Ever since the start of the first Intifada in 1987, the West Bank and Gaza have become the center not only of Palestinian politics but also of international coverage of the Palestinians. On the ground, these processes of media production are collaborative and dialogical. Working with visiting journalists, photographers, and other media makers, Palestinians translate, set up interviews, and navigate checkpoints. They not only interpret Arabic; they also interpret facial expressions, city streets, and landscapes. But once the visiting media makers go home and material is edited, published, and circulated, Palestinians can be cut out of the conversation. The media produced by international visitors often take on an authoritative voice, the voice of someone who has “been there,” while the Palestinians who are still “there” do not always see the final results of these projects.
As a media ethnographer, I believe it is important not only to trace the routes that media most often travel—for example through major media organizations like the Associated Press and CNN—but also to create new routes for ideas and images. Of course it is essential that more Palestinian political perspectives are represented in mainstream US news, but I have a slightly different goal in mind. We should bring in the kinds of voices underrepresented in mainstream news anywhere: those of poor people, those without a formal education, popular activists, women, youth, and others. In the Palestinian case, this also means focusing on refugees. Moreover, we should bring into political discussions a consideration of everyday life and an awareness of community histories. It was in this spirit that I began collaborating with friends at Lajee Center, a community organization in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, to ask youth to interpret images of their community that circulate internationally.
These youth, ages sixteen to twenty-two, are active photographers themselves. So the goal was not only to start a new kind of dialogue about images, but also to give the youth the chance to look at a wide variety of photography to help them develop their own work. My local Palestinian collaborator and one of the participants in the workshop, Mohammad Al-Azza, is the director of the Media Unit at Lajee Center. He gave us our name: “With Our Ideas, We Take Our Portrait.” It rhymes in Arabic: “Bi fikritna min sawar suritna.”
We started with the work of Magnum photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti, an Argentinian-American photographer who visited Palestine twice in the early and mid-2000s. As her best-known work then had been in Argentina, she saw Palestinian communities with a fresh eye, at a time when the wounds of the second Intifada were raw. One major project of Sanguinetti has been to chronicle the relationship of two cousins as they grew up in rural Argentina. In other of her work, she chronicles interspecies relationships in a farm there. These are stunning images that thematize childhood, growing up, and the inextricability of violence and everyday life; they suggest a depth of imagination and emotion in ordinary settings.
In Palestine, Sanguinetti encountered a new landscape, cast of characters, and political context, but she continued exploring relationships among people and between people and their surroundings. First, our group discussed the images, over Skype and online, and then we had a Skype conversation with Sanguinetti herself. The participants asked a number of excellent questions about her work, and then Sanguinetti asked one of her own about how the youth viewed people like her who came in to do such photography projects and left. A young woman replied that Sanguinetti went well beyond the usual parameters of international representations of Palestinian society, beyond explosions and blood and oppression. It was clear Sanguinetti was welcome back, any time.
After this, the participants wrote their own short essays about Sanguinetti’s photographs. We’ve selected a few to share with you in the post "With Our Ideas, We Take Our Portrait: Reflections on the Work of Alessandra Sanguinetti." We hope to continue this series with more of this youth commentary on photography about Palestinians. And perhaps we’ll see some of their photography as well!