Conflict theater

For three local photographers, real life is much more compelling than fiction.

A 14-year-old Gazan poses with his new bride. (photo credit: ALI ALI)
A 14-year-old Gazan poses with his new bride.
(photo credit: ALI ALI)
It is well-nigh impossible to say anything in this country, in a physical or virtual public space, without it being construed or misconstrued as a political statement.
How on earth, then, did an exhibition of photographs by three Israeli-Arab/ Palestinian photographers, at the Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center in Haifa, manage to skirt around this particular interpretative minefield? The show is called “Journal View – A Journal Photography Exhibition” and comprises works by Berlin-based Gazan Ali Ali, as well as Galileans Isam Telhami and Akrm Drawshi. Curator Fadwa Naamna feels that really isn’t a problem.
“It’s all just performance art,” she says uncomplicatedly. “There is a lot of art in these pictures. In this one, for example, it is like a dance.”
It is not hard to see where Naamna is coming from when you take a gander at a captivating work, taken by Drawshi, of a demonstration at the Palestinian West Bank town of Kafr Kaddum, located near the Kedumim settlement.
The photograph in question freezes a theatrical-looking moment in a clash between young villagers and Border Police officers. As you spend time with the large print, you become aware of more and more details.
The eye is immediately drawn to the circus-like action taking place center- stage, as a young demonstrator is caught in mid-flight. “He’s trying to get away from the smelly water jets of the army. That’s not Photoshop or manipulated in any way,” notes Drawshi. “We are not allowed to doctor our photographs, except maybe slight changes in contrast.”
“I look at this picture like a theater stage, regardless of the reality of the political situation or where it is taking place or anything else,” adds Naamna.
While the scene is not staged, and is an actual moment in the violent events that took place in the village on the particular Friday, there is one prop which appears incongruous to the point of absurdity. “I have been there several times when the fighting starts and they [the villagers] always put that empty TV screen frame there in the middle. I don’t know why they do that,” says Drawshi with a smile. “It’s really strange. Maybe they are poking fun at the media; I don’t know.”
“By the way, that poor TV screen frame has already taken three bullets,” he laughs. To the right of the frame, another demonstrator is holding a large stone he is about to launch in the direction of an Israeli soldier.
Drawshi, who works with the Activestills collective of local and foreign documentary photographers, clearly has an eye for capturing tantalizing compositions – and gets as close as he can to the action. Legendary war photographer Robert Capa once famously suggested: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Drawshi certainly gets close enough.
You can almost smell the acrid smoke from the burning tires, the tear-gas canisters, the jets of rancid water and the stink bombs. A couple of years ago, the latter anti-riot device left its lasting mark on Drawshi. “My vocal chords were damaged,” says the photographer in a strained husky voice. “I’ve undergone surgery, but it hasn’t helped.”
Another work by Drawshi shows large numbers of riot police deployed in Umm el-Fahm – he takes pictures of both sides in confrontational situations.
Like many of Drawshi’s photographs, it is a dramatic image that conveys a sense of the force used by the state to quell the expected outbreak of violence. It is a well-constructed frame that tells a succinct story, but it also cost Drawshi dearly.
“I took a bullet,” recalls the photographer, turning around to show me the scar in his lower back. “It is still very painful.”
Drawshi also suffered some professional damage on the day. “I was running away from a policeman, after I’d been shot, and he kicked me from behind; I fell and one of my cameras was smashed.”
He fully admits to being a thrill-seeker, and constantly courts danger. “I always get right into the thick of the action,” he concedes. “I can’t live without it. I don’t use zoom lenses; I have to feel the soldiers’ shoulders when I take a picture of them arresting someone or dragging them away. That’s where I have to be with my cameras.”
One of the pieces in the exhibition shows a Palestinian being held on his knees by a couple of Border Police guards. “I was lying on the ground for that one,” he says.
Another compelling work shows a group of Palestinians riding horses across a cropped field, with two of them holding Palestinian flags on poles.
One is fully unfurled and ripples in the wind, imbuing the otherwise seemingly pastoral scene with a riveting aesthetic element.
“That, for me, is performance art,” reiterates Naamna. The curator says she was not looking to make any political statements with the exhibition, and merely wanted to show different aspects of life in this part of the world.
As noted above, it is difficult to avoid the political trap here, especially when you proffer shots of Palestinians and Israeli Jews and, particularly, Gazans.
But some of the subject matter on show at Beit Hagefen has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One work, by Ali, shows a young one-legged Gazan boy holding his prosthesis; the youngster has an innocent look on his face, and does not appear to be sorrowful or angry.
“He did not lose his leg because of the Israeli army,” notes Naamna. “This is just a picture taken from real life.”
Another contribution to the exhibition by EPA agency photographer Ali shows a 14-year-old boy, dressed in his best white shirt and tie, standing next to the taller shrouded figure of his bride-to-be. The young girl’s facial features and upper torso are completely obscured by a brown cloth, and the 14-year-old does not look at all happy.
“The bride was 16,” explains the curator. “It is an arranged marriage in Gaza. No one asked the kids if they wanted to get married.”
Another chilling frame features three young children with the severed head of a horse lying on the ground near them. “The situation in Gaza is very bad,” details Naamna, “and people sometimes have to eat horse meat.”
There are lighter moments in Journal View, too. One work by Ali, for example, shows a bunch of kids in various positions, in midair, as they jump off a wall that has seen much better times.
The photograph might have been taken anywhere in the world – just some children having fun outside – that is, if you ignore the pockmarks in the concrete that presumably are the result of gunfire.
Naamna says that, besides the basic components of striking photography such as composition, shape, form and dynamics, she was drawn to some of the more intriguing sociopolitical elements in the works. “Look, you have young Arab women at these protests. I was amazed by that. They’re not in the kitchen,” she chuckles.
“And look at this guy,” Naamna continues, indicating a young man with a pierced eyebrow being taken away by Israeli security forces. “If you saw him in the street, you wouldn’t be able to tell him apart from a Jewish Israeli.”
“Journal View – A Journal Photography Exhibition” closes on July 30. For more information: (04) 852-5252