Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

George Baramki Azar, Palestine: A Photographic Journey (California, 1991).

J. C. Tordai, Into the Promised Land (Cornerhouse, 1991).

Both of these books present photographs taken in the West Bank and Gaza Strip between 1988 and 1990 that transcend the usual images of stone-throwing youths and gun-wielding soldiers. Both photographers portray newly destitute families around their demolished houses, lines of people at UNRWA food distribution centers, children studying in dilapidated classrooms, peaceful rallies and demonstrations, and the painful wait for the wounded outside hospitals.

Some of the most meaningful images are the least dramatic, such as Azar’s “Identity Card Check, Qalandiya” (Plate 32). This color photograph shows an Israeli soldier, machine gun hanging from his shoulder, gesturing with contempt at a flimsy piece of paper while the Palestinian holds out his open wallet and more papers, his face furrowed in frustration and confusion. Azar has effectively captured this man’s particular distress and the dehumanization resulting from such daily bureaucratic oppression.

Both photographs illustrate the Palestinian resistance with images of dignity, strength and steadfastness. Azar and Tordai begin with quiet daily events — a woman baking bread, children studying, a man praying. These photographs establish a sense of the rhythm of life, a feeling for moments and activities highly valued in Palestinian culture. Both books then proceed to focus on specific forms of the occupation and the events of the intifada. This sequencing shocks the viewer into better appreciating the reality of life under occupation.

Although Palestine and Into the Promised Land have similar purposes and methods, they vary considerably in style and approach. Azar’s book contains solely color photographs, each one numbered and accompanied by a descriptive caption. This style encourages the viewer to see each photograph as an image imparting information about a particular subject in concert with the text.

In contrast, Tordai’s book consists of black-and-white photos with no accompanying text, presented as an unbroken whole. Descriptive captions are located at the end. The Tordai book thus encourages viewers to react to the content of each image and its visual aesthetic.

These different presentations are consistent with the authors’ different photographic styles. Azar’s work is documentary and photo-journalistic; he uses wide-angle shots with much of the surrounding detail in focus and no obvious manipulation of the image in printing. His aim is to educate the viewer about Palestinian lives, and Ann Mosely Lesch’s introduction is especially useful in its detailed description of the intifada. Azar’s desire, as he indicates in his preface, is to portray Palestinians in their own environment, “out of the shadow for once, speaking for themselves.&rduqo; He achieves this goal impressively not only with the use of clear and detailed images, but also with the impact of statements from Israeli military and political leaders, Palestinian poetry, eyewitness accounts and startling minutiae like the warning label on tear gas canisters.

Azar eloquently tells the stories of individuals, families and towns in chapters such as “International Women’s Day, March 8, 1988,” “Sunday in Bayt Sahour,” and “The Funeral of Khadr Muhammad Hamida.” His subjects seem at ease with his presence, and he conveys his empathy with them in his photographs.

Tordai’s style, more stark and focused on extremes, elicits immediate and powerful responses. His photographs often pinpoint a particular aspect of a scene. In many there is little or no surrounding detail, or the background is unfocused. Tordai emphasizes intense facial expressions of anguish, numbness or determination, particularly in his portrayal of the depth of the psychological damage inflicted upon Palestinian children. The most striking of these is captioned “A policeman grabs a boy following the break up of a peace march around the Old City, East Jerusalem”(37). The only face in this photograph is that of the boy, mouth open wide in a scream; his eyes, full of horror, are fixed on the policeman we cannot see.

Tordai’s photographs carefully emphasize patterns and forms beautifully highlighted by the black-and-white format. In many images he has darkened the sky or the edges of the frame in the printing process, thus drawing the viewer’s eye to the lighter central subject. He occasionally darkens the area immediately surrounding a person’s limbs or the edges of a flag lending a sense of blurred motion and a surreal glow. His photographs generally have high contrast: stark whites and impenetrable blacks. They also have a grainy quality, which indicates that Tordai often forgoes the use of flash and instead uses fast, highly sensitive film and available natural light. His ability to capture intensely emotional expressions and his unique style of printing combine to create a stunning visual description of what he says “could be found on the streets any day of the week.”

How to cite this article:

Michelle Woodward "Photo Books on Palestine," Middle East Report 194-195 (July/August 1995).
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