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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