Dheshieh refugee camp, Bethlehem, 2003
There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here
And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here
—Phil Oches, “When I’m Gone”
Why go to Palestine-Israel?
I will travel first as a witness, a presence in the Holy Land (of many and diverse peoples), shoulder to shoulder with those oppressed and fearful. Secondly I will travel as a photographer, concentrating on my impressions on this first journey. I intend that my photography will help build bridges between afflicted and privileged populations, opening eyes and hearts of people who might otherwise never understand the suffering shared by so many in this world. My photos will serve as evidence of deep wrongs and misguided policies and as an incentive for transformation.
With an open heart, striving to listen to many versions of stories, absorb multiple realities, and understand histories interwoven and variously interpreted, I’d situate myself squarely at what many observers feel is one flash point of our millennium—not Iraq (tho close) but the crucible of several major civilizations and religions, swirling with the volatile chemicals of violence and despair.
In a time and place when criticism of the Israeli state is often seen as anti-Semitism, my role as observer and participant—with camera—would be to bring to the United States aspects of a tragically under-reported situation. I’d address alleged media bias, join with residents of the Holy Land who’ve been overwhelmed by oppression and fear to tell their stories, link with international observers who’ve been discounted in the US media, and try to look squarely, candidly, and honestly at a complicated picture.
For years, since a child growing up Catholic, loving the story of Jesus, enthralled by his life, his message, I’ve sought to walk a journey that might help me retrace his footsteps—the Mount of Olives, the Place of the Skull or Gethsemane, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Judean wilderness desert, Mt Zion, and perhaps the exact spot of his Sermon on the Mount, if he ever gave it and if he gave it while on high. How does antiquity—the lineage of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, such a curious intersection—line up with the contemporary?
Add to this motive and question the desire to share in some small way the suffering of the people in that harried land, Jews and Palestinians alike. To stand for hours at a checkpoint, at the whim of young soldiers who might also be bored and frightened. To sleep in a house that might be bulldozed as I dream. To touch the new Apartheid Wall. To ride a bus perhaps with a bomb-laden young person intent on killing the maximum number of Jews. To meet terrified human beings on various sides of the conflict. To see for myself how love turns sour, truth to deceit, promise to failure, good to evil. And to resist that evil in my minuscule way with camera and film, eyes and ears.
What photos would I make?
Photos that show suffering. That show hope. That show evil and good. That portray the beauty of the land and the people. That tread delicately the line between horror and beauty, remembering that Dostoevsky claimed beauty will save the world.
How much risk am I willing to undertake?
Perhaps minimal, mere deprivation for a limited period. Perhaps modest, the possibility of injury. Perhaps maximal, losing my life. I don’t know, wouldn’t know until in place, facing the danger.
Behind some of my thinking about this project lies an uncomfortable regret: I chose not to participate in the Freedom Movement in the US during the 1960s. I was the right age, had a useful background, could offer tangible benefits, but was too busy, too confused, and too scared to join the struggle. Whether my choice was correct or not, I’ll never know. But I regret my timidity, and find that much of what I do now is an attempt to overcome and reverse that regret.
Countering that motive—regret and guilt—is faith. I believe I can get to Palestine and Israel, dig into the complex situation there with an open heart, and make photographs that will help others understand the dynamics. Faith was a great gift of the Civil Rights Movement to me, made more real by my participation in the tumultuous 12 months of the Middle Passage Pilgrimage in 1998 and 1999. From black people—perhaps some were descendants of movement activists, all were descendants of survivors of slavery—I learned more about faith: how to believe when the evidence indicates otherwise.
I must confess, I am moving into a new stage of life: an elder. Good years behind me—family, friends, communities, careers. Not so many years in front of me—I’m 62 [in 2003], feeling new aches, facing new worries both personal and societal, and feel myself less attached to maintaining my personal existence, a comfortable, safe existence. Consequently, I am more ready to dive into the pits and thrash the good fight for life and love and hope and goodness.
Thus, my plan to go for a walk, to the Holy Land, camera in hand.
Faith—and the camera—is a flashlight helping us to peer into the darkness. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it in his speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City:
Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world…Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them [oppressed persons] the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must chose in this crucial moment of human history.