Documenting life and struggle from within: Bil’in photographer publishes first book

Seeing his cousin being shot and killed by soldiers while protesting non-violently drove Hamde Abu-Rahma to photojournalism. Four years later his first book, ‘Roots Run Deep’, documenting life in Bil’in and occupied Palestine, has been published. The picture outside his window still looks grim but Abu-Rahma insists on smiling.

"Wall". A small family's hut in Qalqilia where the wall goes through (Hamde Abu Rahma, from the book)
“Wall”. A small family’s hut in Qalqilia through which the wall passes. (Hamde Abu Rahma, from the book)

Hamde Abu-Rahma, 26, is probably the most cheerful person in Bil’in. Not just now, celebrating his new book, but always. Anyone visiting this tiny village, which after eight and a half years of ongoing resistance long ago become a symbol for the popular struggle against the wall and settlements, is bound to run into Abu-Rahma, who seems bound to have a regular smile on his face just as he is sure to be carrying his camera around. Like many in the village, Abu-Rahma has been involved in protests against the occupation from a very young age, but it was not until soldiers shot dead his cousin Bassem Abu-Rahma at a demonstration that he decided to also take up the role of photojournalist.

“As far as I’m concerned I’m still more of an activist than a journalist, if you can at all put a line between the two,” Abu-Rahma says while getting his camera, helmet, “PRESS”-labeled bullet proof vest and the rest of his gear together at home, facing another Friday demonstration. “Anyway, it’s not like the soldiers really care. They shoot towards people who are clearly marked as journalists as well. Just two weeks ago I was standing alone with another photographer and they simply started firing tear gas at us. We yelled at them to stop but it didn’t work.”

"Night Raid", from the times when soldiers would go on nightly invasion to Bil'in to arrest activists (Hamde Abu Rahma, from the book)
“Night Raid”, from the times when soldiers would go on nightly invasion to Bil’in to arrest activists. (Hamde Abu Rahma, from the book)

In his book, Abu-Rahma brings a photographed account of the popular struggle, army attacks on demonstrators and night raids, but also pictures and short stories from day-to-day life in the village and the effects of the wall on people around the West Bank. “I felt it was important to publish this book so that people who still think of Israel as a democracy would see what it does to unarmed protestors and perhaps reconsiders their stance. But I also don’t want people to think that Bil’in or Palestine is only about demonstrations and violence. There are people living their lives here just like anywhere else and I’m trying to give a taste of this life.”

"Return Serve", a Bil'in demonstrator sending tear gas back to the army (Photo: Hamde Abu Rahma, from the book)
“Return Serve”, a Bil’in demonstrator sending tear gas back to the army. (Photo: Hamde Abu Rahma, from the book)

Roots Run Deep is a beautiful account of a hard reality as seen through Abu Rahma’s lens and optimistic eyes. While some of the pictures show threatening violence, the overall atmosphere of the book is that of positive resistance, be it through the villagers’ choice to dress up as Avatar characters for one demonstration or simply by leading a normal life in an abnormal situation.

One thing that does seem to be missing from the book is the presence of Israeli partners in the struggle, who have been attending demonstrations, blocking bulldozers, spending nights in the village and getting arrested and shot at alongside Palestinians since the beginning. While a few international solidarity activists do appear in a picture and their support is appreciated – no word is said about the Israeli partners. “Well, the women in that one picture really are all international and not Israeli, so that’s why I mentioned them,” says Abu Rahma. But it is also possible that the growing effect of “anti-normalization” politics in Palestine also played a role in this choice.

Roots Run Deep - Hamde Abu Rahma's first photography book
Roots Run Deep – Hamde Abu Rahma’s first photography book

After going over the book together, Abu Rahma and I grab our cameras and join the weekly protest against the wall. Out on the streets of Bil’in we run into the village’s other two photographers, who also took up photojournalism as a way of resistance over the years: Haitham Khatib, who uploads a weekly video report on the protests to his YouTube channel, and Emad Burnat, whose joint film with Israeli director Guy Davdi, “Five Broken Cameras” recently made it to the Oscars.

During the demonstration an old olive tree is set ablaze after a tear gas canister lands next to it. Attempts to stop the fire fail and the tree is pronounced dead, costing its owner part of his living. This is not the first tree to be lost to the flames in Bil’in, and Abu Rahma quickly takes out his book to get a picture of him taken near the tree while holding his own picture of a burning tree. Abu Rahma knows this is probably not the last tree to burn, not the last price villagers in Bil’in would pay, but he remains optimistic, takes a picture and a deep breath and returns to his regular smile.

Burning trees, past and present. Abu Rahma and his book at a demonstration (Haggai Matar)
Burning trees, past and present. Abu Rahma and his book at a demonstration. (Haggai Matar)

A copy of Roots Run Deep can be ordered via Hamde Abu Rahma’s website.