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Notable Palestinians

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Showing 101 - 118 from 118 entries

> Mai Masri Palestinian Filmmaker
> Rashid Masharawi - filmmaker
> Ramzi Nasr - poet and performer
> Vera Tamari - artist
> Mahmoud Darwish
> Yara Dowani: swimmer and karate player
> Akram Safadi - photographer
> Rosemary Sayigh: anthropologist
> Adnan Mousallem: historian
> Sharif Kanaana: anthropologist and folklorist
> Faida Daibes-Murad wins environmental prize in Sweden
> Milad Fatouleh: Palestinian Child Wins...
> Hisham Sharabi Ph.D. 1927 – 2005
> Daniel Zoughbie: Global Micro-Clinic Founder
> Ahmed Harb, author and university lecturer
> Julia Dabdoub, Bethlehem
> Interview with Mitri Raheb: Recounting ordinary stories
> Musa Sanad - by Leyla Zuaiter
page 6 from 6  
Akram Safadi - photographer
submitted by Toine Van Teeffelen

By Sarah Collins

"I am bad at public relations, I say too much or the wrong thing. Image is the only language I know." Akram Safadi, a photographer and filmmaker, sits with a cigarette in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other and in front of us a table covered with photographs from the Intifada, which were once deemed subversive.

During the Intifada, Akram's work was much in demand by press agencies and the international media. His action shots of demonstrations and confrontations were infused with speed and adrenaline. They were attention grabbing, front-page material, but despite their popularity, Akram does not rate them as highly as he does his more reflective shots. "Today's news is tomorrow's toilet paper," he says grinning, shuffling through the prints. The photographs, covering the entire Intifada period, constitute a quite representative sample of Akram Safadi's photographic work. They range from the immediacy and physicality of arrest, to the quiet reflections of an old woman. "That one was taken at a feminist demonstration in Ramallah," he says pointing to the picture of a woman being arrested. It is 'on the spot' news, capturing the fear, anger and aggression of the encounter. "That kind of thing happened all the time," he says. I ask if we can print it. He agrees but laughs, saying "Newspapers like these action shots, but I prefer this one." He shows me another picture, also of an encounter with an Israeli soldier. In the foreground an armed soldier stands facing away from the camera, the lens angle causing him to tower over the scene. The soldier looks towards an old Palestinian man who is climbing some steps behind a wire fence, dwarfing the bent figure. There is no action except that of the tension between the two men.

People as subjects

There are no landscape shots among the photographs Akram has brought to show me. The subjects are always people: "I love to look at faces," he explains, adding, "they say a lot about a situation. In a way, photographing faces is like recording history. When circumstances change, so do the expressions on people's faces. Where is the laughter in the faces here?" I scan the shiny black and white prints spread over the table to find there is just one laughing face, that of a woman looking over her shoulder as she walks across a square, a keffiyeh wrapped around her shoulders. "That is not here, it is in Milan," he tells me, adding, "She's an Italian friend."

"I like this one very much," says Akram, looking intently at the faces of the two children in his photograph. The picture was taken in Husan near Bethlehem in 1989. Behind the children are the remains of their demolished house, one of many in the village that were destroyed. "They are looking in different directions, what does that mean?" he asks quietly and continues to stare at the little figures. "It is the details that make them seem so innocent," he says. "Look at the safety pins, and the torn shirt collar, and the hats." The bewildered pain in the faces is that of 'aged' children: they are small and runny-nosed, but their eyes have already seen too much. "I should thank these children - they provided me with a haunting image," he says, still looking at them.

Then he turns to a picture of a demonstration, which took place in 1989 in the alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem. "There were plenty of demonstrations like this during the Intifada," he says, "but what I like about this picture is the range of people involved. Look at the different faces and the different generations."


His final selection is an image of an old woman in profile. There is no action, no movement, and no teargas - there is nothing at all, just a face and the imagined thoughts behind it.

None of the four photographs appeared in the pages of any Palestinian newspaper during the Intifada years; three were banned, while the fourth, that of the old woman, was destined to remain unpublished because there was no demand for photographs that were not hard news. The issue of censorship is a complicated one. During the Intifada, the publication of almost all Akram's news shots was prohibited by the Israeli censors at Beit Agron, the Israeli Government press office, but this only applied to publication in the Palestinian press. Consequently, while some of his pictures appeared on the pages of the Israeli papers, and internationally via news agencies, Akram was prevented from reaching the local audience. But then surely the most important thing was to inform the world in general of events as the Intifada unfolded - the Palestinian audience hardly needed to be told; they could watch it happening on their own streets. Akram disagreed. He explained that for Palestinians, his photographs would have provided a way to reflect as well as inform. He differentiated between the experience of being in the heat of a demonstration and looking at the images afterwards. By choosing which faces to photograph, from which angle, and at which moment, he ensured that his pictures provide a comment on the events as well as a record.

Can the camera lie or was it the truth that the Israelis were afraid of? In Akram's philosophy of the image there is little room for the idea of photography as either truth or deception. He dismisses the claims or even the aspirations of those who seek objectivity in their work. "Neutrality doesn't exist," he says. "Realities are always seen through somebody's eyes. The creation of an image is a necessary part of the reality." He thinks for a moment, then puts it like this: "Photographs capture pieces of realities and give them back to people who may have passed by without observing."


