Elias Sanbar on photographing Palestine: ‘It’s a long story of love and hate’

Palestine book awards winners 2015

Shortlisted authors, from left to right: Amb Elias Sanbar; Dr Mohamed Karim (representing Lena Jayyusi) and Jean-Pierre Filiu

During the ideological battle between the Church of England and Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century, photographers believed that history, as it was recounted in Genesis, could be proved by travelling to Palestine and bringing back images that confirmed the story of divine creation. Along with Egypt, where fascination with the Pharaohs drew photographers from across the world, Palestine, as “the Holy Land”, was one of the most photographed places in the world.

With this in mind, the English photographer Francis Frith set off for Palestine with a plan to enter the country exactly as Moses did; through Sinai, photographing all the places mentioned in the Bible along the way. But when Frith reached Mount Horeb, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, he was disappointed by its small size; for such revelations to have taken place there he believed the mountain should be at least as big as the Himalayas.

“So he managed to photograph the mountain as if it was the Himalayas,” Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO Elias Sanbar tells me. “When you cannot find a place that fits to the description in the book, you change the place; you don’t say the book is not accurate.”

Adjusting photographs to fit with preconceived ideas is one of many observations on how Palestinians and Palestine have been photographed that Sanbar has detailed in his new book, The Palestinians: Photographs of a Land and its People from 1839 to the Present Day. The two main themes of the book – first, that despite its supposed realism photography is one of the least realistic mediums of expression, and second how it is possible to fabricate a country and its people through an image – are bound together by a simple question: “Qu’est-ce que c’est un image? What is an image?” Sanbar, whose mother carried him over the border and into Lebanon during the 1948 Nakba, currently lives in France and often punctuates his answers with French.

Much like their notions of how the landscape should appear, photographers arrived in Palestine with preconceived ideas of the people living amidst that landscape. They did not expect Palestinian Christians or Jews to look like Palestinian Muslims: “They came with an idea that you cannot mix these three religions,” says Sanbar, “so they began to photograph the inhabitants of Palestine as if they were just squatters of the place – and this is one of the main sources of the idea of the expansion and of the idea that these inhabitants should not be there; they were in a place that did not belong to them and they would have to leave when the real owners of the place came back.”

It is only when you compare pictures of Palestinians taken by Europeans with those taken by Palestinian photographers that you see how different these portrayals are. Sanbar has juxtaposed two pictures of Palestinian women, the first taken by French photographer Maison Bonfils and the second taken by Palestinian photographer Khalid Raad. “It’s alive”, says Sanbar of Raad’s image.

“This is a real look of intimacy, absolutely radically different to the others because it is photography from the inside. I’m not saying that to have a real image you have to be from the place, that’s not at all what I’m saying. We have some foreigners who came and gave some really real images of the place. We have some exceptions, and it’s very fortunate that we have some exceptions otherwise I would be saying we are in two worlds that would never be able to meet. This is absolutely the opposite of what I believe.”

“Many of the people came with a pre-[conceived] idea, most of them who came knew what they wanted to photograph because they were coming to see the image,” he adds . “Life is often much stronger than these type of attitudes. Some of them fell really in love with the place and their way of looking at things was immediately changed without themselves perceiving the change. So it’s a long story of love and hate; a very, very long story and very complex; as with all stories of love and hate.”

Sanbar says this Orientalist depiction of Palestinians was not necessarily intentional or planned: “This is not a plot and we shouldn’t fall into the very mechanical reading of Orientalism. This was very much part of the unconscious,” he says drawing my attention to a panorama featuring officers of the royal regiment of engineers posing for a friend who is photographing them in the Haram Al-Sharif compound. “If you look very [closely] all the postures or the attitudes, [you see they] are attitudes of the owners of a place. They pose exactly as if they were in their own houses. This is an announcement of the British mandate… we order and command and rule this land,” explains Sanbar, pausing for a moment. “This is absolutely unconscious”, he adds, pointing out there is a strange irony in these images: “What is difficult for any researcher is that these photos have their own beauty. Although their content is not very sympathetic it’s difficult to have a critical eye on these photos. Some are very beautiful.”

Under a section of the book entitled “Intifada”, one photograph captures a Palestinian woman in Beit Sahour holding a pair of yellow high-heeled shoes with her left hand and throwing a stone into the distance with her right hand; others images portray the banal nature of the occupation in which people sit around waiting for something to happen. These are a small, alternative selection from the wealth of material that is available: “The media have produced thousands of images,” says Sanbar “and very, very few of them have shown what is going on. The way images are being shown is comparable to musical clips… the problem is not what they show, the problem is the tempo, the rhythm of showing the images whether it’s movies or stills. The tempo is a big, big obstacle to reflection - you are in a rhythm that won’t allow you to think.”

People focus on capturing what is sensational, he continues, but this is not always the best way to explain what is taking place. “The problem is that on many, many occasions photos that seem to be very banal will explain much more to you than photos that will move you,” says Sanbar explaining that if a photo moves you too much this takes away your ability to reflect on it. Of course some photos need to have that power to move, but it’s a question of quantity: “For the time being we have very, very few images that explain and we have [many] images that move.”

Further on in the book, a double page spread showcases the work of Antoine D’Agata, a photographer who is now a member of Magnum. Sanbar tells me that D’Agata spent only five days in Palestine and never returned: “In one page you can understand much more than hundreds of other images. In my opinion his work in five days is much more important than work made by photographers who have spent years in Palestine… You have the repression, you have the revolt, you have the fear, and you have the emptiness. This is a very good definition of occupation.”

Earlier in the book, Sanbar attempts to capture both the conflict and the everyday by arranging photographs as though they are a family album entitled “An album under the British Mandate”. Some images depict musical bands and costume parties whilst some are of the 1936 – 1939 revolution in Palestine and portray underground fighters and militias. Whether it was 80 years ago or the present day, there is no period of time in Palestine in which there is either nothing but daily, normal life or nothing but fighting, explains Sanbar, they both happen at the same time: “This is the reality.”

Fighting, restricted freedom of movement and constant repression may be enforced on the Palestinians, but they have not lost their beautiful tradition of hospitality: “If you want to understand the resistance, you have to understand this mixture,” says Sanbar. “How people who are submitted to such a difficult daily life can afford to be very natural in welcoming any visitor? Why do they still laugh? Because this is life, I think. Today if you wanted to show the images then you should mix both [those of daily life and those of fighting]; then people would understand what’s happening.”

Most of the images that make up The Palestinians come from Sanbar’s own personal collection, which he selected not based on their aesthetic value alone but on how much they interested him or evoked his emotions. Photographs are harder to collect these days, he says, recalling that he used to pay one franc or one franc and fifty centimes. “Today most of them are for 200 or 300 Euros,” he says, laughing. “C’est fini.” That may be true, but there is a lot for readers to appreciate in his current collection: “What I would expect is that [the viewer] takes time to control his sight, his regarde, his way of looking to things. Very simply, not more. And I hope also it will give him some pleasure because some of the photos are very, very beautiful. Voilà.”

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor