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Heidi Levine hugs her driver Ashraf Al Masri after his home in Gaza was destroyed. Photo: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

It can be tricky to talk about photojournalists’ work without over-simplifying, romanticising or glorifying. Thankfully, this piece Bearing Witness does none. Writer Doug Bierend does a sterling job of describing the decade-long work of Heidi Levine and teasing out the bittersweet award of the inaugural Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award for her coverage of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014. Levine knew Niedringhaus and an award is a strange thing in the face of societies destroyed by war:

“This award has made me reflect, and spend a lot of time thinking back and understanding — I have been very lucky. We were talking about experience — sometimes it’s not even how experienced you are, it can boil down to just having bad luck. I guess I’ve always felt committed to bearing witness, and feel that is just so important to give people the opportunity to know what’s happening in the world, and I don’t believe that there’s any excuse anymore for people looking the other way and claiming, as they did in the past, in history, that they were just unaware and didn’t know.”

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Wounded Palestinian Rawya abu Jom’a, 17 years old, lays in a hospital bed at the Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, July 22, 2014. Rawya was seriously injured when two Israeli air strikes hit her family’s apartment. Her sister and three of her cousins were killed in the attack. She is suffering from shrapnel in her face, her legs have perforated holes in them and the bones of her right hand were crushed. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press

Keith Axline and I are editors of Vantage — a new gorgeous place for looking and photos and learning their context.

Some photos we feature are gorgeous and some are gory. In Levine’s case she manages to combine to the two. As Bierend puts it, Levine makes pictures in “a subtle or even artful way requiring a high degree of sensitivity [that] sees through the violence to the dignity of the subjects suffering at its heart. At its best, this skill can convey the true stories of conflict, the hidden personal and private lives shaken to their foundations by the nations, militaries, and leaders which tend to be the sole subjects in any discussions about war.”

It’s a sobering piece. Levine talks about risk, fixers and luck. I’ll leave you with another statement of hers:

“If you’re not trained, it’s really, really important to become trained, to take a hostile environment course, to take a combat medical training class … I have seen a lot of people out there in the field that are very inexperienced. It’s not like rockets or bullets discriminate between who is experienced and who’s not experienced. As you saw, Chris Hondros, who was one of the most experienced conflict photographers, was killed in Libya.”

Read in full at Bearing Witness.

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Women mourn during the funeral of the boys killed by an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza, Gaza City, July 16, 2014. Four boys died instantly during an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza, a fifth boy died shortly after the attack in hospital. Israel stepped up its attacks on July 16 by bombing the homes of Hamas leaders after the Islamist movement rejected a truce proposal and instead launched dozens more rockets into Israel. Photo: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press

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Palestinian men run with a white flag in the Shejaia neighborhood, which was heavily shelled by Israel during the fighting, in Gaza City, July 20, 2014. At least 50 Palestinians were killed on Sunday by Israeli shelling in the Gaza neighborhood, and thousands fled for shelter to a hospital packed with wounded, while bodies were unable to be recovered for hours until a brief cease-fire was implemented. Photo: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press

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Palestinians collect religious books in the rubble of the Al-Qassam mosque in Nuseitat camp, located in the middle of the Gaza Strip, July 9, 2014. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press

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Hidya Atash stands on the top floor of her home as she overlooks the destruction in Shujayea, at dawn Aug 8, 2014. Her family’s home was hit two weeks prior by a warning rocket and the family of 40 people fled. When they returned during the cease-fire, they discovered their home was heavily damaged during the fighting. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press

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Life’s A Blast is a personal meditation on Israel and Palestine as seen through the lens of a young Swedish visitor. Linda Forsell visited Israel, Gaza and the West Bank several times between 2008 and 2010. She returned with a selection of images that read like a journal.

I first became aware of Forsell’s work when Life’s A Blast was shortlisted for the 2010 Magnum Expressions Award. I’m a big fan. I, therefore, did not hesitate to write a foreword when invited to do so by Linda. Below, punctuated by Linda’s images, is the I essay I wrote the new-release book Life’s A Blast.

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“He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.”

— Cormac McCarthy, The Road

It’s fair to speculate that all photography surfacing from Israel and Palestine is about land. Knowing what we do about land disputes, settlements and segregation in the region, it’s difficult not to ascribe images a political position favoring the land claims of either the Israelis or Palestinians. This is understandable in a climate of contemporary opinion that has roundly rejected the idea of photography and photographer as objective agents.

Linda Forsell’s photographs are not landscape photographs in the traditional sense. However, the beguiling vignettes within the pages of this book do return us to issues of land, and to the discomfiting realisation that no one in Israel or Palestine has a grounded or reliable relationship to the land.

In considering the surety of land-claims – claims backed with violence – in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, it may seem absurd to describe peoples’ connections to land as without root. Perhaps, the word ‘ambiguous’ more faithfully describes the disconnect. Between the certainty of established political positions and the uncertainty of physical existence in the region there exists a vast gulf of ambiguity.

Life’s A Blast is a challenge to convention and photographic authority, a sustained and deliberate visual wobble.

