Learning to photograph while running in Gaza

Opening at Jaffa Theatre on Thursday as part of Tel Aviv’s Solidarity Festival, an exhibition will feature the work of Activestills, including Gaza photographer Basel Yazouri. Having joined Activestills a few months before last summer’s offensive, his work has been published in various international platforms, including +972 Magazine.

But unlike his Israeli colleagues, the 19-year-old Gaza City resident is prevented from attending his own exhibition. We interview him about living and working in Gaza, and documenting one’s own community in wartime.

Basel working, K’huzaa, Gaza Strip. By: Anne Paq / Activestills.org
Basel working, K’huzaa, Gaza Strip. By: Anne Paq / Activestills.org

Tell us about covering the last war in Gaza.

It was my first intense photographic experience. I used to cover day-to-day life before the attack and then, when it came, I had to be in the field – not only to support other photographers, but also as a professional. I had to deliver the message and tell the story like it was. For me, it was also to help people, not just to get the word out.

On the photography side, it was extremely hard in the beginning. It was my first time photographing in this kind of situation. I had to learn on the fly.

Sometimes you have to decide whether to take the photo or run for your life. The first day of the attack I went to Shujaiyeh [one of the worst-hit areas during the war], there was a bombing near the cemetery while people were to burying martyrs. Fifty meters from us missiles were falling. I just ran, without taking any photos. Later on, I got used to it and learned to take photos while running.

An injured Palestinian child awaits treatment at Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City following Israeli attacks, July 30, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org
An injured Palestinian child awaits treatment at Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City following Israeli attacks, July 30, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org

Which photos or events are the most memorable to you?

The one of a woman sitting by her injured child at Al-Shifa hospital. She had just survived a bombing in which the Israelis shelled an entire street. The Israeli missiles contain nails that spread everywhere. That caused a lot of injuries. It was very messy.

I also remember going to Khuza’a. The attack started at 9 p.m., and we got there at 7 a.m. We saw the tanks and the soldiers, who were about 300 meters away. We couldn’t get near them. It was very hard to photograph. Then there was of course Shujaiyeh, where people were fleeing their homes. That was horrible.

Palestinians leave Khuza’a following bombardment by Israeli forces, Gaza Strip, August 3, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org
Palestinians leave Khuza’a following bombardment by Israeli forces, Gaza Strip, August 3, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org
Palestinians leave Shujaiyeh, east of Gaza City, July 27, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org
Palestinians leave Shujaiyeh, east of Gaza City, July 27, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org

How are local photographers different from intentional ones?

I see my work as very different from Anne’s [Actviestills’ Anne Paq]. She is a journalist, who cares about Gaza very much, more then any journalist I have ever known. But it is different because I was in situations where the photography wasn’t the first priority for me.

For example, the place I love the most in Gaza, Khuza’a, was totally destroyed. I used to go there before the war to chill out – it was an open space, full of farms and trees. During the attack you couldn’t even see it because the army erected hills of sand around it. The first time I went there, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The amount of destruction was unimaginable. The family of a very good friend of mine lives there. So the first thing I did was to run to check their house. Only then I took the camera back up.

Basel and Anne Paq on Gaza beach.
Basel and Anne Paq on Gaza beach.

How is the situation now, almost a year after the offensive?

When the war ended it was like a dream. You didn’t realize that you had been living this way for 52 days. The Israeli media says it was 50 days long, but it was 52 days in total. When it was over, it felt like waking up from a dream. The brain is unable to translate such a tragedy. I only remember a few things from the war – there are many things that I forget.

After the ceasefire we went to cover areas we couldn’t reach before, like Beit Hanoun, Rafah, and many others. Then the real shock hits you, when you start walking in the streets and see all the rubble and ruins.

Together with Anne, I tried to focus on people who didn’t get any help. There is a massive number of people who still don’t receive any kind of aid. The most difficult thing is realizing that however harrowing the story you’re covering is, the one you will work on the next day will be even worse.

How was this attack compared to the previous ones, in 2009 and 2012?

In 2009 and 2012, I was in my home. Living the war as a normal person will make you feel more afraid than being out on the field, taking photos. We have a saying here, “Come to the bombing, don’t let the bombing come to you.” You only see what’s around you, but when you are in the house it’s totally freaky. My mother was sitting in our home and she was calling me all the time. It is much harder to sit inside and hear the bombs falling around.

Funeral for the 26 members of the Abu Jame’ family, who were killed the previous day during an Israeli attack over the Bani Suhaila neighborhood of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, July 21, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org
Funeral for the 26 members of the Abu Jame’ family, who were killed the previous day during an Israeli attack over the Bani Suhaila neighborhood of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, July 21, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org

What do you feel about your photos being exhibited in Israel?

I’ve never seen the reaction of people from outside Gaza to my photos. I hope they will understand the message I was trying to send. I hope people will choose not to see only the artistic side, but also engage with the issues that my work raises.

Activestills’ “Summer 2014″ exhibition will open Thursday, April 30, at 8 p.m at the Jaffa Theatre.

Conversation between Basel Yazouri, Oren Ziv, Yotam Ronen and Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org
Conversation between Basel Yazouri, Oren Ziv, Yotam Ronen and Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org