post, Haaretz and many periodicals. Her photographs have also been displayed in exhibitions in New York, London, Montreal, Dubai, Iran, Jordan and even in Tel Aviv and on Kibbutz Be’eri.
Recently, she has been working on two other photography projects, one entitled “Diaspora” and the other, “iWar.” She was recently asked to exhibit her work at the British Museum in London, and was chosen as a member of TED, an organization devoted to spreading worthy ideas, for which she will soon be giving a lecture about war and photography.
Like Abu Rahma, Mohammed sees social networks as an important platform for her photographs. This is not only because she got her first assignment at the Washington Post through Facebook, but because the social networks provide wide circulation and the possibility of reaching many more people. In an interview on the Open Democracy website she said that it is no coincidence that people have been showing more interest in photojournalism these days and are interested in seeing more material from Gaza. Mohammed believes that this interest began with the earlier Gaza offensive, Operation Cast Lead in December 2008.
Mohammed allows herself to upload photographs that make for much harder viewing than the ones shown on television networks or in the international press. While her photographs are much gentler than those of Abu Rahma, they also contain images of corpses, wounded or dead babies, animals killed in bombardments and a great deal of devastation and pain. Like Abu Rahma, Mohammed also uploaded the photo of Israeli soldier David Ovadia, who bragged on social media that he had killed 13 Palestinian children and promised the rest of the Muslims a similar fate.
Both these photographers illustrate the numbers that have become meaningless and amorphous for most of us: 1,700 fatalities, 9,000 wounded, more than 300,000 new refugees. But the question is not what the Palestinians wish to show us and the rest of the world. The question is what we are willing to see. The impression that arises from most television war coverage is that there are things that both sides prefer to ignore. We are dealing with our own pain, says each side, and we do not care about the pain of the other – certainly not now, when we are still burying our dead.
As the cannons, rocket launchers and fighter jets roar, each side finds it convenient to denigrate and smear the other. For Palestinians it seems obvious that they have the right to do as they please in order to gain national freedom. For Israelis, it seems clear that Israel has the right to do whatever is necessary to defend its inhabitants. The important question is whether once the battles are over, each side can look the other, and itself, in the eye – since seeing and recognizing the suffering of the other will always turn the observer’s glance toward himself ... and sometimes that is very hard to bear.