So much of what we hear about Gaza today is too morbid and disheartening for words to describe. Yet, everyday we see the state of Gaza in gruesome full color: in the pictures that come out of a war zone.
But photography in Gaza didn’t always have such devastating connotations for its people. There was, in a simpler time, the possibility of seeing life in simple black and white; pictures filled in and retouched in fine detail to bring out the best in the subject.
It is this beautiful past – and ghastly present – that Gaza-born photographer and filmmaker Abdel Salam Shehadeh sought to portray in his documentary “To My Father.
Shehadeh grew up in a Rafah refugee camp where his father, Hajj Shehadeh, was a well-known photographer.
“To My Father chronicles life in Gaza in the years before 1967 when, despite the occupation, residents of Gaza were able to live in relative peace and enjoy a simple, quiet life – a side of Gaza that we do not normally see.
The film employs Shehadeh’s family photo albums from this period to provide a visual document of life there during the 1950s and 60s. His own memories provide the wistful narrative of Gaza’s past.
“Egyptians used to live among us and people from around the area used to visit Gaza to enjoy the sea and to shop. Girls used to swim – people weren’t afraid of each other at that time.
Photographs show beautiful women and handsome young men; brides and grooms, school children, and families at the beach. Hajj Salameh paid special attention to photos of women and important men in the community, retouching their photographs in fine detail for the best possible effect.
Yet, in retrospect, Shehadeh believes that those years were too idyllic; that behind those eyes the photographs ponder is a distinctly visible fear of what was to come.
“We were taking pictures because we felt, we knew, that we would be bombed, burned, killed, destroyed.
This is what would happen to Gaza in 1967. The film goes into detail about the shifting meanings of photography in post-1967 Gaza.
“After ’67 people became afraid of photographs; the soldiers would take albums and use them to capture people, and photographs became scary. Life became scary, he narrates.
Photography took on new contexts after the occupation. Pictures were not for hanging at home; they were for ID cards, for sending to relatives trapped outside, and for showing the plight of Gazans in international magazines and newspapers. “The photos had become about us, not of us; we didn’t know ourselves. The meaning of a once innocent art had changed permanently.
During the first intifada in 1987, Shehadeh carried a video camera and filmed the resistance. “I was looking for my freedom through the lens, in the photos, and running after young people who were looking for their freedom too.
In 1993, Shehadeh photographed Palestinian flags, no longer forbidden, flying over Gaza as the PLO returned. “They came as if from another time, returning to their homes and families. Stone throwers were now giving olive branches to soldiers and we believed in peace.
The second intifada in 2000 shattered the hope of the Oslo Accords for Gazans. Shehadeh was there, photographing martyrs and capturing the crushing despair.
“Today the photos are colored and ugly and the occupation has increased their ugliness; the beauty was vanishing.
While his father stored the negative of every black and white photograph he took, Shehadeh hopes that the colored versions won’t be archived for the next generation.
“Today the photographer is frightened of the photo. There are too many photos, all of which are alike, all of which make us cry.
Still, in typically Palestinian fashion and despite everything, the film ends on an optimistic note. “I wish I could photograph our country and add the fine details of freedom: trees, open borders, an airport, Shehadeh says. “Let’s take care of our photos and make tomorrow better.
For those who can’t imagine that Gaza was ever a normal place to live, “To My Father is a must see. In this remarkable film, the contrasts between past and present make the present all the more real and the past all the more precious.