The Shock Of Gaza Or Salvaging Something From What Was Nearly Nothing

A few days after arriving in Gaza last January, I posted the following piece on the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting’s Untold Stories blog site dedicated to the Gaza project that writer Elliott Woods and I were working on. I think it fairly captures what was going on in my head during that time.

On the Getty Images archive you can type in ‘Gaza Destroyed’ and retrieve over 5,500 images to select from.  If you run the query ‘Gaza Funerals’ you will get back over 7,000 images.  I was unable to check the Corbis archives because at the time of writing this entry their site was undergoing maintenance.  But I am confident that I would find a similarly large number of images for both the queries above.

The challenge for a photographer arriving in Gaza is that s/he is walking into a place that has been consistently and extensively photographed for decades, and that there are many fine, talented and professional Palestinian photographers who carry out this task for their various agencies.  In addition, some of the best and most talented international photojournalists have also made Gaza the focus of their work.

I have arrived in Gaza in the aftermath of Israel’s most recent military operation against the region, Operation Cast Lead.  And I find that though the scale of this latest venture is larger than anything I can remember from my previous travels to Gaza, its impact and consequences are very familiar.

The official numbers state that over 1,300 people have been killed, of which it is believed that nearly 400 were children, about 50,000 made homeless, and over 5000 left seriously injured.

I arrived in Gaza just as the cease fire had been declared and I had been immediately struck by how familiar it all seemed.

The day before as I stood on the Egyptian border with Rafah and watched Israeli jets dropping their payload on buildings and tunnel construction sites I was unsure of my decision to proceed.  Cowardice has been my best friend and protected me from many dangers.

Why would I not listen to it now?

My first trip to Gaza was in 2003.  I then returned and continued to document the situation here, particularly in Rafah, Gaza, in 2004 and 2005.  The settlers were still in Gaza then, and so were activists from the International Solidarity Movement, and the armored bulldozers and their accompanying tanks that were constructing the massive steel wall along Rafah’s border with Egypt.

Home demolitions were frequent along the Rafah border as bulldozers tore down Palestinian homes to make way for this steel wall.  Tank patrols would terrorize residents living along the border, and there would be frequent firing into these neighborhoods resulting in deaths and maiming of residents.

As a photographer I documented my fair share of funerals, Hamas marches and families salvaging their belongings from the ruins of their destroyed houses.

And now, as I walk through the devastation in Gaza from the most recent Israeli operation, I am struck by how familiar and how similar it all looks.  My photographs from this morning look little different from those I took back in 2003, 2004 and 2005!  In fact, a simple re-edit of the captions of my previous work and I could convince you that the photograph was taken just yesterday!

The scale is different.  Absolutely.  But the visible consequences are the same as: dead bodies and lost lives; destroyed homes and displaced families; angry funerals and political exploitation; protest marches and armed men promising revenge; physical destruction and families trying to rebuild.

We have been here before.  We are here again.

As I walk through Gaza with my little camera in hand, and around me scramble some of the world’s finest photojournalists capturing yet more of what we have already known and seen, I am desperately trying to find my own voice to this story.  And it is not helping that I know that in the not too distant future there will be yet more confrontations, and more military operations, and more funerals, and marches, and destroyed homes and displaced lives.

The cycle repeats itself.

Is there a way to stop the images from doing the same?

Asim Rafiqui, Untold Stories, January 22nd 2009

The work that emerged, first the documentation of the things and people left behind, and the portraits were a result of an adjustment that had to be made when I was confronted with the reality I saw and also the reality I felt. Gaza was there and dozens took it, but there was also a very personal reaction to coming back, a reaction I had not anticipated even as I had stood on the Rafah, Egypt border watching Israeli jets bombing tunnels a mere 100 meters away! It was only once I was in, and after a few days spent walking around and talking to people, that things started to fall apart.

This has happened before. It happened on a project about Polish immigrants in Slough, UK. The entire project work plan fells apart as I arrived in this incredibly non-descript, non-Polish town with nary a physical, cultural, or architectural clue to the presence of Poles – it just looked like any other lame, UK industrial city!

It happened in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti where the story refused to offer itself until and unless some personal risks that I had previously considered unnecessary had to be taken. Writer Malcolm Garcia and I discussed our situation for a couple of days at least before a decision was made to change our approach and go into the story in a new way.

And that uncertainty is in fact exciting, and a source of creativity if you can work through it. There have been instances when I have failed to work through – I never show those projects! 🙂 I will share some of those situations with you when we meet in Ajmer.

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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