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Photographing Tragedy

When one looks at scenes of fleeing refugees from Syria via images of their squalid refugee camps and hears their pleas for solidarity, mercy or for God’s help to end their suffering, one finds eerie similarities between their experiences and those of the Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis. However, the worse part of the tragedy occurs  when it is so prolonged that video footage, photos and personal accounts meant to delineate an urgent reality, wind up becoming the ever-present state of affairs, a painful and humiliating status quo.

But is there a line of demarcation that people cross, where they cease to represent a real crisis – humanitarian, political, or any other – merely subsisting in their anguish, simply counting days in their UN-supplied blue tents as they await salvation? What is the use of a photo when the human conscience has grown numb, and barely appreciates the artistic expression of the photo, not the moral and political crisis it represents?

These thoughts and more occupied my mind when on Feb.15, Paul Hansen, a Swedish photographer from the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, convincingly won The World Press Photo of the Year in 2012. This is according to Reuters “the world’s largest annual press photography contest.”

The winning photo documented an event that has been repeated hundreds of times in Gaza in the last few years. Bereaved families and neighbors that are filled with pain and despair, carry the frail bodies of little children who died in one Israeli strike or another. They walk shoulder to shoulder in the alleyways of their towns or refugee camps, weeping, chanting and praying to God to send their little ones to Paradise. Photographers snap numerous shots, selected ones get published and the most prized wins awards. Sadly, even then, nothing changes the persistently agonizing reality.

An almost trademark demand that most victims have is for the world to know of their plight. There is a pervading impression that when the “world” knows, the “world” will not allow injustice to perpetuate. Of course, it is not so simple, especially in the case of the Palestinians.

Referring to the winning photo, jury member Mayu Mohanna said, “The strength of the picture lies in the way it contrasts the anger and sorrow of the adults with the innocence of the children. It’s a picture I will not forget.” Photos taken in Palestine often reflect that very experience, a contrast between one thing and something else: a woman crying for her demolished house while settlers celebrate a new conquest or a family terrified by a raid on their home as soldiers enthusiastically destroy their furniture, and a million more. Needless to say, they are often bloody, and ever “artistic”.

Of course, it is not exactly the responsibility of the photojournalist nor that of the photography awards judges to ensure that the meaning of the photo is diffused in such ways as to affect political and humanitarian outcomes. It is still disturbing however, that those painful conflicts are reduced to photos, footage and sound bites and eventually are appreciated for something other than the urgent and utter need to compel whatever action is needed in bringing people’s suffering to an end.

There is a photo of Samer Issawi, a Palestinian political prisoner who has reportedly staged the longest hunger strike in modern history, as he was wheeled to and from an Israeli court room. It was taken by activestills.org, whose work has left an important mark in terms of disseminating powerful imagery pertaining to the Palestinian struggle, the Israeli occupation and more. In the photo, Samer looks like a shadow of his former-self (the already slim young man had lost 77 pounds), his hands clasped at his chest, his beard long and untrimmed, yet his face is glowing as if he were grateful to the man or woman who snapped his photo while being dragged somewhere by impatient Israeli prison and court officials. Samer, naturally hopes that photo and many others, will be used as a tool to spread a message of his critical situation, but more importantly the collective cause he represents. His supporters want to achieve a similar end. But without political will, real action and pressure, that photo is likely to end up in some archive with little consequence in the fate of Samer’s and the freedom of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Starting most noticeably with the First Palestinian Intifada in 1987, Palestine offered incredible photo opportunities for journalists. It was not exactly common that a whole nation take to the street where youth battled well-equipped soldiers with sling shots and empty fists for several years nonstop. Even a random photo that involves barefooted children at war against Israeli tanks would have many ‘contrasts’ and artistic worth. Back then, many Palestinians were convinced that once these images reached the world, the tide would turn in favor of Palestinian rights. In fact, to a degree, it did, as if it were suddenly discovered that Palestinians do exist beyond whatever stereotypes Israel has managed to concoct about them through its media influence. However, the barrier between public sentiments and government action remained erect. It would have made little difference whether US officials viewed Intifada photos or not, for the US government’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was never determined by values such as human rights, freedom and the right to self-determination. The entirety of the photos of all the dying children will not alone alter even a single footnote in the US’ ‘unconditional support’ of Israeli doctrine. These images must be coupled with passionate political activism, decided public pressure, legal action and numerous other methods to hold Israel accountable for the gory images as well as the US for allowing Israel free range in murdering Palestinians.

A photo, on its own, no matter how artistic, compelling, captivating, even incensing, is not enough. It must be combined or followed by solid actions and a clear strategy to ensure that someday no such tragic contexts exist for photographers to freeze them in time and place.

Palestinians – and Syrians – are not mere opportunities for award-winning photos to be snapped. “My people are not animals in a zoo” is the famous quote from Palestinian novelist and intellectual, Ghassan Kanafani to a Danish journalist who later became his wife, as she requested to visit refugee camps in Lebanon. “You must have a good background about them before you go and visit”, he said. Kanafani was assassinated in an Israeli Mossad car bomb, along with his niece, in July 1972, but his words endure.

Palestinians, as well as other peoples who are undergoing protracted tragedies, are neither ‘animals in zoos’ nor only mere subjects of artistic expression, no matter how noble. Their tragedies, no matter how long-lasting, deserve resolutions and tangible remedies. All that victims in photos hope to achieve is for their oppression to end, not for the victimization itself to become such an accepted state of affairs and end in itself, detached from any serious political dynamics that could propel change.

Ramzy Baroud is editor of PalestineChronicle.com. He is the author of The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle  and  “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London).

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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