Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza, part 2

The Observer Magazine has a cover story today (“A Life in Ruins“) about the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Gaza. It details the on-going suffering, and is illustrated with Antonio Olmos’s portraits of Gazans living in their destroyed houses. His photograph of Shifa Salman (below) is a double page spread on the inside, with a similar picture of her adorning the cover. More photographs and short interviews related to the story are available in an audio slideshow narrated by the journalist Peter Beaumont.

Shifa Silman in the ruins of her house

Two things strike me about the photographs in this story. The first is their focus on individuals, especially women and children, as signs of the conflict and its aftermath. In this they continue a long tradition of imaging conflict by locating the story in the bodies of those most affected. While that is obviously important, it does mean — as I’ve argued in my recent paper reviewing the photojournalism of the war in Gaza — that the larger context of the political infrastructures through which the lives of these individuals are produced goes mostly un-pictured. This context is referenced in both the magazine article and the audio slideshow:

And without concrete and steel, aluminium and glass, without tiles for roofs and cladding for stairs and bathrooms – all prevented from entering Gaza by Israel’s continuing economic blockade – no rebuilding has begun. For those who suffered most, the war continues.

However, the blockade of Gaza that is central to the catastrophization of this Palestinian territory — a blockade which preceded the war and now shapes its aftermath — remains visually unrecorded. To be sure, picturing this political infrastructure would be no easy task, but it is time for someone to try.

The second thing that strikes me about some of the photographs in this story is the way individualizing the issue intersects with a portrait aesthetic that is widely produced. This is demonstrated in the newspaper’s promotion of the magazine’s content (below), where the pose of Shifa Salman shares much in common with the portrait of the South African botanist or the models showing off “the top 5 summer shorts”. With the background cropped, Shifa could be modelling her garb as much as signifying a political issue. Given this, the task of picturing the political infrastructure that governs life in Gaza is even more urgent.

The Observer, 5 July 2009, page 2

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