Dismantling Visual Clichés in Palestine

After years of shooting skirmishes and war in the Occupied Territories, Tanya Habjouqa decided to focus on everything but conflict. Now, she’s helping emerging photographers from Palestine and other Arab nations to represent themselves.

Born in Jordan, Panos photographer Tanya Habjouqa reported news in the Middle East before changing paths to pursue personal projects. She recently published Occupied Pleasures, a 2014 World Press Photo Award winner, drawing an unconventional portrait of Palestine, thanks to the support of the Magnum Foundation and FotoEvidence.

Blink’s Laurence Cornet talks with Habjouqa about her work, mentoring young photographers, visual stereotypes of the Arab world, and suitable responses.

Laurence: Your book portrays Palestine in a way that goes against the classic representation of Palestine. What’s your opinion about the weight of Palestinian visual-stereotypes?

Tanya: I covered the place on-and-off for years, and my approach with Palestine was initially pragmatic because as a freelancer and I needed to find a different approach. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most covered conflicts in the world, which makes it a daunting place to photograph — can you really bring something new?

On the other hand, assignments come perpetually and outlets are quite happy to repeat the clichés. So, you can try to bring more nuance but at the end of the day, you’re given an assignment.

As a freelancer I always try to find different ways in, and that comes from my background in anthropology. I worked on heroin addiction in the Old City, and on the LGBT communities that were bringing together Jewish and Palestinian communities. I began to look at it from a different lens when I married a Palestinian and became pregnant. This step helped me analyse the “black-humoured opera” on a deeper level.

Laurence: Was there a specific event that made you take this step back from the news?

Tanya: The initial idea came when I was working on a series about women in Gaza in 2009. Again, all of the media were copying each other, redoing the story about the loss of woman rights under Hamas so, I went to unpack that story.

I had to interview a woman who had come through the tunnel to get married. I couldn’t find her but her husband was there. He was really romantic, explaining “I ran to her, and there she was in her white gown in the dark, with dust crumbling in her hair. She was terrified and trembling and it was like a Bollywood movie; I ran and I kissed her.”

Then he became serious and said, “You know, no matter what this occupation does to us, we will always find a way to live and love, more than survive.” That was the initial seed of Occupied Pleasures.

Laurence: In the introduction of the book, Nathalie Handal writes: “This is photojournalism at its most piercing.” What is your definition of photojournalism, given that you’ve covered news-related things and then moved a step further, what is it meant to achieve?

Tanya: Photojournalism in Israel and Palestine has a long-serving and an essential role. Narrative is a key part of this conflict. Look at the infamous picture of the child who was shot by the IOF in Gaza at the beginning on the Second Intifada. Images and how they have been used, have been key, but at the same time, there has been a fatigue about these damn clichés — the screaming woman with her hands in the air, the kid with the V sign. So, there has also been damage from this imagery.

What’s happening right now is quite fascinating — there is more of a dialogue coming, and social media is really changing the dynamics of the conflict — Palestinian voices are being heard more. That’s been a siege on traditional photojournalism in a good way.

‘He said, “No matter what this occupation does to us, we will always find a way to live and love, more than survive.” That was the initial seed of Occupied Pleasures.’

My project came from a personal dissatisfaction with the way it was being portrayed and with something that I felt was lacking. My imagery, though very simple in some ways, pushed the traditional boundaries. It’s political, but very subtly. How can you attack that narrative? It was thought of very carefully.

Laurence: How was the editing process of the book?

Tanya: When I choose to self-censor an image, it is less about how it would be perceived in the West but more about how some images could hurt the subjects at home. I got amazing access which is why I need to be respectful.

What was more interesting was the editing process of the book, with my editor Regina Monfort. She is classically trained with a beautiful eye. She found some images that were gold that I hadn’t ever dug out. But then, having never been to Middle East as well, the first time around, she was attracted to images of poor women in niqab. But niqab is only about 1 percent of the population. I wanted to show the diversity of Palestine, at the same time not formulaic so, it was a delicate balance on how make it representational.

‘Palestinian voices are being heard more. That’s been a siege on traditional photojournalism in a good way.’

To be honest, if there is anything that I feel that I could have done more, I would have liked to have done more from East Jerusalem. But, there are very good reasons for not being able to tell that story at once — it almost needs to be its own project.

