My extended absence from this blog is approaching critical levels and I wish I had a decent excuse for the hiatus. Truth be told I've been involved in a lot of really meaningful projects lately but never really had time to reflect on one while the memory was fresh before moving onto something new. What I will attempt here is a distillation of some lessons that come to mind when I reflect on the last month. The bulk of my photo/video efforts in the last month has involved participating in protests and demonstrations of various kinds. My last post was regarding a demonstration in support of land rights and legal justice for Bedouins living in the Negev region of southern Israel. Soon after that event, I became involved in a loosely knit group of activists working with refugees from Sudan and Eritrea. The social and legal situation of these refugees is incredibly complicated but I will attempt to provide a very concise summary here (because the issue in and of itself is not the purpose of this post). At a policy level, Israel has no immigration system for non-Jews who with to move here. Anyone with Jewish heritage around the world can move to Israel and gain citizenship through a relatively straightforward and well-funded program known as Aliyah. Anyone outside of the Jewish community is subject to the laws governing Entry Permits, usually pertaining to people visiting as tourists or traveling here for business. Refugees who manages to cross the border into Israel are arrested for illegally entering the country and deported to their country of origin as soon as possible. In recent years, however, refugees from Sudan and Eritrea have traveled to Israel fleeing genocide, political persecution and imprisonment in their home countries due to their ethnic, social or political affiliations. Because these people would face imprisonment or death if they were deported, Israel has made the decision not to deport people coming from these countries. The government has , on the whole, refused to either grant refugee status to these asylum-seekers and maintains a practice of treating them as "irregular border-crossers" and keeping them in administrative detention. Some are released and given documents allowing them to live in Israel but this document explicitly states that they cannot work and that they are on temporary leave from detention. The government also does not relish the presence of non-Jewish, African immigrants changing the demographic make-up of the country and as a result a great deal of pressure is put on refugees to voluntarily agree to repatriate. Faced with a future in Israel defined by either living in detention or living without the ability to work, some have chosen to risk the dangers of returning home.
It is this situation towards which the protests and activism I have been involved in lately have been focused. When the government opened a new detention facility in the middle of the Negev desert a month ago, one in which inmates are not confined but are required to report for roll call three times a day, 150 detainees left the prison in protest and began a march toward Jerusalem. That protest started a wave of other actions around the country by fellow refugees in and out of detention as well as support from activists in Israel and around the world.
What I have found myself reflecting on during these events is the way in which stories can be told through the lens of a camera. In many cases, a protest or demonstration must accomplish a number of different goals simultaneously in order to be effective. On one level, a rally is designed to enliven the participants themselves and encourage those struggling through a collective, cathartic outpouring of emotion. On another level, it gives participants and leaders a sense of the numerical support that their movement has and allows them to gauge precisely what kind of support base they are working with moving forward. Additionally, there is often a concrete outward component to a demonstration. Sometimes the goal is simply to raise awareness both through traditional media outlets and through the use of social media platforms. In accordance with principles of representative democracy, demonstrations also send a message to leaders that their constituents have grievances against the way their government is doing their job. Balancing all of these tasks and maintaining a forward momentum can be both complicated and difficult.
As a photographer, I have a similar balance of concurrent (though hopefully not competing) tasks when I am choosing which moments, images and angles to share. Whether I am covering a demonstration, documenting a conference or special event, I believe one of my responsibilities as the photographer or videographer is to maintain a distance, an objective perspective, from the event itself so that others can immerse themselves without feeling the need to worry about whether special moments are being captured. I take on the burden of remaining partially disconnected so others can remain connected. Part of my task, therefore, is to capture a sense of the wider context, the wider perspective that participants did not necessarily see because they were immersed in the experience. When I created video of, say, a conference, the images I share with the participants will hopefully not be the same images they remember in their mind or captured on their camera phones. What I am also tasked with capturing, however, are those personal, intimate elements that share the feeling, the essence of the experience with outsiders who are watching the video or looking at pictures later on.
In the case of these Refugee and Asylum-Seekers demonstrations, one of my central aims has been to counteract what I know to be false, misleading propaganda created by the government and generally racist notions about Africans that pervade Israeli society in general. I have to ask myself how I can take a picture that creates a contrast between refugee and infiltrator? (Infiltrator is the derogatory, politically charged term used to accuse African refugees of simply being job-seekers) How can I present these individuals in a way that makes them and their stories accessible to outsiders? How can I faithfully capture the anger, frustration and injustice being expressed (all of which is more than justified) while still preserving the peaceful manner with which the movement as a whole is committed to conducting their struggle. These are incredibly hard questions and I am grateful to have had this opportunity not only to tell a very important story but also to have this very unique learning opportunity.
My best hope is that what I create will accomplish some of the tasks set for me and ultimately help in some small way to bring about the social and legal changes toward which we are all working.