Within a photograph of an older man teetering atop a wall, the wobble is literal. In the photographs of children wielding weapons and playing among destroyed buildings, the imbalance is allegorical. Men, women and children in Forsell’s work maintain relationships among themselves, but struggle to find their feet.

The tropes of photography – particularly photojournalism – in Israel and Palestine are well known; the checkpoint; the rock-slinging youth; the huddled mother; the wall; the distant settlements on a desert hillside; the coffin raised high at a funeral; and  – perhaps with most appearances on international newspaper front pages – the flag. The flag is often accompanied by some billowing smoke.

These tropes persist because, within the boundaries of a news story, these scenes are the illustrative of the quote/unquote action. As consumers of images, we must keep at the forefront of our minds that living in Israel and Palestine goes on outside the boundaries of news column inches.

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We have begun to see a small but noticeable response by contemporary photographers who have consciously moved away from “crisis photography” – I’m thinking here of recent work and publications by Irina Rozovsky and Yael Ben Zion – toward subtler observations of subtler gestures.

Forsell’s concern for the individual is noticeably different to the drawn back and almost cartographical response by celebrated photographers such as Sophie Ristelbuehler, Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright, Simon Norfolk and Richard Mosse. Of this group, curator and critic Charlotte Cotton says:

“Rather than being caught up in the chaotic midst of an event, or at close quarters to individual pain and suffering, photographers choose instead to represent what is left behind in the wake of such tragedies, often doing so with styles that purpose a qualifying perspective.” [1]

Equally committed to ideas of scarification and dislocation, Forsell, by contrast, takes us closer to people, not further away. In so doing, we encounter the personal and psychological; a soldier who doesn’t want to be there, an old man perplexed by border-point paperwork, the laughter of military-men, a side-street pat down and the confused glances of children. There’s vanity amid the daze and haze, too, in the form of rock-throwing demonstrators that look like they’re dressed for a violent-chic photoshoot. It’s only disconcerting if you accept there are no easy answers for the people of Israel and Palestine.

Too often, repeated news images provide us the excuse to think that events don’t change and can’t change. Worse still, is the trap to think that Israelis and Palestinians are different from us. Such thinking allows us to rationalise ongoing abuses. In discussing atrocities generally, lawyer and feminist scholar Catherine McKinnon characterises attitudes:

“If the events are socially considered unusual, the fact that they happened is denied in specific instances; if they are regarded as usual the fact that they are violating is denied; if it is happening, it’s not so bad, and if it’s really bad, it isn’t happening,” [2]

McKinnon describes the trap and illogic of apathy. The exit door from denial is to first see the victims of abuse as humans. To identify common emotions and thus ourselves in Forsell’s subjects is our responsibility to them … and her gift to us. Turning these pages is to shake the foundations of our excusatory logic.

Life’s A Blast is a significant contribution to the visual discourse of Israel and Palestine. It abandons literal depiction of the region and, instead, looks toward emotional territories.

It is the prior exploration of these emotional lands that will provide the most reliable base on which to stand for those who desire to debate the geopolitics of the region’s contested borders, laws and land.

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1. Charlotte Cotton, ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, p.167. Thames & Hudson, October, 2004.
2. Catharine McKinnon, ‘Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues’, p.3, Belknap Press, 2007.

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Life’s a Blast (106 pages) 10 x 13 inches.
Published by Premiss Förlag.
Printed by Elanders Fälth & Hässler.
ISBN: 9789186743055
Available at the Premiss Förlag website.

Life’s a Blast does not yet have U.S. distribution, so if you want to buy a copy in cold-hard-cash-dollars you’ll have to email Linda and ask nicely: linda@lindaforsell.com

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Caption: Mahmod Berghote stands with one of Marah Zoo’s world famous painted donkeys. The zoo’s two white donkeys caused an international media frenzy after Mahmod and his brother spent three days painting stripes onto them using black hair dye. Unable to find an animal trader to bring a real zebra through the tunnels from Egypt, the Berghote family decided to make a fake pair using white donkeys. The story was reported all over the world as a feel good news piece and often used as an example of the Palestinian people’s resourcefulness during the siege of Gaza.

Anastasia Taylor-Lind for VII Photo published a remarkable photo essay about the zoos of Gaza.

The idea that imprisoned people can make a business out of smuggling, locking up, and exhibiting animals is deeply ironic. There are about a dozen zoos in Gaza and their story is intertwined with world politics in a way that would be unimaginable anywhere else.

In 2005, Dr. Saud Shawa, a veterinarian, decided to establish Palestine’s National Zoo. For Shawa, this was about education and showing people how to care for animals. Supported by international donors, he built a spacious compound with big cages, a theatre, a library and research centre – Gaza Zoo, the first one ever in the strip.

Gaza zoo opened in January 2006, the same month Hamas, the radical Islamist movement, won elections in Gaza. The border was closed and the initiative was halted before it could get started.

As of today, not a single zoo has been profitable. In fact, there is only one person in the Gaza strip who benefits from the business: Abu Nadal Khalid, an animal trader. He has animals drugged and smuggled through the infamous system of tunnels leading from Egypt into the strip.

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