Laurence: There are a number of poems throughout the book and the captions are at the very end. What’s the role of text in the shaping your book’s narrative?

Tanya: It was very difficult because text is key. I want people to be able to look at the images and get their own vibration from them, but again, beyond the simplicity of the picture, there’s a lot more going on. I thought, in this case, that too many words would have cluttered and ruined the emotion of the pictures. It was daunting to make my first photobook, but specifically on this subject — there are so many books on Palestine and Israel and my biggest fear was to make just another one of those typical books.

I want my book to be touching and that, every time you open it, you glean something different. The captions are not just regular captions, they are very well written. And then on another level you’ve got the proverbs, which might also alter how you feel, as well as poems.

Laurence: Did this book influence your work, or give way to opportunities?

Tanya: I have been working and struggling as a photographer for a long time, but the success of this project opened up many opportunities. I got to join the photo agency Panos Pictures, which was my dream when I began doing social documentary work. I have started to get assignments and access that I never had before. But it’s also intimidating; I have to continue to produce strong work.

Laurence: So, would your best advice be to just trust your instinct and work on something personal that you really believed in?

Tanya: Here’s one thing I learned from a famous Texan portrait photographer’s experience — he was struggling to make it in New York, was practically homeless and lived in a public library for weeks just looking at photo books, when he realized, “What am I going to say here? What can I say here?” So, he went home and ended up making some of the strongest portraits.

For me, it was actually motherhood that forced me to find a project that was close to home. I could not have done this work without the grant I got from the Magnum Foundation though. I’m ever grateful for that. It would have been, otherwise, a ten-year-long, personal, love project.

It wasn’t such a staggering amount of money, but it was enough for me to take the time to just get lost and stagger into situations. I’m spoiled now, that’s how I want to always work!

Laurence: How do you use social media in relation to your work?

Tanya: I connect with almost everyone I photograph on Facebook. They are giving me access to their world, I give them access to mine. In some cases people would say no at first, then they would become friends on Facebook, follow me for a while, and then contact me and say, “Actually, you can photograph me.”

I think you can use Instagram in some interesting ways too. I occasionally do test shots and see what the reactions are. Social media has been a game-changer, not only in giving people a voice while challenging traditional media, but also for allowing access, allowing voices to go out and giving rise to a new generation of photographers.

When I began photography, I would visit my grandmother in Jordan, proudly have my portfolio, and she would just go through the pictures and say, “Why the hell are you doing this?”

But it has become increasingly respectable in the region, people are seeing the value of it on a political and social dimension as well. A huge number of Middle-Eastern women are attracted to a career in photography.

Laurence: Can you talk about the mentorship program by AFAC/Magnum Foundation Arab Documentary Photography?

Tanya: If I could have had such a workshop when I started, it would have been a game changer. The factors that have come together for this are very unique. They are choosing quality proposals and photographers. And then the four mentors — Peter Van Agtmael, Eric Gottesman, Randa Shaath, and myself — we are really different but work so well together. We jump into everyone’s narratives and it’s just this raw transfusion of photography. There’s this level of respect and knowledge, but brutal honesty as well.

In the first set of students that we had, one of them was Omar Iman, who was a Syrian refugee himself. He’s exploding on the art scene now. He is on his way. And we are getting our photographers published. So, the success of the first group made the second group’s quality even higher.

‘Photography has become increasingly respectable in the region … A huge number of Middle-Eastern women are attracted to a career in photography.’

They are hungry to learn, and we are encouraging them to think thematically, teaching them what they can do with their own work and to think and dream bigger. One of my students is talking about her own divorce, and about divorce in Saudi society. Like others, she wants to criticize things that need to be changed, but she is also very proud of her society. They are aware of careful representation.

I know we’ve got funding for at least one more year, it is phenomenal in terms of what it’s going to do for photography in this region.

Tanya Habjouqa is a documentary photographer based in East Jerusalem. She is a founding member of Rawiya photo collective, the first all female photo collective of the Middle East. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy, Le Monde, British Journal of Photography, The New York Times, Al Jazeera and others. Her clients include Riwaq, UNDP, UNESCO, USAID and the Said Foundation. Habjouqa is represented by Panos Pictures.

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Laurence Cornet is a writer, a photography critic and a curator based in Brooklyn. Her clients include L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Magnum Foundation, Images magazine, Vice, MSNBC, Vogue and Camera.