This past week I participated in an interesting "webinar" about stereotypes in photographic representation of the Middle East through Open-i, which is an online photojournalism education network. Some of the audience members are involved in a World Press Photo course for photographers in the Middle East and North Africa. The other presenters were Alexandra Avakian (National Geographic photographer) and Laura Junka (photographer and PhD student in cultural studies in London). Rula Halawani (photographer based in Jerusalem) was to be there too but unfortunately couldn't attend. Paul Lowe (former Magnum photographer, now with Panos) was the organizer and moderator.
My comments revolved around how in order to understand something of the politics of photographs we need to know how they are constructed by various political, social and cultural processes. I also mentioned how photojournalism over the past 50 years or so has come to more and more emphasize the dramatic moment, the emotional story, and artistic framing and composition.
The problem with this I think is that the quieter moments, the mundane, the everyday, are often left out. But it’s on that level of daily life where the big political and structural forces of oppression, poverty, discrimination, or occupation, affect most people.
Even if we are not in positions to affect the structure of forces that produce the stereotypes, we can still promote the creation of new and different photographic work and find ways to help audiences, teachers, and editors appreciate different visions and visual styles, like Alexandra, Laura and Rula do.
I think Rula was effective in showing this with her project "Intimacy” where we see the hands of Palestinians and Israeli soldiers handling ID cards and bags at checkpoints.
She doesn’t show faces or dramatic interactions, strong emotions or conflict. She captures the daily, normal tensions of living under occupation, which I think says a lot more about most Palestinian’s lives than photos of boys throwing stones, as important as those are too. Rula's project confronts stereotypes because the images don’t fit into the standard conventions of photos of the Middle East.
Alexandra's photo of a man selling fish in Gaza in 1993 while an Israeli soldier jumps out of his jeep to chase stone-throwing Palestinians also gets at what I'm talking about.
Caption: Gaza City, Gaza, July 1993: A man sells fish while an Israeli soldier jumps out of his truck to chase Palestinians who had been throwing stones. Credit: Alexandra Avakian
Normal life continues during conflict, as seen here, but is often not depicted. This photo is not about contrasts or surprising juxtapositions. We can see from the man's demeanor that this is just a part of trying to live life in Gaza. Israeli military actions were ongoing and closely intertwined with daily life for Palestinians. Alexandra told us that most of the photos in her new book Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World, were rejects -- not used at the time. They are complex and layered, maybe too much so for the prevailing conventions, especially in the late 1980s through the 1990s.
Laura spoke eloquently about the difficulties of photographing Palestinians as neither terrorists nor victims. She spent the summer of 2003 taking photos of Palestinians at leisure as a way to get beyond these tropes. But at the same time she was careful to point out that violence and occupation were still always part of everyone's lives and evidence of that lingers in the photos. She explained that in this photo of a family at the beach there are layers of important information that are only available through explanatory captions.
The family has borrowed this tent from their neighbors who received it from the Red Cross when their house was bulldozed by the Israeli government in retaliation for one son's involvement with violent resistance to occupation. Knowing this adds a whole new dimension to the scene, creating a poignant and complex sense of joy mixed with sorrow.
The emphasis in photography of the Middle East is usually on conflict and contradiction, on up-close confrontations between individuals. And of course, as in most photography, there is an emphasis on depicting people.
But there are other visual modes to powerfully depict realities the region. For example see a double page spread in the most recent issue of Middle East Report where we used photos of road blocks by Dirk-Jan Visser.
Here is the text I wrote to go with the photo sequence:
"Foregoing the usual depiction of Israel and Palestine as a site of dramatic confrontations between individuals, Dirk-Jan Visser has chosen instead to reveal a more mundane and insidious aspect of Israeli power. Photographing some of the more than 500 road blocks throughout the West Bank in a repetitive and neutral style, without the embellishments of unusual camera angles or clever compositions, these seemingly innocuous places add up to a typology of obstacles, attesting powerfully to an extreme disruption of Palestinian life."
Although stereotypes and conventions of depicting the Middle East are still a problem, I do see more and more photographers pushing the boundaries, looking for new visual styles. Some are also finding ways to visualize structural political problems (the road blocks typology is an example) and to expand the repertoire of images of the region in order to more fully represent the multiplicity of people's identities and experiences.