It’s easy to forget what Elias Sanbar writes in his introduction to his book The Palestinians: Photos of a land and its people from 1939 to the present day – that Palestine is one of the most photographed places in the world. If this is the case, why are settlements allowed to mushroom in the occupied territories; why are Palestinian houses crushed to the ground and their olive trees uprooted; why do so few people across the world have such little understanding of what is happening on the ground?
The answer, or part of it, lies in the photographs Sanbar presents in The Palestinians, which has been shortlisted for Middle East Monitor’s 2015 Palestinian book awards. Sanbar puts forward a collection of images taken of both Palestine and Palestinians over 200 years as a way to draw attention to colonial clichés, oriental representations and preconceived ideas of a land and its people, images which have ultimately contributed towards a global misunderstanding of Palestine.
Sometimes this is done by juxtaposing images. In one section, an image entitled “The Bride of Bethlehem” by French photographer Maison Bonfils is placed alongside another image, “Woman and Child” taken by Palestinian photographer Khalil Raad. Both are portraits of Palestinian women, yet the first depicts an “exotic” subject, a Palestinian as imagined in the mind of someone who has never been to Palestine. The second is relaxed with a warm smile – she, and the image as a whole, is far more natural. Whilst the first woman is “doomed to absence”, in that her personality and individuality have been edited out, as it were, in order for her to fit the image of a Palestinian woman required by the (Western) onlooker, the second “will always be there”, writes Sanbar.
Another section of the book, entitled “An Album under the British Mandate”, presents a collection of Sanbar’s photographs – most in the book are from his private collection – that have been presented as though they are a family album. Some capture costume parties, others members of bands and orchestras, and there is a simple image (which could have been taken anywhere in the world) of friends flying a kite. A particularly striking self-portrait of a young man, Jad Mikhail, tells a completely different story to the tired, overused image of the stone-throwing Palestinian.
Early images of Palestine depict a barren landscape, empty of people, images that help perpetuate the Zionist myth that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land” – that the country was empty. In what Sanbar refers to as “images of proof”, he presents rare photographs of the forced departure of the Palestinians in 1948; as he explains, most of these photographs have been either hidden or destroyed: “Since nothing happened in Palestine, there was logically nothing to see.”
In “Thrown into the Sea” Palestinians carry boxes, suitcases and other Palestinians on their shoulders across the sea to board boats to escape. “The cry went up, ‘The Palestinians want to throw the Jews into the sea!’ when the Palestinians had only just pulled themselves out of the sea into which they had actually been thrown,” writes Sanbar.
The Palestinians offers an alternative way to look at Palestine, a glimpse beyond the headlines. But it also leaves you with a question: How do these “alternative” images come to be adopted as the “normal” lens through which the world views Palestine? Answering that question is perhaps key to answering the fate of the Palestinians themselves.