Born in Jordan, Panos (and Blink) photographer Tanya Habjouqa reported news in the Middle East before changing paths to pursue personal projects. She recently published Occupied Pleasures—a 2014 World Press Photo Award winner—which drew an unconventional portrait of Palestine, thanks to the support of the Magnum Foundation and FotoEvidence.
Blink’s Laurence Cornet spoke to Habjouqa about how her photography challenges the existing visual stereotypes of the Arab world.
LC: Your book portrays Palestine in a way that goes against the classic representation of Palestine. What’s your opinion about the weight of Palestinian visual-stereotypes?
TH: I covered the place on-and-off for years, and my approach with Palestine was initially pragmatic because as a freelancer and I needed to find a different approach. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most covered conflicts in the world, which makes it a daunting place to photograph — can you really bring something new?
On the other hand, assignments come perpetually and outlets are quite happy to repeat the clichés. So, you can try to bring more nuance but at the end of the day, you’re given an assignment.
As a freelancer I always try to find different ways in, and that comes from my background in anthropology. I worked on heroin addiction in the Old City, and on the LGBT communities that were bringing together Jewish and Palestinian communities. I began to look at it from a different lens when I married a Palestinian and became pregnant. This step helped me analyse the “black-humoured opera” on a deeper level.
LC: Was there a specific event that made you take this step back from the news?
TH: The initial idea came when I was working on a series about women in Gaza in 2009. Again, all of the media were copying each other, redoing the story about the loss of woman rights under Hamas so, I went to unpack that story.
I had to interview a woman who had come through the tunnel to get married. I couldn’t find her but her husband was there. He was really romantic, explaining “I ran to her, and there she was in her white gown in the dark, with dust crumbling in her hair. She was terrified and trembling and it was like a Bollywood movie; I ran and I kissed her.”
Then he became serious and said, “You know, no matter what this occupation does to us, we will always find a way to live and love, more than survive.” That was the initial seed of Occupied Pleasures.
LC: In the introduction of the book, Nathalie Handal writes: “This is photojournalism at its most piercing.” What is your definition of photojournalism, given that you’ve covered news-related things and then moved a step further?
TH: Photojournalism in Israel and Palestine has a long-serving and essential role. Narrative is a key part of this conflict. Look at the infamous picture of the child who was shot by the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces—another name for the Israeli armed forces] in Gaza at the beginning on the Second Intifada. Images, and how they have been used, have been key. But at the same time, there has been a fatigue about these damn clichés — the screaming woman with her hands in the air, the kid with the V sign. So, there has also been damage from this imagery.
What’s happening right now is quite fascinating: there is more of a dialogue coming and social media is really changing the dynamics of the conflict . It seems like Palestinian voices are being heard more. That’s been a siege on traditional photojournalism—in a good way.
My project came from a personal dissatisfaction with the way it was being portrayed and with something that I felt was lacking. My imagery, though very simple in some ways, pushed the usual boundaries. It’s political, but very subtly. How can you attack that narrative? It was thought of very carefully.
LC: How was the editing process of the book?
TH: When I choose to self-censor an image, it is less about how it would be perceived in the West but more about how some images could hurt the subjects at home. I got amazing access which is why I need to be respectful.
What was more interesting was the editing process of the book, with my editor Regina Monfort. She is classically trained with a beautiful eye. She found some images that were gold that I hadn’t ever dug out. But then, as Regina had never been to the Middle East, she was initially attracted to images of poor women in niqab. But niqab-wearers are only about 1 percent of the population. I wanted to show the diversity of Palestine—and, at the same time, a not formulaic vision. So it was a delicate balance of how make it representational.
To be honest, if there is anything that I feel that I could have done more, I would have liked to have done more from East Jerusalem. But, there are very good reasons for not being able to tell that story at once — it almost needs to be its own project.
LC: There are a number of poems throughout the book and the captions are at the very end. What’s the role of text in the shaping your book’s narrative?
TH: It was very difficult because text is key. On the one hand, I want people to be able to look at the images and get their own vibration from them. Too many words would have cluttered and ruined the emotion of the pictures. But again, beyond the simplicity of the picture, there’s a lot more going on, so I knew I had to include them.
Still, it was daunting to make my first photobook, specifically on this subject . There are so many books on Palestine and Israel and my biggest fear was to make just another one of those typical books.
I want my book to be touching and that, every time you open it, you glean something different. The captions are not just regular captions—they were written with care. And then there are the proverbs, which might also alter how you feel, in addition to the poems you mentioned.
LC: Did this book influence your work, or give way to opportunities?
TH: I have been working and struggling as a photographer for a long time, but the success of this project opened up many opportunities. I got to join the photo agency Panos Pictures, which was my dream when I began doing social documentary work. I have started to get assignments and access that I never had before. But it’s also intimidating; I have to continue to produce strong work.
LC: So, would your best advice be to just trust your instinct and work on something personal that you really believed in?
TH: Here’s one thing I learned from a famous Texan portrait photographer’s experience — he was struggling to make it in New York, was practically homeless and lived in a public library for weeks just looking at photo books. One day, he realized, “What am I going to say here? What can I say here?” So, he went home to Texas and ended up making some of his very strongest portraits.
For me, it was actually motherhood that forced me to find a project that was close to home. And even then, I could not have done this work without a grant from the Magnum Foundation. I’m ever grateful for that. It wasn’t a staggering amount of money, but it was enough for me to have the time to just get lost and stagger into situations. I’m spoiled now: that’s how I want to always work!
LC: How do you use social media in relation to your work?
TH: I connect with almost everyone I photograph on Facebook. They are giving me access to their world, I give them access to mine. In some cases people would say no at first, then they would become friends on Facebook, follow me for a while, and then contact me and say, “Actually, you can photograph me.”
I think you can use Instagram in some interesting ways too. I occasionally do test shots and see what the reactions are. Social media has been a game-changer, not only in giving people a voice while challenging traditional media, but also for affording access, allowing voices to go out and give rise to a new generation of photographers.
When I began photography, I would visit my grandmother in Jordan and proudly carry my portfolio. She would just go through the pictures and say, “Why the hell are you doing this?”
But it has become increasingly respectable in the region. People are seeing the value of it on a political and social dimension as well. A huge number of Middle-Eastern women are beginning to be attracted to a career in photography.
—Tanya Habjouqa, interviewed by Laurence Cornet
Editors’ Note: You can see more of Tanya Habjouqa’s work—as well as the work of four other great photographers’ views—in our feature ”5 Photojournalistic Views of the Arab World”.
Tanya Habjouqa is a documentary photographer based in East Jerusalem. She is a founding member of Rawiya photo collective, the first all-female photo collective of the Middle East. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy, Le Monde, British Journal of Photography, The New York Times, Al Jazeera and others. Her clients include Riwaq, UNDP, UNESCO, USAID and the Said Foundation. Habjouqa is represented by Panos Pictures.
Laurence Cornet is a writer, a photography critic and a curator based in Brooklyn. Her clients include L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Magnum Foundation, Images magazine, Vice, MSNBC, Vogue and Camera.