How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
—Henry David Thoreau
Gaza Strip, after the Israeli assault on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead
Movie (about Gaza based on my photography):
We came together about 8 years ago thru a shared passion: justice in Palestine/Israel. You do good work, I try as well. We supported each other. We confided details of our personal lives. You listened well, I tried to listen. We suggested new paths to each other. I value our rich interchange. Your work is about the Jewish-Nazi holocaust and the Zionist narrative. You study the issue thoroughly to see how the holocaust permeates the rise to power of the Israeli state. I make photographs.
Gaza, Occupied Palestine
Then we smacked into an impasse. You judged my photo presentations as lacking political analysis. You tried many times to convince me to add more context, more history, more about the development of Zionism. You feel this is vital because of the general ignorance of western populations who are swamped by the Zionist narrative. You believe this narrative—based largely on the image of Jewish victimization and suffering, which in turn stems from overemphasis, in your view, of the holocaust—then leads to Israeli impunity. I understand this. Here’s how you put that criticism:
[I] believe in dealing with historical, structural, and political realities—and I look for evidence of understanding of these dimensions all the time. In this sense, I view your presentations and communications as seriously constricted and static—tolerant of Zionism and the Diaspora Jewish Sacred Victim identity that is tied into it.
This is not the year 2001. It is 2011. Lots of us have moved quite a ways, coming to an understanding of Zionism and then an absolute intolerance of it and its destruction of Palestine. I don’t see evidence of this kind of movement in your presentations or communications.
Inspired by your criticism, I once tried inserting into my Gaza slide show a long section about Zionism and the context of the current troubles. Viewing it a few times, I concluded that the new section would distract from portraying my experiences—in the manner of “eyewitness” and “thru my lens.” I removed it. Perhaps in one of my other shows, maybe The Matrix of Control and How to Dismantle It, or Tracing the Jordan River, I can, thru astute photo selection and sequencing, develop more context. You urge me to speak or write over visuals. I resist that, adhering to the traditional goal of photojournalists to make photographs which portray with minimal use of text.
Ibrahem El-Shatali, Gaza
A secondary complaint you make against me is that I “bend over backwards” to appeal to Israeli positions, to show that all sides suffer. You call this extreme “anti-anti-Semiticism.” In part, you might be referring to my inclusion of the Israeli town near Gaza, Sderot, in my most recent slide show, Eyewitness Gaza. By visiting Sderot twice in the last 2 years, developing friendships with a few of the residents critical of Israeli policies, I have tried to understand the trauma suffered during regular rocket attacks from Gaza, support dissidents among the Israeli Jewish population, and demonstrate that I am able to acknowledge and portray the suffering of parties other than the Palestinians. Thru this inclusion I hope to demonstrate compassion for relatively innocent human beings and broaden my audience.
Further, you feel that I’ve not sufficiently portrayed the vast disproportionality between the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps my charts and words do not carry the message powerfully enough. I’ll review the show with this in mind.
Rocket shelter, Sderot, Israel
A close friend wrote when I asked her views of my draft:
There’s an even more important reason (than you give here) not to close one’s heart to any suffering, no matter how polluted with destructiveness. If the suffering of the “victim identity” can’t heal, it will continue to perpetrate further suffering on others. I see a real problem in absolute intolerance of [anything—view, person, approach, narrative, or justification—] in that when we do not open our hearts to the suffering of perpetrators, we do not contribute to their healing.
Nomika Zion. Sderot, Israel
The main point however is that I am a photographer, not an analyst, historian, or scholar. As much as I study and when appropriate offer context and analysis, this hasn’t satisfied you. My plea that I wish to restrict what I show to what I can photograph, with limited use of photos made by others, apparently does not persuade you. I have chosen to confine my analysis to discussions after my slide shows and in my blog, and hope that a form of context is in my photographic editing.
I chose to leave the hard analysis to experts like Jeff Halper, Ali Abuminah, Ilan Pappe, Edward Said, Uri Avnery, Hanan Ashwari, Amira Hass—all whom I read regularly—and others more versed in the subject, skilled in the methodology, and concentrated on the topic. I try to emulate the photographic work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, Margaret Bourke Smith, James Nachtwey, Mary Ellen Mark, Sabastio Salgado and numerous others whose images powerfully portray without text. Altho much of their work was initially contextualized, interpreted, and placed in a historical frame—usually by text and visual sequence—their photos are now often shown independently of context.
The Migrant Mother, photo by Dorothea Lange
Refugee camp, photo by Sabastio Salgado
Pieta, from Minimata, by W.Eugene Smith & Aileen M. Smith
Gold miners, Johannesburg, South Africa, photo by Margaret Bourke White
West Bank, 2000 – Palestinians fighting the Israeli army, photo by James Nachtwey
I suspect one difference in approach between us is your reliance on argument and mine on emotion. I’m sure both are useful. As someone remarked recently about the recent success of the US Army’s abandonment of its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy concerning gays, it was the many diverse approaches that won the campaign, not any single approach.
I admit that I’ve caused you pain. Perhaps I’ve been myopic and overly stubborn, arrogant even in pursuing the path I think is correct for me. I suspect I’ve been sloppy in explaining some of my positions. I’ve probably also been ignorant of your feelings. For all this I apologize.
Over the past year or so we’ve grown slowly apart, you exacerbated by what you felt were my blocked ears and missed opportunities. During the summer you broke off from me, not wishing for further engagement, argument, or discussion about our controversy.
I drew two tentative conclusions: our friendship was shallower than I thought, and we’ve experienced a split in solidarity for a just cause. I’m sure both dynamics pervade many movements. Lost friendship might increase despair and fractured solidarity weakens a movement.
These two tendencies seem endemic in political movements. During the Civil Rights Movement (more accurately termed The Freedom Movement) for the rights of black people in the USA, Martin and Malcolm were adversaries, perhaps more in the media than in reality. And the movements they headed, nonviolent desegregation and black power, contended against each other for attention. In a famous but not often publicized photo, Martin and Malcolm glowingly smile at each other while they shake hands. They appear to be unifying. Which may have been one key reason for their assassinations: power in unity. Likewise, at Pine Ridge reservation, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, during the 1970’s, traditional people aided by the American Indian Movement clashed with the reigning political party at that time, diminishing the effects of both.
Malcolm X & Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
Wounded Knee Occupation, 1972
Pine Ridge flag
Perhaps we reflect the schisms in the Middle East, not only the historic divisions between Israel and Palestine, but the internal divisions—in Israel between the settler movement and most other Israelis and in Palestine most famously between Hamas and Fatah. Are we infected with the toxic schism phenomena suffocating the region of our concentration?
The Palestinian Prisoners’ Document calls us …To denounce all forms of split that can lead to internal conflicts… (the National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners. May 11, 2006, which in turn quotes the Holy Quran, In the name of God, the Compassionate and the Merciful, Abide by the decree of God and never disperse.)
Just a few days ago you phoned to suggest a conversation. You appeared to set us on the path toward reconciliation. A small trickle in a larger stream that I prayed would water the movement for Palestinian freedom and a truly just Israeli nation. Harsh words between us and then: boom, crash, end of conversation.
So goodbye Mr. M, for now.
I hope you continue your good work. I expect to do my best at mine. I am grateful for our good efforts together and the help you’ve given me. May we both find our ways—separately and together—thru the tumult of these times.
I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.
“Palestine: The Schism Deepens,”
by Nathan J. Brown
“Non-Violence v Self-Defense, Martin and Malcolm on Nonviolence and Violence,”
by James H. Cone
“Pine Ridge Reservation, 1973,” Occupation of Wounded Knee,
by Voices Education Project
“Bury my life at Wounded Knee, The marginalization of American Indians may be getting a boost from globalization,”
by Julie Winokur