Mosa'ab Elshamy on what it was like to take photographs in Gaza during the recent flare-up of Hamas-Israel violence.
For two years, I have been covering the Egyptian revolution and the numerous clashes which erupted around Tahrir Square, growing accustomed to photographing these escalations with increasing comfort. A combination of luck, precaution and experience kept me safe from stones, rubber bullets and live ammunition. But I didn’t know what to expect as I crossed by tunnel into Gaza to cover what became a week-long war—except that things would be radically different.
After miraculously having avoided direct confrontation with scenes of death for two years in Egypt, I knew it would be unavoidable in Gaza. I ended up spending far more time in morgues than I’ll ever be comfortable with. Families spent their last minutes with loved ones, and I struggled with conveying the loss of of life and damage of the conflict without intruding on families’ intimate moments. During the minutes I spent photographing three dead children from the Al-Dallu family, I recalled an interview with seasoned war photographer Benjamin Lowy. "[W]hen I put my camera down to look at the scene, I would start crying. You can’t be in that space as a human being and not be moved," he told the New Yorker about shooting Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. "The minute I lifted up my camera, my tears stopped. I was thinking of exposure and composition and seeing the grief, but not experiencing it as a human being but as a photographer."
What Lowy described is the delicate balance between being a professional recorder of conflict—especially for a medium that requires little interaction with its subjects—and maintaining a perspective as a human. If there’s a population that has mastered the art of maintaining humanity against all odds, even death, it’s the people of Gaza. Half the Palestinians in Gaza are minors and, stepping out of a morgue, I was struck at the sight of children playing in the streets amid the airstrikes. Such moments of defiant innocence cannot but be juxtaposed with those of destruction. It leaves photographers like me fluctuating between experiences of joy and grief, scarcely leaving space for anything in between.
Photography as a medium is not exempt from the same accusations of bias that erupt every time the Palestine-Israel conflict flares up. Barring the cases where images are altered to deceive, photographs are often the most quickest way to introduce a story. Each image is part of history. The Washington Post faced such accusations over its front page photo of November 15, 2012. It showed BBC Arabic journalist Jihad Misharawi holding his dead 11-month-old son. The Post's ombudsman rightly defended his paper's judgement. "The front-page photo on Nov. 15 told not the whole story of the Gaza conflict, no," wrote Patrick Pexton, "but certainly a telling and important part of the truth." Amnesty International found that of the estimated 160 dead Palestinians in Gaza, 17 were children.
People have the right to know what is going on in the world. By choosing to print one image you automatically reject another, and each person will have a different reaction to each image. For every image printed on the front cover of a newspaper, there are 500 others that the photographer took that day. Somebody, somewhere, will always be unhappy, but a publication's editors must make the choice to tell compelling stories. (It's worth noting that in the case of conflict, the most gory images—which will usually be the most controversial—will never be used, at least by western outlets.)
During a conflict, the first thing a photographer is drawn to is identifying the frontline. Where are the highest points of danger and safety? During numerous clashes around Cairo such frontlines were easy to pinpoint and navigate; go forward when safe and retreat when it gets dangerous. In Gaza, however, shelling came from land, sea and sky—in all three cases, from almost invisible sources. Safety concerns aside, this can make an already difficult scenario even harder to photograph. It is a matter of fortune where the next bomb falls—as a photographer you want to be close enough to capture an iconic image, but far enough to survive to take your next photo. It creates an awful inner struggle that is hard to balance: you do not wish for another bombing, but if there is one, someone should capture the moment for the sake of history.