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(photo credit: Muhammed Muheisen)
Jerusalem-born Palestinian photo journalist Muhammed Muheisen photographed the funeral of an Israeli soldier during the Second Lebanon War. In one of his photos, soldiers - who may normally appear to the Palestinians as brutish and heartless - were pictured crying and hugging as they mourned the loss of a friend. Muheisen was taken aback by people's responses to the photo. He said that the soldiers' sensitivity touched Palestinians who saw the photo, and that the Israelis found it hard to believe that a Palestinian had taken a photo so sensitive to Israelis' suffering.
Muheisen's photo was discussed at one of 12 workshops that were part of a project called "Frames of Reality," a joint initiative of the Peres Center for Peace and Local Testimony - an organization that runs a yearly photojournalism competition and exhibition.
Twice a month for six months, 18 Israeli and Palestinian photojournalists participated in meetings designed not only to foster professional development, but also to encourage dialogue between members of the Israeli and Palestinian media.
The Frames of Reality participants included nine Israelis, eight Palestinians and one American, all experienced professional photojournalists working for news agencies, newspapers or magazines. An additional three participants from Gaza took part on-line.
The project meetings were held in Beit Jalla, which - according to Project Manager from the Peres Center for Peace Ziv Stahl - was the only area both Israelis and Palestinians could enter without a permit. "This gave [the project] a mutual quality, because it is a place that doesn't belong to anyone, no one has to go through a checkpoint to get there and everyone has to make an effort," he observed.
International and local industry professionals presented lectures about photojournalism in this region and war journalism in general. Among the lecturers were chief photographers Yannis Behrakis from Reuters and Marco Longari from Agence France-Presse (AFP). The symposia, hosted in Tel Aviv and in Al Ram, northeast of Jerusalem, were attended by well-known photographers Eldad Refaeli, Hana Siniora, Itai Anghel, Muhammed Muheisen, Quique Kierszenbaum and director of photography at the International Herald Tribune, Cecilia Bohan.
The project's first workshop focused mainly on professional aspects of photojournalism. But as social barriers fell away, the photographers began to communicate on a more personal level, discussing their families and experiences. Heated discussions broke out when some of the photographers asked for feedback, especially on images that carried political messages. Many of the Israelis were used to seeing both sides of the conflict. But there was tension between the Palestinians and Israelis when discussing some of the work, Israeli photojournalist Tess Scheflan told Metro. "There were arguments and people got [to a point where] they had to take a break," she said.
Palestinian photojournalist Alaa Badarneh got particularly fired up over an Israeli photo that, in his opinion, presented residents of a West Bank settlement as heroic. Badarneh and the photographer debated the photo's meaning and the political issues it reflected. "We [talked] about the daily lives of our people, about the future of our children. As photographers, as people who work in the media, how we can send a message of peace," Badarneh said.
Even before joining Frames of Reality, Scheflan was acquainted with Palestinian photographers. She wanted to get to know both her Palestinian and Israeli colleagues on a more personal level. Scheflan pointed out that unlike publications, where editors and graphic designers choose which photos to publish, "It was interesting to see what people really want to work on and want to show [about the conflict]."
Another Israeli, Yuval Tebol, saw this project as an opportunity to advance the peace process. "Peace begins with people sharing, helping each other and holding discussions," he said. "The experience was enriching and fulfilling from a professional and personal perspective: to see the points of view of colleague photographers from the other side, how they look and what they see." He added that such exposure broadened his outlook on the conflict and, therefore, the spectrum of his work.
Frames of Reality allowed Tebol to meet photographers whose work he had seen and admired. "I knew of Muhammed Muheisen and his work. When we met at the workshop there was an immediate connection. Even now, we're good friends and we talk on the phone and e-mail [one another]."
Such newfound relationships have fostered the photographers' creative and professional development as they continue to consult each other.
Participating in the project has affected what Tebol wishes to achieve through his photojournalism: "I now try to soften the images [in an attempt] to build something more correct and real."
