VIEWS: 3 PAGES: 3 POSTED ON: 11/2/2009
DINNERS AND NAILCLIPPINGS It has been almost four years now. Johan Berglund and I had gone to the Middle East in October, with Israel and Palestine deep in a particularly vicious cycle of spiralling violence. Attacks and retaliation. The assassination of an Israeli minister, snipers taking out ”leading figures of terror” in Hebron, suicide attacks on buses, Israeli tanks and bulldozers crushing Palestinian houses... On a hot night in Gaza City we went to the apartment of Amal Jad. She adored princess Diana and Brad Pitt. She had a serious addiction to Egyptian television. Sometimes the electricity died right in the middle of a romantic soap episode, much to Amal’s annoyance. Clinging to Amal’s legs: her four children, asking for candy. We had dinner. Chicken. Johan was taking pictures. From the outside: Gaza City’s roaring traffic noise, reminding us what a large city this really was. ”Eddie Murphy,” said Amal Jad. The kids sported Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles tank tops. We talked about Eddie Murphy, suicide bombers and the Hamas leader sheik Yassin, sitting in his wheelchair at the Hamas headquarters a few blocks away. And then we talked some more about Eddie Murphy. ”I never miss a movie with Eddie in it,” Amal said. Her husband was a journalist. He talked about the conflict non stop. Today I can’t remember anything he said. On our hotel room floors during this trip: international newspapers that I had bought. Johan couldn’t stand reading them: ”Lazy journalism!” Angrily he pointed at a picture of a starving African child, blankly staring in the camera lens from a dried-out riverbed. ”This is the picture that the editor expects. This is the picture the editor chooses to publish.” ”Well,” I argued, ”the subject of the article is starvation as an effect of war.” ”But why? Why is it always about the same thing? The same pictures. Icons.” I could see Johan’s point. Pictures of African children starving on dried-out riverbeds creates distance and alienation. Johan Berglund’s aim was, and still is, the opposite of that. His project 8H is all about steering clear of cynicism and apathy. Portraying people like Amal Jad instead of the bearded extremists. Talking to people about movies, school, washing machines. Focusing on the unspectacular but important events of everyday life, as a method of describing war and political conflict. Johan Berglund’s ambition was never to explain war. But he does want the viewer to connect with the human beings in his pictures. Trivial, you might say. That’s what every photographer wants. Be universal. Establish a relationship between his subject and the viewers. But open any Western newspaper. See how the Third World is portrayed in the ”Foreign” section. It’s all mass graves, military men and religious extremists burning George W Bush puppets. Sure, they are all accurate pictures of war and conflict. But extremely one-sided. And these images help shape our world views. Never is this more obvious than in the case of Africa. Recently I went to South Africa. I told journalist colleagues about my trip: that I was going to Johannesburg to learn about journalism from the reporters and editors at one of the best newspapers in the world: The Mail & Guardian. How did this South African paper maintain its high quality, week after week? The most frequent reaction by my Swedish colleagues was one of surprise. Quality newspapers in Africa? Really? But what about the South African government’s crazy attitude towards HIV and Zimbabwe? Isn’t the whole of Africa about to fall into a black hole, really? It’s like there is only room for one story. A crazy dictator, a people easily led. Inexplicable violence. And, of course: the constant threat of famine. In this book there are some photographs from Liberia, a country with a very nasty reputation. But people go to the movies there. They fall in love. They play football. They cut their nails. These are important things to remember. When you forget these kinds of things, the violence becomes difficult to understand. You shrug, you turn the page to the sports section, you flip the channel - because you cannot relate to the human beings who live with the conflict. In Palestine and Israel Johan and I met with politicians, leaders of militia, violent settlers. Surrounded by bodyguards they talked to us at cafés, repeating the things they usually say to Western newspapermen. We learned more from spending time with ordinary people. In the village of Kobar, a few miles outside Ramallah, we had dinner in the spacious villa of a computer consultant. When was the last time you read about Palestinian computer consultants? About their spacious villas? The consultant’s name was Hussein. He poured Coca-Cola and talked about his three-year- old son. The day before Hussein had tried to take his son to the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Ramallah. ”Kids love that kind of junk food and I love it too,” Hussein said. ”But we were stopped at a road block. The Israeli soldier waved his uzi in the car and forced us to turn around. My papers were in order, he just wanted to give us a hard time.” In the car, on the way back, Hussein’s son started to cry. Hussein heard him mumble something. The three-year-old boy wanted to have a gun, he said. ”To kill all Israelis!” ”I didn’t know what to say!” Hussein told us. ”He is only three! He has a good life, his parents have some money and there is not much fighting around where we live. Imagine the kids in Gaza or Hebron, it is hard to see how they can grow up there and not become terrorists.” The photograph of Hussein the computer consultant, hugging one of his children on the roof of his villa, is the last one in this book. It is one of Johan Berglund’s best pictures. It is an image that says more about the conflict in Israel and Palestine than a thousand twistedmetal suicide bomb newspics from Associated Press. I remember us up on Hussein’s roof. The muezzin from the neighbourhood mosque calling to prayer. The mosque was beautiful, it had just been renovated. People said that it was a recruitment centre for Hamas. Hussein looked very tired when he told us about how he had never visited the mosque, that he never would. How he hoped that he could keep his sons away.
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