Rich Wiles on photography, de-colonisation and resistance

"Palestinian voices are not heard in the media and when they do break into the media they're diluted, or told what to say, or their language is changed, or they're misquoted or misrepresented. So what I'm trying to do is use my own work as a platform for which Palestinians can say whatever they want to say in their own language."

In 2004, Rich Wiles was running a photography project for children at the Lajee cultural centre inside Aida refugee camp. At the time, the Israeli army were shooting and throwing tear gas at Aida every day. He decided it would be better to live within the community and abandoned the relative calm of his neighbourhood for the camp, which would become his home for the next six years.

He has seen friends shot inside the camp, seen his friends' children shot inside the camp and attended funerals there. "This was the life we shared together," he recalls. "It shaped everything; it's where I learnt everything. It's where I learnt the realities of what living under a settler-colonial project meant; or one of the realities because there are so many different forms and shapes that it takes."

"To this day it was probably the single most comfortable place I've lived in my life, in many ways, although the most horrific place to live at the same time. Amongst the community I felt incredibly, incredibly, incredibly comfortable, incredibly safe. In many ways I still consider it my home today, although nobody should ever consider a refugee camp to be home because it's a temporary existence."

As well as working with young people in the camp to develop their photography skills, Wiles' own pictures from his time in Palestine have been exhibited and published widely. Two series from his portfolio will go on show this Thursday at the P21 Gallery in London. Both look at the wider displacement, colonial project.

Wiles believes that when it comes to documenting Palestine, context is never given. Take, for example, the recent events in Gaza. Suddenly the world begun to broadcast stories, yet they focused on rockets landing in an Israeli city, or houses being bombed in Gaza. What is important, he says, is why this is happening: "What's the bigger Zionist project that leads to that? That's what my work is focused on; it's that context that's never given."

Wiles doesn't look to document flashpoints, rather the time before and after wholesale destruction. Instead of a bulldozer destroying a house, his work is more likely to focus on the community who are given a demolition order, yet won't know for months or years if this will be the day their house is be destroyed. "What does it mean to be that person who's living in a house he built himself, for his family, to raise his kids in and doesn't know when it's going to be demolished?"

The first series on display at P21 is "The Zone: Holding On". Many of the photographs are intimate portraits of Palestinian villagers. One depicts a barren landscape, a single tent and farmyard equipment. Another seems to catch the process of a house being built or reconstructed. Many feature children; in one they stand amongst rubble.

The villagers featured in Wiles' photographs will, at some point, feel the nasty consequences of a project implemented by Israel dubbed "Firing Zone 918". The scheme begun in the south Hebron hills in the 70s, with the intention of building a firing zone on top of 12 Palestinian villages, home to over 1,000 Palestinians. Despite a legal battle in Israeli courts, the displacement project went ahead and eight villages are scheduled for total erasure. In the meantime, the villagers are simply holding on.

"That series is about the life people have now, before displacement. It's just trying to show something about their daily life in an area where they're not allowed to construct roads, virtually all the houses have been demolished so the people are living in tents. Even the tents have demolition orders," explains Wiles.

"There's one school in the village which was demolished and is being rebuilt by the community and has now got another demolition order. So it's about life inside this area and what life means for these people but it's also about this process of resistance which, in this case, is taking the form of existence."

"Israel comes in and demolishes things, Palestinians rebuild them. Israel demolishes them again and Palestinians rebuild them again. This is a form of resistance."

The second series, "Decolonisation", looks at a similar issue. In the Galilee, 66 years after their elders were forced out of their land during the Nakba; internally displaced communities are implementing their own return to their villages. Activists are establishing electricity supplies, internet and water connections inside these villages despite eviction and demolition orders. Wiles' photographs have captured their makeshift homes.

"What we've seen over the last two years is that the new generation have seen through all of these strategies and techniques and they've learnt from their ancestors and their parents and their grandparents and they've said: 'Well, we're wasting our time trying to appeal to the state of Israel to give us our rights we just need to take our rights ourselves'. So they've implemented their own return to the village that their grandparents were forced from 66 years ago," says Wiles.

"This is probably one of the first, if not the first, case of the right of return being implemented... although it hasn't actually been implemented because the state of Israel has not allowed it to happen."

Wiles says that when he first visited the village of Kafr Bir'im, one of the former Palestinian villages which the activists are attempting to reinstate, he expected to find a nationalistic, flag-baring celebration. What he found instead was a community taking very small steps towards the achievement of rights.

"This is actually the reality of what decolonisation means – it's not what the Zionist propaganda machine has always told us, which is about throwing Israelis out of their land and throwing Jews out of their land. It's nothing to do with that. It's about Palestinians achieving their basic human rights and their national rights collectively and individually. The project shows these small steps that are being taken."

In the past Wiles has referred to his photography as a tool of activism. "A photograph is never going to give Palestinians their rights," he says, "though art is part of a culture of change."

"History shows us that all liberation struggles have involved elements of armed struggle, they've involved elements of popular struggle, demonstrations, they've involved art, they've involved culture and they've involved literature. All these things combined make an effective resistance movement."

Contributing towards this culture of change means being a non-Palestinian telling the Palestinian story; "With photography you're always doing that to an extent; you're telling somebody else's story but I also feel slightly uncomfortable with the fact that Palestinians are never allowed to tell their own story, frankly."

"My work is not about Rich Wiles' story in Palestine; it's about creating platforms through which the indigenous people can get their own stories out. It's people using their own language to tell their own story in exactly the way that they want to tell it."

"Palestinian voices are not heard in the media and when they do break into the media they're diluted, or told what to say, or their language is changed, or they're misquoted or misrepresented. So what I'm trying to do is use my own work as a platform for which Palestinians can say whatever they want to say in their own language."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor