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My way of making pictures differs from the customary method, where a photographer uses a camera to make a picture of a subject. Typically, what I do is distribute cameras to groups of children or adults and work collaboratively with them for a few months or longer. I’ve worked this way for some 40 years. Very early on, I came to believe that because local people, especially children, know their own lives more intimately than any photographer from the outside possibly could, they often make pictures of uncanny openness and depth. For me, when trying visually to describe cultural situations, the important thing is the pictures, not necessarily who takes them and certainly not the professional status of the picture-makers.

In the spring of 2010, I was invited to work in two Arab-Israeli primary schools. One was in a suburb of Nazareth, Bir el-Amir, home of the great Palestinian poet Taha Mahmoud. The other was in the nearby village of Sulam. The harvest had just ended and there were bags of dried olives in the Sulam school principal’s office. On the wall in the courtyard hung drawings and old photographs of the olive harvest, as well as portraits of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and the former prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin. The pictures made the point that although the region is divided, opposites coexist in a particularly complicated way. I’m certainly not the first person to remark that these complications — historic, religious, ethnic, military, economic, geopolitical — are so convoluted and ingrown as to defy any attempt to “picture” the country. But I went with the hope that by working with the people who lived there, I could make a valuable, if incomplete, portrait of Israel and the West Bank today.

In Sulam and Nazareth, 34 sixth-graders and I began our collaboration by looking closely at one of [American photographer] Helen Levitt’s street photographs. I asked each of them to make a list of everything they could see in it. The exercise became a spirited competition. The idea was to prepare them to look closely at what was happening around them in order to take pictures during the upcoming holiday of Eid al-Fitr, the joyous celebration at the end of Ramadan.

After I taught the kids how to use the cameras, we talked about the basics of photography: framing, point of view, what happens when the photographer snaps the shutter and the camera stops time, and so on. I gave a digital camera to each student. Digital’s superior sensitivity to light, its autofocus feature (it can focus as close as a foot) and the unthreatening size of the cameras, all made it possible for the kids to shoot with ease, even when photographing the interiors of their homes in close-up and in low light.

The Sunday after the holiday, the sixth-graders returned to the classroom to discuss their photographs — what went wrong? What went right? How did they feel about taking pictures? How did people feel about being photographed? For their next assignment, I asked them to photograph their community. This was tricky because, for one thing, the minute you start talking about community it turns into an abstract concept. So I asked each group to analyse their community concretely by listing the things they liked and didn’t like about where they lived. The students had a long list of “likes”: trees, flowers, neighbours, school, home, family, market, mosque. The “don’t like” list included dirty streets, guns and the regular occurrence of shootings and killings. Their stories about violence forced me to revise my idealised notion of Nazareth as a place of only warmth and gentleness.

Over the course of two years, I made 10 trips to Israel and the West Bank, and stayed for three to four weeks each time. As the project grew, I worked with more and more communities, and recorded people talking about their lives. I combined the pictures and testimonies from each of my collaborations into a kind of narrative atlas, where maps, photographs and words convey an insider’s point of view; this atlas would tell different stories of people’s lives from various regions and cultural groups in Israel and the West Bank.

My first venture beyond the Arab-Israeli community brought me to a military academy for Jewish Orthodox girls. Six of the girls agreed to join me, eager to show their experience in the academy from their own perspective. As it turned out, all six wanted to join the intelligence branch of the army when they graduated. Was there a connection, I wondered, between their desire to make photographs and their interest in intelligence? Neta, who was studying to be an aerial surveillance analyst, said: “The other girls just take pictures of what they know already because all they want to do is remember. But I need to look for something that you will understand, something that people who don’t live here can understand.”

My friend Ahlam, director of the social welfare office in East Jerusalem, was fascinated by the pictures of Nazareth and the Tzahali academy and suggested that I work with her clients, Palestinians who lived in the divided city of Jerusalem. The Israeli photojournalist Miki Kratsman suggested I work in a Bedouin village. An Israeli-American film-maker, BZ Goldberg, asked me to work with him in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. The idea of running several projects at the same time was daunting. But it was a privilege to have access to many people whose stories and insights are largely unseen and unheard.

One of the most fascinating workshops took place with Ahlam’s group of elderly Palestinian women from East Jerusalem, who had been displaced in 1948, at the time of the creation of the state of Israel. With their children grown up, the women had more time now; and they gladly used it to travel the country and photograph. We’d meet once or twice a week in the social welfare office to discuss their photographs.

