Capturing Pride, not Pity. Josh Jones on taking photographs in the Occupied West Bank
© Josh Jones 2008
In a meeting room adorned with lime green chairs and a colourful tiled carpet at the University of the Arts, London, photographer Josh Jones is explaining the difference between an image that inspires pity and one that inspires respect. He lifts his arms in the air to illustrate a shot he took in the occupied West Bank of a young Bedouin boy holding his younger brother. The child in his arms is poorly dressed, his eyes averted; behind them is the land he and his family tend as goat herders. It is littered with unexploded devices from Israeli military weapons practice.
Though there are disturbing elements to the photo, the young boy, who looks straight at the camera, is full of pride for his brother. Josh explains how the same picture could easily have turned into one of the child looking up at you, with big round eyes; a photograph intended to provoke sympathy. “Photographs that inspire pity are ultimately very negative towards the aims of resisting the occupation,” Josh tells me, “because they suggest that Palestinians are people that need our help, that they are suffering an endless plight. Whereas photographs that inspire respect can help build solidarity as we feel we can connect with someone else’s plight. Not as subjects or as charity, but as human beings who have their own voice.”
A colourful character, when I meet Josh, he’s wearing a light blue shirt and silver waistcoat with orange brown trousers. Also working full time as a student representative organizer at Holborn University of Arts, he has been to Palestine twice, once in 2008 with the Jordan Valley Solidarity group, and once in 2010 with a small group of friends. He lives in London, studied English Literature at Sussex University, and taught himself photography from the age of 16 onwards. Until 2008 he used an old film camera until he invested in his canon 40D. “You don’t need an expensive camera,” he tells me “it’s what you do with it.”
His interest in the region is in part because of Britain’s colonial past. “People living in the heart of a former empire should venture out and connect with people who are still living the repercussions of what that empire did,” he tells me. “For the situation in Palestine, a huge burden of guilt falls upon the British administration for what they did in the 20th century. The way they conducted their mandate period has really set things up to fail so it’s something of a responsibility for us as British citizens now to at least take an interest.” Another catalyst is his desire to transcend mainstream media that is sponsored by the state and large corporations. “They don’t necessarily have the means to tell the story from the ground.”
He believes that the physical barriers to taking photographs in the Occupied West Bank are tedious. Soldiers confiscating your camera, customs officials confiscating your memory stick. “I find them mundane because to dwell on them too much is to give too much credit to what is frankly a very boring occupation that relies on really Orwellian, grey tactics to get its way. There’s a lot of administration that goes on behind concrete walls, and very little of it is dramatic and newsworthy, which is perhaps partly why the occupation is flourishing so beautifully in the West Bank; it’s being allowed to blossom because there aren’t many glamorous moments of explosions happening that will attract the attention of the world media.”
Josh feels that some obstacles to his photography are self-imposed, and stem from his feelings of being an outsider who isn’t entitled to comment on the situation, or a fear of not honouring someone’s story. “Who am I to try and speak for someone who’s been through so much suffering, who am I to flatten such a complex situation into the two dimensions of a photograph,” he says, moving his hands together to demonstrate a story being compressed into an imaginary photograph. “Its an insane situation to try and do that, it seems brutal and violent. And that’s actually been the biggest challenge for me; much harder than taking the photographs is sharing them and that fear of getting it wrong.”
As a photographer, he has always been interested in the “moments between moments,” which can create images to counter the status quo of what Palestine is perceived to be. Much attention in the West Bank is given to the flashpoints, he says; stone throwers, guns and gas, which ultimately “creates a visual culture of violence where all people see of Palestine is violence and that’s all they can imagine.” He recounts a story of a weekly protest in Bil’in where one of the soldiers pushed a protestor, she got angry, he defensive, and all the photographers swarmed in, holding their cameras high above each other to get the shot through the crowds.
“I looked round, took a few steps back, and there was another protestor, who was one of the villagers. There was a line of soldiers, and he was lying on his back on the ground, resting on a rock, in the most relaxed pose; he looked like a poet or an artist, just glancing up at them. He just had this attitude of defiance that said, this is my village, so what. It’s so the wrong response to guys with guns who are on your land. It seems so inappropriate, such a beautiful gesture for him to disrespect the supposed authority of these guys wielding violent weapons.”
Josh admits that he was dubious of attending the protests at first. “I didn’t want to go at all”, he exclaims. “I heard about it and I thought, I’m not going to a protest, I’ll get killed.” Despite changing his mind, his experience is not just formed of demonstrations. He fondly remembers going to water parks, having dinner with families, turning up the music in the car and singing along. “It’s those little glimpses that help you to remember that Palestine is not just an issue, it’s a people. They have families, they have fun, they have culture, and they have art. They’re trying to make the most of things and they’re trying to make life happen. Where that intersects with the occupation is far more interesting than any grand politics of what the UN or the President of the Palestinian Authority is saying this week or next week.”
Even so, he admits that even the simplest snapshot of people having fun is in many ways political, “because existence is resistance there too. To even have fun is such a political statement in the West Bank. The occupation is telling you to be miserable all the time.” On a visit to a Christian school in Hebron, the target of a number of arson attacks from Israeli settlers, one of the girls was showing Josh her work, a picture of her ideal home. On the image, her face and the picture are cut in two, though she is in focus. “It’s a simple school exercise and yet it comes across as such a political act that you almost wonder if the school will be punished by Israel for allowing their kids to have such radical thoughts as having a home one day” he tells me.
Earlier, Josh and I talked about whether or not photography, such as the picture of this little girl, could have an effect on the conflict in Palestine. He told me that by directly engaging with a situation we’re passionate about, reflecting upon and sharing our experiences, we can certainly make a difference. Later, he adds. “As human beings, we can connect personally with Palestine in our own way, that means something to us based on our own strengths, whether it’s as an activist, by supporting the boycott, visiting Palestine, taking direct action, action in solidarity, educating ourselves and others and exploring the issue through art and literature. Photography is one brilliant way of recording and sharing and promoting these forms of resistance.”
I ask Josh what he would like an audience to take away from his work, some of which is currently being exhibited in P21 Gallery in central London. “For people who know little or nothing about Israel and Palestine I would like to peak their curiosity, and maybe, maybe, maybe they’ll look more into it when they have time… for people who’ve felt the occupation’s brutality in any way, I would like to offer some recognition for their suffering, some affirmation, something that recognizes and affirms their experience and does a little tiny bit of it justice. For those that deny the occupation and the brutality therein, I’d like to give them a headache. I’d like to make them feel uncomfortable and challenge that thought.”
Photos © Josh Jones
Originally published in Middle East Monitor
Published in Palestine and Israel