Bringing our own lens: Visualising conflict in Palestine
by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
15 March 2016
The rear room at Common Grounds Cafe was the venue for a display of three types of imagery — participatory, documentary, and expository — for the Imagine! Festival of Ideas & Politics event, Visualising Conflict in Palestine, which was attended by a mixture of the artistically intrigued and politically motivated.
Fixed to the walls were 8×10-inch matted photographs taken by young people, many in Bethlehem and Battir. Larger, near A2 sized, photos in glass frames rested propped on tables. Completing the set was a video monitor showing a looping slideshow of images of a training programme for medical students.
Dr Julie Norman, Queen’s University Belfast, explained the background of the young photographers’ work. She relayed how they wanted to challenge common images that portrayed them as perpetrators of violence as well as those that showed them as victims. Instead, they wanted to show the the beauty of their land and culture and the strength and resilience of their community.
For example, Dr Norman described three images on display. One of a girl on a swing was motivated by a sense of joy; a universal emotion enjoyed by children. Another shows a boy standing in front of a landscape; but this is of land that was planned to be cut off by the separation barrier (it wasn’t). And the third is of youth in front of a wall, with a sense of determination: we are still here.
Dr Norman added that in this last image, one viewer asked her how she made the wall look so big; did she Photoshop the image? No, she didn’t. This revealed the viewer’s bias — or as Dr Norman put it, the lens we bring to what we view.
She concluded that her participatory project — where the images are produced by members of the observed community, not the ‘outsiders’ — isn’t without controversy. As one member of the audience asked later, is it beneficial to humanise ‘the enemy’? Or is ‘normalisation’ a disservice to the daily strife suffered?
Dr Brendan Browne explained how his dozen photojournalist images on show resulted from a desire to bear witness to the violence of everyday life. His photographs were taken over a two-year period, on a theme of the commemoration of the Nakba (marking the displacement associated with the Israel declaration of independence in 1948).
When asked if he felt that his presence altered the behaviour of the security services, he replied certainly not! Instead, he said that local people would advise him where to go, to capture the desired image whilst remaining safe.
Positioned over the presenters’ heads was a slideshow of images taken by Dr Emma Browne. These were a sample of her work as a physician working with two NGOs — of students training to become medical professionals, with all of the added barriers of living in a contested space.
Dr Brendan Browne said that all three exhibitions have the theme of resilience running through them: “These are deeply resilient people.” Yet the variety of the subjects’ actions on display here may cause one to consider the elasticity of the word ‘resilient’ — from stoicism to defiance.
After these introductions, the questions asked by the audience varied from artistic approaches to political activism.
For example, Dr Norman said that her camera and film based project would not likely happen today, because now so many, including young people, have the ubiquitous smartphone. Dr Brendan Browne confirmed that he shot many thousands of images with his digital camera, in the short period of time of his project. But perhaps, Dr Norman suggested, there was a viable digital storytelling project, which would include video and audio?
What about any cross-community storytelling projects? This was answered with a reminder of the contentious issue of ‘normalisation’, that one shall not cavort with the enemy. Indeed, explained Dr Brendan Browne, it can be dangerous to be seen doing such work. Dr Norman qualified this, saying that while there can be such work within Israel (between Jews and Palestinians), there would not likely be any within the Palestinian territories.
Dr Brendan Browne answered a predictable question about the comparison of the Northern Ireland conflict with that in Israel-Palestine, by saying that he was wary of making any comparison, believing that each conflict is specific. Yet another participant later made an explicit historical reference to Israel being established as an Ulster bulwark against uncivilised Arabs nations!
I attempted to rephrase the question along artistic lines, how documentary photography in Northern Ireland during the Troubles was typical war photojournalism, producing regular images of violent conflict for newspaper copy. How this was countered by community based, participatory photography pioneered locally by Belfast Exposed. Coming of age during the peace process, Dr Emma Browne answered by saying that images of the Troubles appeared nearly historical to her. Though we still have our ‘peace walls’ and photos of them, she added. Insightfully, having lived in both Northern Ireland and Palestine, she observed that images of common cause displayed in both places aren’t always accurate.
So why should we care about these images on display, versus the easy multitudes available on social media? Because these tell a story, answered Drs Brendan and Emma Browne: “Facebook images are disconnected.” They both added that they wish they could show more images themselves, particularly the sheer level of poverty they witnessed.
One participant asked what she would do after leaving this exhibition. Dr Brendan Browne suggested becoming an activist for the Palestinian cause (underlining how imagery can be used as a calling). Another participant invited attendees to volunteer for ecumenical work in Israel-Palestine.
Regardless if a viewer of these images is provoked into direct action, this exhibition promoted discussion and debate on the politics and art of a place regularly compared to ours, and was thus a successful festival event.
Dr Julie Norman’s images remain on display at Common Grounds Cafe until 31 March 2016.
I am a peace journalist, because I believe in transforming conflict-driven narratives. I am editor of Shared Future News, which reports on peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. I am a co-founder and editor of FactCheckNI, Northern Ireland’s first fact-checking service, which works improve civic discourse. I also support the conflict resolution work of the Forum for Cities in Transition in Belfast.