A different kind of activism

It's Friday afternoon in the West Bank village ofBil'in. A crowd of protesters - Israeli, Palestinian and international- is gathered at the barbed-wire security fence. Facing the IDF on theother side, they chant in Hebrew, Arabic, English and Spanish. Theirvoices are punctuated by the occasional pop of a tear-gas canisterlaunching into the air. Rapidly clicking camera shutters serve as quietpercussion.

Butnot all of these photographers are with the press. Some of them arewith Activestills-a group that, like other photoactivists, attempts tobring provocative images to the attention of the Israeli mainstream.

Now a collective of ten photographers, Activestills began in2005 with a few individuals who noticed each other documenting the samepolitically-charged events. "We all wanted to do something to promotethe issues we believe in," Keren Manor, one of the founders, recalls.

So they formed a group and started pasting their photographs, like those from Bil'in, on walls throughout Tel Aviv.

Usingpublic space seemed a natural bridge between photography and activism."There's such a disconnect from the reality in the territories and thereality here. It's not just that the public doesn't know - it's thatthey don't want to know," Manor says. "But by bringing images from theoccupation to the street, we're putting it in front of your eyes."

Manor also explains that gallery exhibitions reach a narrowaudience that might already be sympathetic to the issues. But for theprice of printing one high quality photo, Activestills can insteadprint hundreds on paper and create a street exhibition. "And we don'thave to wait for the newspaper or media to pick up the story," Manoradds.

In August of 2006, at the weekly protest inBil'in, an Israeli attorney, Limor Goldstein, was shot twice in thehead with rubber-coated bullets. "We called the media people but no onewanted the story," Manor says, remarking that the press was preoccupiedwith the Second Lebanon War.

Activestills publicized the incident by plastering posters of abloodied Goldstein, who survived but sustained lasting brain damage, onwalls in Tel Aviv. "We're taking direct action," Manor says, "we're notwaiting for a mediator."

And because the collective is self-funded, they are free to focus on the topics they feel are the most pressing.

Activestills's most recent street exhibition centered on migrantworkers and African asylum-seekers, hundreds of whom were arrested inJuly as the newly-formed Oz unit, which is charged with rounding upillegal workers, swept through South Tel Aviv. Some of Activestills'simages were wheat-pasted onto the spots where laborers and refugeeswere confronted by immigration police.

In 2007, Activestills marked 40 years of "occupation" with astreet exhibition that included images from Bethlehem, Hebron, EastJerusalem and Gaza, which were obtained from photojournalists in theGaza Strip. During Operation Cast Lead, Activestills coordinated againwith the same photographers to bring images to public spaces in TelAviv. "We are collaborating towards the same goal," Activestills memberOren Ziv remarks.

What is the aim?

Manor responds, "We are acting against any kind of repression, racism and exploitation."

Ziv adds, "There is no difference to us between Jewish peoplewho are kicked out of their homes in Tel Aviv and Palestinians who arekicked out of their homes in Hebron. It's one big struggle."

SADIQ ISMAIL is a 15-year-old refugee from Darfur. Anunaccompanied minor, he lives in a shelter in South Tel Aviv with otherasylum-seekers. Too young to receive a visa, Ismail is on a quest forlegal recognition and help.

Ismail is one of the dozen teenaged African refugees includedin "Asylum City," an Activevision-produced documentary. As the namesuggests, Activevision is an offshoot of Activestills. But "AsylumCity" wasn't filmed by activists - the cameras were left in thesubjects' hands.

"It was a huge outlet for the kids," Activevision member DanielCherrin says. Cherrin is a co-founder of Fugee Fridays, a volunteerinitiative that assists asylum seekers from war-torn regions of Africa,and he played a pivotal role in "Asylum City" by conducting shortvideography courses for the teenagers.

Shaping their own stories also helped the refugees see theircircumstances in a new light, Cherrin explains. "It's empowering. Itmakes their situation seem manageable."

The audience also gets a unique view. "The kids are tellingabout their lives from their perspective - it's not about what somejournalist or filmmaker thinks," Cherrin remarks.

"Asylum City" has been screened in Tel Aviv, New York City, andseveral cities in Germany. According to Cherrin, audiences are troubledby what they see. And they are curious about the Israeli government'srole in the picture. "[The documentary] creates a lot of questions," hesays, "and pulling the questions out of people is a huge part ofphotoactivism."

The camera serves another purpose, Cherrin adds. It reminds people - and states - that they are responsible for their actions.

But Israel isn't the only country that falls under Cherrin'sscrutinizing lens. Alongside two young academics, Cherrin is currentlyworking on an independent documentary about the Beduins in both theNegev and Sinai.

"The unrecognized villages in Israel are a human rightsdisaster," he says, hastening to add that life is equally difficult forEgypt's Beduins. "In Egypt, it's a conflict between the people of theland and the state of the land - the government is disenfranchisingthem."

Occasionally, this tension boils over into violent clashes between the Beduin and Egyptian police.

Cherrin has yet to personally witness such a confrontation. Buthe gave a half-day tutorial and a camera to a 26-year-old Beduin womanwho lives on a hotly contested piece of land. "As we speak, she'sdocumenting," Cherrin says. "She's getting involved and becoming anactivist."