Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
August 14, 2009, Friday, Gaza City, The Gaza Strip, my apartment:
Another dream about Y, in a comparatively long series of dreams about her: with a small group of about 6 close friends of hers, we gathered around her to chant namu’s, the Buddhist chant that we’ve long shared. She needed them for some reason, I led the effort, she was grateful.
Big day photographing: the Popular Achievement (PA) festival, marking the completion of its 6th cycle. It differed markedly from the one in the West Bank—no exhibits, only one performance (dabka), much shorter, and with a very good video that I’d like to purchase for showing in the States. This video depicted the recent violence, embedding PA in this mesh of suffering. It featured interviews with participants, both coaches, students, and a few parents, one, for instance, talking bout how inspiring it was for his daughter. I have the feeling—and this might be self-serving—that PA is growing in importance in the Gaza Strip, more widely recognized, acknowledged, appreciated.
Photoing it was tricky. My students had limited access—banned from the stage, from the front of the audience, only allowed in the corners and at the sides. Plus they have rudimentary equipment. Ibrahem granted me full rights as an official photographer of the event, including mounting the stage and walking in front of the audience. I’d brought my heavy equipment for students to see and if interested use. I showed it, explained a little about some of it, but none chose to try it.
The lighting was difficult—too dark for the audience, too much brightness range between audience and stage. So I have no idea how much my students were able to photograph and learn, since learning was the main purpose of this exercise. Several commented when leaving that they found the experience valuable. When we meet next Tuesday we’ll see up to 5 prints from each, plus run thru memory cards projected onto the screen, all this in addition to the assignment, show beauty.
My telephoto lens helped enormously, as did the normal (which does not seem quite normal in its view, more a short telephoto like 80 mm), the wide performed its magic, I never used the normal zoom or the big flash.
As with the Ramallah festival, exuberance zapped thru the atmosphere. Much excitement. Many families attended and so when I thought I’d finished, numerous folks called me to their grouping or family for a portrait. Many chose to stand in front of the large photo of Jerusalem on the back of the stage. Only belatedly did I realize this was what they wanted highlighted. This was wearying but maybe I provided a small service.
The way I work photographically, usually, is to observe a scene long enough to begin thinking of photos I could make. Where to put myself, what to include, exclude, how to light it, when to trigger the exposure, a combination of intuition and strategy. At times I feel I can visualize the image—as if writing a script or storyboard—and then have to implement the vision.
I hounded poor Amal, over and over again photographing her, not only because she is one of the most important persons in PA, being the director, but because of her natural radiance. Her expression is often powerful, a mixture of benevolence and anxiety, serenity and turmoil. When she noticed me she planted a happy smile, I waited for it to change.
Ibrahem Shatalil (L), Mosab Abu Dagga (C), Amal Sabawi (R)
Women sat on one side, men on the other, with a few rebels mixing. The PA staff all dressed formally, suits (hot and humid suits) for the men, fancy clothing for Amal. This is much different from the West Bank. Nearly all women were covered. Being an outsider from a relatively liberal background and having an iconoclastic nature (so I pride myself) I cannot begin to imagine what all the social mixing in PA means to Gazans. Do many oppose it? What does Hamas think?
I heard my name mentioned by speakers, many eyes shifted toward me, I was briefly honored several times. I smiled and waved. At one point I began preparing a short speech, a few remarks, in case Amal called on me to speak. She didn’t. Here’s a sketch of what I might have said:
Here I am again in Gaza, a stranger among friends. People back home in the US often ask me, Skip, Gaza again, why Gaza? Are you slightly crazy? What draws you? Can’t you find a safer place to visit? Got a death wish, old boy?
