North Africa, West Asia

Photojournalism in the Palestinian Territories

Young photographers are risking their lives to show the outside world the reality of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, challenging military hegemony. Where mainstream media has lagged behind, social media has stepped in.

Liam Brown
14 February 2014
Demotix/Majdi Fathi. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Majdi Fathi. All rights reserved.

Photographers have featured prominently in the wave of new media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Their work informs the struggle over narratives and the images and stories that underpin them. For many years the dominant narrative was that of Israelis and the Palestinians were rendered invisible. This has been changing though. A considerable deal of this change is due to the use of social media to show the outside world the reality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Previously, photography was far too expensive a profession for many to enter but in recent years cheap cameras, many coming to the Palestinian market second-hand from Israel, have led to an increase in the number of young people becoming involved. Many young people not affiliated with either of the two major parties in Palestine have begun documenting life under occupation. Some of them as activist-photographers and others as professional photojournalists.

Ramallah-based photographer Haroun Abu Arrah began taking photos with an old camera when he was just 9 years old and knew even then that photography was for him. Sitting in Ramallah Café, in Ramallah’s old city, he tells me: “I always felt that I wanted to do it” he says, “I was not looking to get popular”. Haroun, a student of Juliano Mer-Khamis at the Jenin Freedom Theatre says, “social media, especially Facebook, has become the main window outside to the world” he says, “If you test the idea you have on facebook you will find people like it or they don’t like it.” 

Abu Arrah previously lived abroad in Norway for three years and remarks that the media’s inaccurate coverage of the conflict spurred him to show the world the truth. “The things I was hearing in the news were completely fake, were completely disgusting” he says, “They were distorting the reality and destroying the truth”. This isn’t limited to the international press. Haroun extends this to the Israeli and Palestinian Authority’s media, “They’re both wrong and nobody is hearing the voice of the street, and the reality, except those people who are visiting”.

Arrah is one of many young Palestinian photographers who document the demonstrations and political actions that take place in Palestine each week. However, Arrah stresses the importance of documenting everyday life, not just demonstrations and political events. “I want to make a film made from photos, called ‘an ordinary day’” he says, “I want to start it from when somebody is waking up, going to the bathroom, brushing his teeth, getting ready, going outside, going from Jenin to Ramallah, facing the checkpoints, getting the phone call from his family telling him his brother has been arrested, getting the phone call saying his friend has been killed. I want people to follow of all this.”

Gaza-based 26-year-old Eman Mohammed began her career as a photojournalist at just 19. She says there is great importance in showing the everyday life of people that isn’t found in the usual headlines. Eman documented the life of the Khaderis family in Gaza over the course of two years. Theirs was a story that ‘summarized the whole Palestinian-Israeli conflict’, she says. The family’s home had been dynamited by the IDF during the 2008-9 war and instead of leaving the place where they had lived for many years the family lived amongst the rubble, raised their children there and kept a flock of birds. Eman documented their story, ‘it is a very bitter-sweet story’. 

Like Haroun, Eman has found social media helpful for distributing her work as well. “I got my first Washington Post assignment through Facebook, which is hilarious I know”. But it can be a double-edged sword she says, because nearly anybody can claim to be a photojournalist. “When everybody with a website calls themselves a professional photojournalists people do not take you as seriously”. Still, the exposure has helped her get her work published. She is now currently in the United States preparing for a TED talk about photojournalism and war, as part of her current project entitled iWar.

Eman has also won acclaim internationally for her work, though she had never expected that her photos would reach such a wide audience. Over the years there has been a growing interest in photojournalism from Palestine - a change that Eman says occurred around the time of the Israeli assault on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-9. “Before they [international news wires] were like ‘yeah, we might want to see that. That might be interesting’. But after that they became the ones who ask ‘can we see this? Can we see that? We want to know more about this!” Eman is not alone. All of the photographers I spoke with, some on the condition of anonymity, said that they had seen a growth in interest in their work in recent years.

Barriers still remain though. In a conservative society like Gaza’s Eman has faced obstacles to her participation as a female photojournalist. “In Gaza it is considered very shameful to be a female photographer” adding “it is the opposite of anything honorable” and that “people look down on female photojournalists”. The profession is still seen by many as a male profession despite a long history of female photographers in Palestine stretching back to the Ottoman era. This is in part because of the conservative attitudes some men hold towards women working but also importantly because, as Eman explains to me, “As a profession it is known to be violent, it is known to be around wars, invasions, air strikes, and stuff like that”.

The danger is very real for photojournalists in Gaza and activist photographers in the West Bank alike. Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike have come under fire from the military at protests. Abu Arrah says that IDF soldiers have intimidated him. “Once I went to a protest and a soldier threatened to shoot me if I didn’t leave”. Other photographers have told of the harassment they face. Their experience hasn’t gone unnoticed by press bodies such as Reporters Without Borders, who have documented and condemned the attacks.

In April last year, 23-year old photographer Mohammad al-Azza was shot in the face with a rubber-coated steel bullet by Israeli soldiers who were entering the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, where he lives. The bullet passed through his cheek below his right eye and fractured his skull. He has now made a full recovery though and continues to work undeterred by the incident. 

Al-Azza’s photography has featured prominently on social media, and at the age of just 23 he has won numerous awards for his photography. He began photography as a teenager when the Lajee Centre in Aida refugee camp distributed cameras to its children and asked them to photograph scenes from their lives. Although largely self-taught himself, he now teaches local youth how to do photography and has organized exhibitions of their work in the camp and overseas. Al-Azza’s own exhibitions overseas in countries such as France and Belgium have also been well received. He is one of the increasing number of photographers who are presenting the outside world with a exhibition display of life in their homeland.

Al-Azza was equally disillusioned about the mainstream media coverage of the situation as Abu Arrah. “When the news media come here come to talk about the camp they come for a few minutes, film, and then go. The media come and then they leave.” The alternative was to document things himself,  “when I was doing media I wanted to film everything.”

He is also one of the many activist photographers using Facebook as a platform to self-publish. “I use facebook because it is under your control. There are many ways to make facebook for our side. Many people saw my pictures and heard about what was going on.”

It has also proven to be an important way of communicating with activists in other refugee camps. Some years ago youth in the Aida camp staged a protest against the wall surrounding the camp, which saw them set fire to tires in front of the wall and knock a hole through it before being dispersed by a group of soldiers. “The pictures I took of them burning the tower I put them on Facebook and one-by-one they [other local activists] started sharing. It became public. Other people started doing the same across Palestine and so we could can learn from one another what we can do.” 

Despite being routinely targeted by the military, Al-Azza continues his work. He isn’t the only one to recognize the ability of photography to challenge military hegemony. During the Second Intifada photographers captured the spotlight and broadcast images to the world that the mainstream media neglected, and in doing so saved lives. “They [photographers] become heroes…cameras save lives”, Abu Arrah says. “If we didn’t have cameras and photographers during the second Intifada we could have lost more people.” This is because soldiers become conscious of their actions when they know they are being watched. “If you’re alone and you’re destroying a place you will destroy everything. But if somebody is watching you, you will feel guilty and stop.”

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