Photographer Hadeel Al-Ramly captures daily life in the Gaza Strip
“I felt that through photos I could express peoples’ feelings freely without anyone telling me you can’t say this or that.”
Hadeel Al-Ramly’s dream is to study cinema directing, though first she must finish her masters in economics; she believes that exploring a country through both disciplines will help develop it. Economics, she says, helps her understand different communities, offers a different angle on life, and gives her background information to work on artistic ideas.
Now, Al-Ramly lives in Italy. Her family are originally from Masmiyya, a town within the 1948 Palestinian borders. She grew up on a refugee camp in Jordan, stayed behind when her family immigrated to Europe, and then travelled to Gaza to discover herself, her nationality and to build a personal vision of the Palestinian conflict.
Inside the Strip, Al-Ramly studied journalism and spent two years working as a writer and editor. But as time passed she felt stories were being increasingly distorted to support newspaper policy, rather than reflect what was happening in the real world. “This for me was not acceptable,” she says. “So I tried to find a way to speak about the truth without feeling like the newspaper would change it.”
It is for this reason that she chose photography, a medium that offered more flexibility. “I felt that through photos I could express peoples’ feelings freely without anyone telling me you can’t say this or that. Why is there no respect for the truth?” she adds. “We have to be honest with ourselves, with our problems. There is almost no freedom when you write about Palestinian issues.”
Much of her work documents daily life, culture and the community, using five or six images to create a feature and talk about a particular cause. This format, she says, is rarely found in the Strip. “In Gaza, they only use news photography. If there’s an event or there’s something happening, they just publish one picture. Newspapers don’t publish feature stories.”
One of her projects, which won first prize in the 2011 UNRWA photo competition, presents incarcerated women. She explains that at that time she felt everybody on the Strip lived in a prison because of the Israeli army and the occupation, the divide between the West Bank and Gaza and because of harsh conditions such as lack of electricity and water. “I told myself, oh my God, we’re all living in a big prison. I have to find a way to tell people that we’re all inside a jail.”
It took her three weeks of persistence to gain entry but eventually she was able to speak to the women and photograph their experiences. “In fact, until now I’m the only person who has been inside and taken pictures of their daily life” she tells me. Afterwards, when she had prepared her feature story, many of her friends were shocked that such a place existed.
“I told them that maybe they didn’t know there was a prison for women just like maybe they don’t understand that we live inside a jail, Gaza, because this is a situation within ourselves, because of the occupation and our customs. This was my idea, not to talk about the women, but to talk about the whole situation by making a feature story about them.”
Another of her pieces depicts children in a rehabilitation centre. “I’m trying to help the community and the media focus on really important topics, like the situation of children in Gaza, the people who are inside this kind of jail, or the people on the street,” she explains. “Those children are the new generation and our future as Palestinians, so we all have to work together to support them.”
Because of the siege, taking photographs in the Strip isn’t easy. Al-Ramly covered the 2008 war, Operation Cast Lead, and had to charge her camera in the hospital when other places had blacked out. “Many times we didn’t have electricity to recharge our cameras and went to crazy places just to find it.” There is also a shortage of equipment, not just in wartime. “One day my lens broke. There’s no place to buy another one in Gaza so I waited 20 days until I received it from the West Bank.”
Because of wars like Cast Lead, and other Israeli attacks, she explains that these days, to find photographers on the street is normal and easy to navigate because of how helpful the community are: “They used to call me and tell me, come here there’s something happening and you can take a picture.” But inside an agency or newspaper it was harder. “The problem is not with the community; the problem is with some of the agencies. As a woman, they don’t care so much about your professional work.”
From the outside looking in, Al-Ramly believes her photographs gives the viewer a message or a way to build on existing ideas they might already have about the conflict in Palestine. “For sure, I want to send a message, but after that I’m just showing them a picture. They’re free to think in their own way. I’m a documentary photographer so when I have a feature story or an idea I want to tell people about I’m doing so with an open book; you can do what you want with that, as you feel or as you wish.”
As for the future of Palestine, she believes photography can change the situation. “All of us are fighting in a special way to help his or her own country. I’m working with photographs and art to help Palestine and to show what the occupation is doing. Why would I waste time on something that’s not useful for my country?” she asks me, before adding, “Photography is also a helpful ways to show the international community what it happening in the region.”
In the next 18 months, Al-Ramly hopes to finish her upcoming novel, half of which she wrote in Gaza, the second half of which she is finishing off in Italy. It’s a novel about the life of a writer and their need to visualise an identity that has been confined to exile for 18 years. “It’s also about love, daily life, with a hint of the personal, a bit about the war,” she tells me. “It’s a normal life. We [Palestinians] are human like everybody, we have problems, and we have achievements. I want to speak about everything.”
Eventually she hopes the book will be translated into English but in the beginning it will be published in Arabic as her priority is to first speak to her own people. “I believe that if all Palestinians work together to get out of this situation we will end the occupation. We are the fundamental end to our problems.”
Published in Interviews, Palestine and Israel