If you hadn’t heard already, there’s a great deal of creative energy flowing through Palestine right now. The very first Palestine Photo-Marathon was launched by the Danish House in Palestine (DHIP) earlier this month, where scores of amateur and professional photographers came together in a competition to interpret a series of themes within a limited period of time. Here artist and photographer Maher Khatib shares his experiences.
As a photographer of Palestinian descent who has lived in Denmark for over 25 years, I am always eager to expose the stories, colors and details that are invisible to audiences outside of Palestine. We are all so used to seeing the difficult side of Palestinian reality: the occupation, the Wall, the clashes, the demonstrations. Very rarely do we see the fabric of everyday life.
Palestine boasts some amazing photographers: Rula Halawani and Ahlam Shibli to name a few. Among the younger generation Yazan Khalili and Khaled Jarrar come to mind. Yet the photography community is very small, and there is no widespread sense that photography need not be documentary or journalistic to have an impact.
The photo-marathon began at 9 am sharp on May 1. There was anticipation and nervous smiles all around because very few participants knew each other. In total 72 people signed up for the marathon. 39 completed. It’s not everyday you see so many photographers and people who love photography in one place in Palestine. Young and old, of all classes, carrying big and small cameras, phones and iPads – they were anxiously waiting to be presented with the themes which were developed by the young Palestinian poet Dalia Taha and comedian Manal Awad in coordination with DHIP.
Anjidd zaaki, theme #1 translates to “so delicious”. Bint al-hara, theme #4, doesn’t translate well into English. Not quite the girl next door. Not quite the neighbor’s girl. Perhaps best translated as homey girl. Theme #6: Ana urid… A paraphrase of the chants of the Arab Spring – al-sha’b yurid (the people want). Here the I is the subject. I want…
I followed some of the participants around the narrow streets of Ramallah’s old city. One young guy, Bassam Darrab, had no camera but used his 7″ Galaxy tablet: “Look, I’m not a photographer, and I don’t have a camera but I love photography and I want to meet people and try this challenge.” And it was no small challenge for him to walk and hold the tablet and take photos. But he managed quite well. And why not, I thought to myself, why not a tablet. This isn’t a technical competition but more about creating compelling images.
Dr. Abdallah A Shararah, the oldest participant in the photo-marathon, is a physician. He hadn’t used his camera for years. We’d met at the Ramallah coffee shop, a famous hangout for the city’s intellectuals, artists, and activists. He asked about the photo-marathon and I encouraged him to sign up for the shorter 6-hour competition. He signed up for the 12-hour one instead and was very excited as he held the first set of four themes in his hand. When he returned at 1 pm to pick up the next set of themes, I followed him outside Ramallah.
We talked about the photo-marathon, and he told me that something had begun to shift inside him: “You know, life here is very hard. Sometimes you forget that you live. It’s like I haven’t changed oil in my car for a long time. I only remembered it today because it’s an important day. It hasn’t felt like an important day for so long. I am very happy that I decided to join because I need to restart my soul, and this is a good opportunity. It’s soul therapy, you know. It’s like challenging myself using my photography to leave everything, wife, house, kids, work, etc. behind and only think about myself for a whole, long day. It was wonderful to clean my camera. You know what I mean?” I did.
I left him and went back to DHIP. He called me two hours before the deadline. His batteries for the camera had died, and he couldn’t find a store and he still had three themes to go. I told him to come back. We went out on the balcony with a coffee and he sat on the ground, lit a cigarette and took a long puff. “This is so difficult, Maher, but I haven’t enjoyed a day like this one for a long time.” He recharged the batteries and went out. When he returned at 9 pm with his 12 images, he bore the gentlest of smiles. We had another coffee and another cigarette together. We hardly exchanged a word. We didn’t need to.
Maher Khatib is a visual artist and photographer. He helped coordinate the first Palestine Photo-Marathon. Maher lives in Ringsted, Denmark.
The Danish House in Palestine (DHIP) is an independent non-governmental organisation that works to enhance mutual understanding and trust between Danes and Palestinians. DHIP builds creative frameworks for professional and cultural exchange.
Palestine Photo-Marathon is supported by International Media Support (IMS).