Badarneh says he did not join Frames of Reality with the intention of forming friendships with Israeli photojournalists. He was already acquainted with Israelis through the European Pressphoto Agency. "I went to these meetings to tell the story of the daily life and suffering of our people," said Badarneh. "I wanted to understand Israelis' opinions."
Scheflan grew very close to Eman Mohammed, one of the Gaza photojournalists who took part in Frames of Reality over the Internet. Though they have never met in person, the young women now talk daily. Mohammed even helped Scheflan choose her wedding dress. Scheflan believes very strongly in Mohammed's work and is sure the young photographer will have a successful career. Scheflan said that "Just getting to know Eman was worth participating in the workshops."
During the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza conflict, Israeli photographers had limited access to the war zone. Scheflan said that her relationship with Mohammed has led her to unpublished photos from Gaza photographers, which gave her insight on how things really looked in the places she hadn't been able to reach, let alone photograph.
Frames of Reality has a Web site (www.edutmekomit.ning.com) that provides the photographers with an easy way to converse and display their work. Tebol described the site, which is open to the public, as a "beautiful platform" for sharing photos.
Badarneh invites friends from around the world to log on. "[Israelis and Palestinians] cannot sit together in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but they can 'sit' together in the Web site to show [each other] their work." He noted that he adds his own photos to the site to promote a message of "peace, not bloodshed," and hopes the message will reach people worldwide.
While Frames of Reality was founded to create a dialogue of companionship and peace, the subject matter of the photographs revolves around ongoing conflict. Stahl asserted that photos of the conflict and the ways in which people cope highlight the humanity of both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
An exhibition of selected photos by 18 of the participants, first held in Jaffa in fall 2008, is set to open for New York audiences this May at the Ana Tzarev Gallery. The exhibition, which marked the end of the project's first year, displays images that document both everyday life and news events. The works selected from each photographer show his or her creative process throughout the project.
The photos, Stahl explained, display "pain and suffering, but not in a hateful way. Rather in a way that shows that all of us are humans who feel and share the same pain that we inflict on each other. When you see photos of a human face and human suffering from the other side you have to [acknowledge] it. You can't just see the other side as indifferent or cruel."
And Scheflan pointed out that the photographers are not trying to present peaceful images because, at this stage, there is no peaceful reality. What you do see, she explained, is cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians who worked together.
"Many of the photographs show [that neither side] likes this situation and that we're trying to change it."
According to Stahl, some visitors at the Jaffa exhibition complained that the photos did not reflect a balanced view of the conflict, that they were biased toward the Palestinians' suffering. He suggested that this might be due to the constraints on Palestinian photojournalists from entering Israel, which means they are restricted to covering their own regions. Israeli photojournalists, however, can cover both the Israeli and Palestinian areas.
Initially, Frames of Reality had planned to host the exhibition both in Tel Aviv and in a Palestinian city. "Unfortunately, the war in Gaza ended the possibility of holding the exhibition in the Palestinian territories," said Stahl. "When there is war, people aren't so open to holding [events] that relate to Israeli-Palestinian dialogue."
Each photo essay has also been published in Frames of Reality, available in bookstores around Israel and now at the Ana Tzarev Gallery. The images are accompanied by the photographers' texts in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The Peres Center for Peace hopes that the book's sales will help cover expenses and raise money for the next Frames of Reality project, slated to begin this summer.
Stahl hopes that the upcoming project will find a host somewhere in the Palestinian territories. In the meantime, the current project is now in New York. He says the main point of taking the project to New York is "to show how life in this region looks, the good and bad. The photos show everyday life, the conflict and its results. The other [objective] is to show something that Israelis and Palestinians did together. It sends a message of hope."
The Frames of Reality exhibition will be on view at Ana Tzarev Gallery, New York from May 14 June 9, 2009 from Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Address: 24 W. 57th St, New York.