“Landscape” and “documentary” are two of the most celebrated genres in the photographic arts. These traditions are also the inspiration for the photographic images in my primary area of work as a historical geographer focusing on what is arguably the world’s most intractable geo-political dispute – the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. “Photographs furnish evidence,” the cultural critic, Susan Sontag conceded in an otherwise critical examination of the documentary genre in her work, On Photography (1973). The photographs in this collection for Photography Life build on Sontag’s observation in an effort to reveal how aspects of this protracted conflict have become embedded in the Palestinian landscape.
While the Israeli / Palestinian conflict has generated impassioned debate about its causes and consequences, there is little debate that these hostilities have altered the patterns of daily life for both Israelis and Palestinians. At the same time, most observers who travel to the region would probably admit that everyday life on the Palestinian side has been transformed in a more fundamental way. Despite the recent lull in hostilities, the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza are conflict zones. In these areas photographers confront very specific rules established by military authorities limiting the type of images that can be taken, along with cultural conventions that place certain subjects out-of-bounds.
In the Palestinian West Bank, the Israeli military, which is the ruling authority, sets these rules which prohibit photographers from taking images of anything military in nature. This rule, however, is often ambiguous because the parameters of what is “military” are open to interpretation. Even military authorities themselves differ in interpreting this rule.
One such ambiguity typically occurs at checkpoints inside the West Bank that are staffed by Israeli army personnel but where Palestinians pass in order to move from one town or city to another. These spaces, where civilians from one side of the conflict and soldiers from the other come into direct contact, are arguably the most ideal location for documenting everyday life in a conflict zone. More than any other element, the checkpoint is what contributes to the partitioned and fractured landscape that makes the daily life in the region so difficult.
I have photographed innumerable West Bank checkpoints and have encountered a variety of different situations. On a limited number of occasions I have asked – and have been granted – permission to take photos from the Israeli commander at the checkpoint. In most instances, however, army commanders are reticent to allow such access and the photographer wanting to capture such images faces a difficult decision. Nevertheless, in the absence of permission from a checkpoint commander, there is a way to sense what the individual soldier might do when taking photographs in these areas by observing the interactions between the soldiers and the Palestinians waiting to pass through the checkpoint turnstiles. Using this calculus, I have been able to take photos at checkpoints without much difficulty. At the same time, it is worth noting that I normally ask Palestinians waiting in the lines at checkpoints for permission to photograph them. Many of them do not want to be photographed in such situations, but the majority have given me permission to take their images. For the most part photographing the faces of Palestinian women is off-limits for cultural reasons although here as well, it is possible to ask and obtain permission for such photos.
Photographs of the landscape can also be problematic because of restrictions on taking photos of military subjects. When the state of Israel constructed a Wall ostensibly to protect its citizens from Palestinian attacks, the military engineers who designed and constructed the barrier placed guard towers at certain intervals in the structure. On one occasion when I was photographing this Wall in Bethlehem, two soldiers came out of the towers and stopped me, demanding that I show them the images from my SD card. They made me erase several images of the Wall that revealed one of these guard towers claiming that these structures were military subjects. This incident, however, proved extremely rare.
Undoubtedly, the most difficult and dangerous set of circumstances facing the photographer working in this conflict zone occurs when Palestinians and Israeli soldiers confront one another during acts of resistance to conditions of military rule. Such situations arise during the many protests against Israeli authorities that occur in Palestinian towns. Most of these demonstrations have targeted the Wall built in West Bank areas – notably in the towns of Bil’in, Budrus, Jayyous, and Nabi Saleh – that prevent Palestinians from reaching their agricultural land. Israeli soldiers routinely disperse protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets. Such conditions subject anyone photographing these protests to the same dangers from tear gas and rubber bullets faced by demonstrators.
Gaza offers a far different set of challenges. In Gaza, it is essential as a photographer to have a “fixer” to help navigate the unique political and cultural circumstances existing there. In Gaza the security situation is more dangerous and photography of any kind by foreigners is not possible without a local person who can mediate with the authorities from Hamas, and explain to the local people what the photographer is seeking to document. In this sense, finding a good fixer is arguably the most important photographic element in Gaza. A skilled fixer can find compelling photographic subjects, and can ensure that one can aim the camera lens free of political restrictions without transgressing cultural boundaries.
While many of the photos in this collection testify albeit silently to these hazards, the environment of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza offers photographers unique opportunities to capture images of people coping in their daily lives with difficult circumstances. These images for Photography Life emphasize such opportunities in seeking to reveal the dignity of human subjects in the face of adversity. In this sense, the camera is also a formidable weapon in a conflict zone. The camera lens can open vistas into worlds often concealed from view enabling the photographer and the viewer alike to gain a sense of multiple truths from a field of vision and different understandings of what lies inside the frame.
This guest article was contributed by Gary Fields. Gary Fields is a professor at the University of California, San Diego. His forthcoming book entitled “Enclosure: Landscapes of Dispossession in a Historical Mirror” compares landscapes and conflict in early modern England, the Anglo-American colonial frontier, and contemporary Palestine.
All Images Copyright © Gary Fields, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
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