Initially my Quaker connection drew me. My core religious community is Quaker, I work with the American Friends Service Committee which is the sponsoring organization of the Quaker Palestine Youth Program, and so when I heard about contemporary Quaker work in Gaza I wanted to learn about it. (I recalled that Quakers were here in 1947 helping with what they thought was resettlement of refugees. After one year, when they realized no one would be resettled but made into permanent refugees, they painfully left, turning the operation over to the UN.) Then I met Ibrahem and I was hooked. Those of you who know Ibrahem know what sort of person he is: gracious, loving, dedicated, willing to take risks for his convictions (up to a point), knowledgeable, effective, and such a good devoted friend—habibi. How can I say no to Ibrahem?
On that first trip in 2003, only for 3 days, sharing a tiny apartment with a group of 3 university students, all of us sleeping on the floor in one room, he brought me to 2 PA sites and I was impressed. One a landscaping project, and the other a library staffed by volunteers.
During that year Amal was stuck in Jordan because of the closure. I met her on my next trip the following year. And I was double hooked, there was now no way I could not come to Gaza regularly. And Mosab, and Denese, and Rawand, and Adham, and Noor, and Wafa’a, and Mohammed, and Mohaned, and Issam, and Islam, and Adham, and Mohammed, and Mustafa, and Carmel, and Asma’a, and the list goes on and on.
This group of friends and their work and my wish to show people in my country who they are and what they do, I tell my family and friends who worry about me coming to Gaza, thinking me strange and inscrutable, is why I come to Gaza.
Then home for my best part of the day, shower and nap, and then a snack, and then—by now the sun is relenting, the day beginning to cool—to Popeye’s and the cheery waiter, Khalel, a drink (ginger tea for 7 NIS), and my internet work. So there were a few electricity stops, they turned on the generator, rebooted the router, and I resumed my play.
Slowly I’m sending photos or notices that I can’t send photos to all who’ve requested them. I’m confused at times which email address goes with which portrait. I must devise a better way of organizing this. When I’m in the field and people are besieging me with requests to make they Surrah, or photo, I’m not entirely self-possessed.
I should soon catch up on my various ideas for writing, listed in my notebook. Today, being Friday, is off day. But first I down my pills, clean my table of food plates, replenish my coffee, edit what I’ve just written, and then sit down for more writing.
In searching for the W. Eugene Smith photo of mother and daughter from Minimata I discovered that the family had withdrawn permission to circulate it. The copyright had gone to Smith’s ex wife, Eileen, after his death (at 60!) and she’d met with the family to decide about circulation. The father particularly felt it was time to honor the daughter (who’d died about 5 years after the photo was made) by restricting use of the photo and refusing any interviews. So Eileen, a person of integrity, agreed and turned the copyright over to the family. So we can see the photo in existent media but will not be able to use it for new media. Meaning, if I were to make a video about Smith and wish permission to use the photo, I’d be denied.
And rightly. I agree with this decision. It may represent a trend to turn rights to photos back to those in the photos, the photographer or photo agency is no longer all-powerful.
I wonder if this someday will affect any of my work. I’m also curious about her relationship with Gene. In her explanatory letter she writes that they were colleagues, fighting together, and also he was her mentor. Sounds partially familiar, with respect to Y—certainly fighting together as colleagues, tho I doubt she’d regard me as her mentor, rather, the opposite. And for a future relationship perhaps I’d learn something from the story of Eileen and Gene.
Adham Khalel and family
There are reports of Al Qaeda growing in Gaza, and other more radical militant violent groups as well. Reportedly those most militant in Hamas are defecting to such groups. and moderates are not well liked and tend to self-silence or leave, like YAG and B, but unlike A and Dr Mona. These external militants, I read, possibly come from Iraq, or have fought in Iraq.Others deny this. I presume they enter thru the tunnels. And might bring heavier weapons with them. Thus Israel can appropriately be worried (the Israeli papers carry warnings to border communities, especially about tunneling) and might be motivated to increase its vigilance. But how can it succeed militarily?
Israel is now offering ten million dollars for information about the location of the Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier. A joked about this, let’s phone the Israeli army and say we know where he is, in the Quaker offices, and then we’d duck as they attacked. Joking aside, I might have shared a building with him, or a neighborhood, or a community. What’s his experience, captured for 3 years? What condition is he in?