Nadia lived in Sheikh Jarrah, next door to Jewish settlers. Settlers can simplistically be described as Jewish citizens who take over Palestinian property occupied by the Israelis in the 1967 Six Day war. The international community considers these settlements in occupied territory to be illegal. The settlers in Sheikh Jarrah were occupying the house Nadia had built for her son. She said she wanted to take pictures of the weekly demonstrations against the settlements in her neighbourhood but was afraid. We talked about making metaphorical pictures — images that represented the literal subject, Jewish settlers usurping the neighbourhood, by means of proxy details such as a smashed door frame, overturned garbage cans and so on.

On Jerusalem Day, which marks the takeover of the city by the Israelis after the Six Day war in 1967, I asked the women to write about how they came to live in their homes in East Jerusalem. They could hardly bring themselves to touch the paper and pencils I’d handed out. One of the women started crying, then another, and another. Nadia got up and slammed her pencil and paper on the table in front of me. The others did the same. The crying and talking got louder. The social worker intervened. It was clear that I’d made a mistake to ask so soon about something so painful.

After months of working together, there emerged an atmosphere of trust, within which the women wrote at last about their experiences of long exile, from Jerusalem to Haifa, to Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, then back to East Jerusalem. Nadia became a courageous chronicler of the settlers in her neighbourhood. She even used her photographs as evidence to prosecute the abuses she and her family suffered.

When the photographs were exhibited at the East Jerusalem Central Library, the photographers’ families crowded in on opening day. Inham read aloud an introduction she’d written. It began: Beloved friends gathering in Jerusalem: in this course we came to know the basics of photography. Each participant took photos of their homes, families, places that might be of interest to them. Some of the most interesting were those taken at Ramadan — particularly the suffering that the West-Bankers face entering Jerusalem to perform Ramadan prayers.

Simultaneously with the East Jerusalem sessions, I led other projects, including one at a gallery just outside the Mahane Yehuda market. I met on Sundays, the market’s slow day, with 14 stall owners, who came with the food and drinks they sold at their stalls. It was a festive atmosphere and the students were very attentive to what they were learning.

The stall owners were keen observers of the market. They all knew which customers came when — the housewives earliest, then religious people and, finally, people looking for sales at the end of the day — and they had their favourite customers. Their close attention to detail would help them as photographers.

I gave them cameras and when they brought them back, we downloaded the pictures and projected them on to the wall. I provided the occasional comment on technique, while they engaged in an easy-going, insightful dialogue about their photographs.

Each new project added another layer of culture and history — another piece of what now makes up Israel and the West Bank. The sixth-grade classroom in the mixed city of Lod was an engaging, warm environment where all the students seemed to get along, until I interviewed them in small groups and listened to the Jewish students describing the problems with their Arab neighbours. The Gypsy community felt themselves in between — neither Arab or Jewish, with no citizenship at all. The Druze, an Arab community whose religion evolved in Syria, felt closer to the Israeli state than to the Palestinian movement.

The divisions have become greater with time. Walls keep being built and conflicts keep increasing. It’s almost impossible for people to get to know each other. Wassim, the assistant principal in a Nazareth school, cried with happiness and pain when he told me about a meeting he attended with Jewish educators.

One night at dinner, my assistant Ronit was telling her mother Tzafa about a meeting we’d had that day with the elder women we worked with in East Jerusalem. They’d expressed their anger and sadness about their separation from their families who live in the West Bank, or Lebanon, or Jordan. Her mother said it was hard to feel sympathy for them; her own life had been too hard. Mother and daughter quarrelled. Exasperated, Ronit asked her mother if she’d ever met a Palestinian woman and she said no.

Slideshow photographs: Wendy Ewald


Wendy Ewald, USA

‘This Is Where I Live’ by Wendy Ewald will be published by Mack (mackbooks.co.uk) in spring 2015.

It is part of ‘This Place’, a major exhibition and publishing project which explores the complexity of Israel and the West Bank through the eyes of 12 internationally acclaimed photographers. The exhibition is at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague until March 2 2015, then at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (May 14 to September 6), Norton Museum of Art (October 15 to January 15 2016) and the Brooklyn Museum of Art (February 12 to June 5 2016).

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