Hey, there were people here!

Museum presents a candid view of early Palestine.

311_old photo of Jaffa port (photo credit: Khalil Raad via Gutman Museum of Art)
311_old photo of Jaffa port
(photo credit: Khalil Raad via Gutman Museum of Art)
One of the most unusual photos in the exhibition on turn-of-the-century Palestine by the most important local photographer at the time, Khalil Raad, is of a woman feeding her infant in Bethlehem, circa 1900. Viewers at the exhibition of 100 or so gorgeously composed and starkly contrasted sepia photos, full of direct light on the subjects and scenery, see the woman’s exposed breast, and she appears comfortable with it, in the ultra-conservative Muslim society that was then Palestine.
“This is a very unusual and graphic photo, and an example of the direct relationship that Khalil Raad had with his subjects as a local, as one of them,” says exhibit curator Rona Sela, an art historian and curator at the Tel Aviv Art Museum from 1990-98. “I’m sure this was a Christian woman in what was then a Christian town. Perhaps certain religious and social constraints did not apply to non-Muslims, but most important is the photographer-subject relationship.”
Sela went through more than 1,000 photos to organize the exhibit at the Gutman Museum in Neveh Tzedek, Tel Aviv. Raad was prolific and arguably the most important of the few local Palestinian photographers based in Jerusalem, she feels, as opposed to the Westerners who came from Great Britain and France, with a colonialist agenda to capture life in the Christian Holy Land.
Raad was born in 1869 in Lebanon to a Christian family, and sent as a child to study in Jerusalem in the Bishop Gobat School, and took up photography there with Garabed Krikorian, the first known local Palestinian- Armenian involved in this art form.
In 1891 he began to photograph independently, and four years later opened a photography studio on Jaffa Road, outside the walls of the Old City, opposite the studio of Krikorian, who had left the school, reportedly for a woman. At the turn of the century he was appointed photographer to the Kingdom of Prussia, giving him diplomatic immunity – a status that allowed him to travel and photograph in relative freedom.
One of curator Sela’s favorite photos in the collection is of a poor man, dressed in tattered clothing, holding a large blackened fruit next to a basket filled with the same. The fruits are Jaffa oranges, huge, rough and savage-looking.
“The oranges give that poor man who was picking them, no doubt, a sense of power,” she says. “It is an example of the link between the poor Palestinian and the land.”
Another of her favorites is of a man in urban attire wearing a Turkish tarboosh standing in a field of shoulder-high wheat. The man appears to be growing out of the wheat, another link to the land.
“Visitors see this and say, ‘Hey, there were people here,’” Sela continues. “The photos enlarge the visual lexicon of early Palestine and the beginning of the conflict. The exhibit can develop political awareness, break myths and build understanding. Yes, there is a political agenda, like everything here.”
KHALIL RAAD WAS based in Jerusalem for seven decades, and he gave the Palestinians a presence and visibility rarely seen in foreign photographs of the country in the late 19th century or in Jewish Zionist photographs of the early 20th century, which tended to conceal and even exclude them. He also photographed Jews.
He was involved in many local photography activities and his studio also provided services for foreign photographers who came to photograph in the Holy Land, and the many Western archeological and travel expeditions.
Raad’s photographs were published in many books and gained him recognition throughout the world.
Like the Western artists, he was heavily influenced by the biblical narrative, as evidenced by the captions and subject matter of many of the photos.
The sensation of being transported back in time is immediate. The undated photos are of street scenes and the harbor in Jaffa, and of Hebron, Tiberias, the “Christian village of Ramallah” and structures and views set in powerful lighting from Jerusalem. “Brook Cherith, where Elisha was fed by ravens, 1st Kings, chap 17: 2-7” reads one photo caption. “David’s Pool, where Ishbosheth’s murderers were hung, 2nd Samuel, chapter 4:12” reads another.
The small room of photos of the Jewish population before 1920 are more modern, showing evidence of Western influence and a sign of the dramatic events that were to come. Visitors see the Rutenberg electric works on the Jordan River, Dead Sea industry, the Tel Aviv harbor with male workers in shorts and Kibbutz Ein Harod.
The contrast with the Palestinian photos is striking and disturbing. The thought occurs to a visitor that the centuries-old, traditional, religion-focused and agriculture- based Palestinian way of life, even with its leap forward after World War I, due in part to the contact with the Western and Jewish worlds, could never stand up to the onslaught and pace of modernity and change brought by the Zionist movement.
“We know now what happened after these early 20th-century photos were taken,” Sela says. “We know the State of Israel was established and the Palestinian way of life largely destroyed, but back then, the subjects of the photos did not know. This is a fascinating viewpoint for us.”
Why not more photos of Jewish subjects? “I must assume Raad saw that the modernity of the Jewish side was going to win out, and that he was not entirely comfortable with this,” she says.
HISTORY DID NOT spare Khalil Raad. In May 1948, a few days before the British Mandate ended and following an escalation in local nationalist violence, he fled with his wife to Jericho. Prevented from returning to their home in Jerusalem, they became exiles in Lebanon, where he died in 1957.
The abundance of Holy Land photos, including a glass-top table of work by British and French photographers including Felix Bonfils, open the door to a number of questions with which Rona Seal is not entirely comfortable.
There are thousands of foreign Christian pilgrims from all over the world visiting heritage sites every day in Jerusalem, Galilee and all over Israel and Bethlehem, and some of those very places can be seen in this exhibit. Many of the tourists do not go to Tel Aviv, except for several hours at the end of their visit, but if they could see the extremely well detailed hardbound catalog of this show, with all the historical details and analysis and the photos themselves, they would certainly go out of their way to visit the exhibit (and buy the book).
However, they would not understand a thing. This brilliant catalog exists only in Hebrew, thus making the information and analysis available only to an Israeli audience.
Sela’s own political slant to the left, which is apparent in her writing and speaking on the exhibit, will not endear her to a number of Israelis, though sociologists and historians will find the exhibit fascinating.
She is careful with her words. “Let’s say that a certain foundation contributed a good deal of money to putting together this exhibit with the stipulation that the catalog had to be in Hebrew,” she says. “I wanted to do the catalog, which is much more than a catalog with all the historical background, in English, but I could not with the constraints I faced. And now I want more than ever to do it in English.”
With the proper marketing and publicity to target audiences outside the Israeli mainstream, Sela can easily envision the busloads of foreign Christian tourists making the trip to the historic Neveh Tzedek district and the Gutman Museum, and being transported back in time.
The book and exhibition Khalil Raad – Photographs 1891-1948 are the first in Israel and the world dedicated to his work. The exhibition runs until September.