There must have been times, when Akram was out in the streets in the heart of the action covering street battles and demonstrations, that being aware of the danger made him afraid. "Of course it was dangerous sometimes," Akram says. "All over the world photographers and journalists have been killed or injured while working; it can be a dangerous profession." And what about specific problems of being a Palestinian photographer covering the Intifada? "The discrimination happened on an unofficial level," he says. "Closed military areas were closed to all journalists, Palestinian or not. The main problem was that for the Israeli soldiers I was an anomaly - in their minds Palestinians only ever have stones in their hands not cameras." He expresses his frustration in regard to the number of reels of film confiscated by the Israeli authorities. "They have some of my best pictures. They haven't even developed them," he adds in a surprisingly light-hearted tone.

Recently Akram has been focusing his work away from still photography, towards film, specifically documentaries. "I have moved away from the 'on the spot news' type of photography - it pays and there is always a demand but it doesn't interest me as much as using the image in a more creative way," he says. At the moment, Akram is working on a documentary film about Jerusalem. "I'm most concerned with using original ideas," he says. His photographs of Jerusalemites will form a foundation for the film, which concentrates on the city's people more than its politics.


"Jerusalem is always a difficult subject," he explains. "A lot of people from outside have fixed views about it. I mean what picture of Jerusalem did you have before you came here?" I struggle to remember a time before the present confusion of images. "Probably holy sites, Jesus, churches," he prompts. "There are already so many pictures of Jerusalem in people's heads, it's hard to challenge them. Many people see it as a place of pilgrimage, a place to get closer to the gods." I suppose he is right about the presuppositions. Few people knew where Bosnia Herzegovina was before the recent crisis, let alone what it looked like. There were no religious fantasies there to overcome. But in Jerusalem, for many foreigners, icons mingle with the Intifada in a tangle of Sunday school memories and dramatic newsreel. In his documentary Akram wants to represent Jerusalem as he sees it - neither a heavenly city, nor a crucible of violence. He chooses to show it through the stories of its people. "I spent hours walking around Jerusalem trying to see it from different angles," he says as he shows me some of his favorite pictures of Jerusalemites. In one, an ebony-skinned old man sits in the shadow of his nut stall. Only where the light reflects white off his cheek and forehead can he be seen at all. "A lot of people know this man," says Akram, "They see him around, he is a character, but a photograph provides a kind of bridge towards understanding him." Another picture shows an overhead view of boys playing football. "Look at their shadows" he says pointing. They are long and dark, and next to the shortened bodies and outstretched running legs, they give a strangely distorted appearance to the everyday scene.

In a third picture an old woman wearing a thoub (traditional Palestinian dress) looks back towards the camera as she descends some stone steps in an Old City alley. Her expression is furious; she glowers at the lens. "This is a story in itself," says Akram, "She was suspicious of me taking her photo, that's what makes the picture." Clearly this woman's picture was not staged - the actual subject is unremarkable, and it is the old woman's candid reaction to the camera that brings it alive.

Did Akram ever stage his pictures? "It depends what you mean by 'stage'," he answers. "Is it staged to ask someone to look towards the camera? I never use actors but there are degrees of manipulation involved in setting up a shot; it depends where you draw the line."

He pulls out a photograph of a woman, her face covered with a scarf, sewing a Palestinian flag. "This woman is not an actress," he stresses. "During the Intifada many women used to sew flags, which was illegal. I wanted to photograph this woman sewing, so she had to cover her face."

He describes how, away from the spontaneity and pace of covering spot news, there is obviously more scope for composing a shot creatively, though he stresses that this is not the same as staging. "There is time to think about structure and lighting, rather than just capturing the action," he says. This is why he prefers to work on features for magazines where his photographs are an art in themselves, rather than as a means of livening up a political news story. He is concerned by the lack of such outlets in Palestine.


Akram has not always been a photographer - he studied social sciences as an undergraduate and anthropology as a post-graduate student. "I didn't always write what teachers expected of me," he says, "which is, perhaps, the reason why I am better at photography. Photography is all about seeing things differently."

"You can't teach photography," Akram insists. "You can teach techniques I suppose, but no one can explain to you exactly when to open the shutter." Ironically, between projects Akram teaches photography to university students. "They want me to do it, and it's work so I do it," he explains pragmatically. "When I teach I like to use workshops. That can be productive, but photography shouldn't be taught as if it were an academic subject. It is not about me instructing my student but about reaching the didactic moment when each of us can learn from the other." Despite his reservations about teaching methods, Akram is keen to encourage the art of photography among students. "I want to see the image become important in Palestinian society," he says. "Palestinian culture is rich in community art, in collective heritage but not in individual expression. We have heritage for the image, for stories, but not when it comes to photography and film."

As he talks, Akram keeps coming back to his bottom line, that taking photographs is a highly personal process: "I bear a responsibility every time I open the shutter to take someone's picture." He describes the dynamic between photographer and subject as being as 'intimate' as a relationship. "I need to be with someone for a while to develop a feel for their character before I can take a good picture of them," he says. "One day I'd like to photograph Arafat in a way that would expose his character in depth."

Ten years after the start of the Intifada and the restrictions it brought upon publishing his work, Akram returns to the issue of censorship, the most subtle but most pervasive kind - the phenomenon of self-censorship. "Everyone has to survive and that means making your own space," he says. "Artists have to be free to create their space too, away from fear and subordination by conservative ideologies and taboos," he adds without any melodrama. "As a photographer I must finish making my space even if it breaks through traditions and authoritarian ideas. I can't lie even if people don't like what I do. If I lie in my work it's no longer art." His philosophy is both the curse and the blessing of the photographer who wants to be popular but retain his integrity.

The Jerusalem Times
12 December 1997

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