“Photography is never objective and big media have established definitive perspectives for a certain part of the world. Just look at the photos that we establish as “icons” through various international prizes—they mainly consist of the West looking at the others.”
Argentinean photographer Eduardo Soteras Jalil looks at the world from an unusual perspective. Born in South America but with Lebanese roots, Jalil is descended from a family of migrants—his grandfather left Lebanon 88 years ago and never came back. But Jalil did, making the long way from Argentina through Europe, to Israel and Gaza.
His mission is to explore both the the inner and outer wars that humanity wages. Some day, the seemingly fundamental causes of our current conflicts will fade—but the briefly empty battlefields will then welcome fresh soldiers, marching under new banners of hatred. And then, only photography will remain, as a witness to our latest round of suffering.
Talking to a documentary photographer with an outsider’s view offers an opportunity to focus on how images are partially about eluding the truth. Through Jalil’s eyes, we can discover layers and layers of badly transcribed facts—and below them, discover that there is no truth at all. This talk leaves behind some hard questions, but these are questions that are not meant to be answered, only raised in our consciousness.
LC: What is it that attracted you to work in Gaza?
ESJ: Mainly for the people; I like Palestine and its people very much. I conceive of myself as an Arab, since I’m of Lebanese descendant. My grandfather moved to Argentina eight decades ago and never came back. But I did. And when I came to Gaza, I understood that it was the place where I should be.
In Gaza, I made three projects: Reaction, What Remains and Gaza, Mode d’Emploi. The first was my reaction to the war in 2014. I wasn’t following the news, so it was my personal approach to the theme and an attempt at understanding what was happening there. I was shocked not only because of what I was witnessing as a photographer, but of what I was living through as a person. Still, the situation allowed me to go further with my work. There were no compromises: in such an extreme situation I had no chance to think much and so was only doing what I felt I should be doing.
Then, in the last weeks of the attacks, I started the series What Remains, documenting the life of people on the ground. Using medium format, black and white, the aim of this series was to capture the aftermath with respect and solemnity. I wanted to show what it was like for people losing their families and living in terrible conditions.
When I showed this work at Qalandiya International, the Palestinian art festival, part of the exhibition were photographs of my notebook, written at that harsh time in Gaza. One of the notes was about our attraction to destruction: “Every time there’s an accident, traffic jams follow. This is not because people are stuck, but because everyone drives very slowly to look at what happened. People enjoy horror, visually. It is an inherent feature of the human being. It is the same in Gaza. It’s the beauty of light, destruction, colors and energy that drives us when we stop to look at these pictures.”
At the same time I started my third project, Gaza, Mode d’Emploi. This series shows what I like so much in Gaza—the sense of humor and the sarcastic way of seeing things. It probably expresses my feelings about the place a bit more strongly. To make the work, I touched nothing and made my photos of the objects exactly where I found them. There was no post-production—I merely placed white backgrounds behind the objects as they lay. After all, I couldn’t have moved the bombs around, even if I had wanted to.
In photography, we have so many discussions about manipulation. But I think the main issue should be about how we show the Eastern world and Islam. How does photography dispossess and oppress? Those are the questions that documentary photography and photojournalism should be exploring, rather than quantifying and quibbling about the bible of Photoshop.
LC: The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on for decades. How do you pick a side in such a complex situation?
ESJ: In general, it’s not the role of photography to take sides. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as in many conflicts, our major obligation is to show a borderline: not between nations or combatants but between the powerful and powerless, the oppressor and oppressed. I care most about human relations.
Sides are inevitable though. When showing conflict, even the big media agencies are forced to send one photographer to the south of Israel and another inside Gaza. This acknowledges that neither can be objective. In my case, to be clear, I am pro-Palestinian.
But I believe that objectivity doesn’t exist; photography is never innocent. The moment that you put a frame on something that is not framed, the moment when you decide to go to one place and not another one—you create and you affect.
The goal, then, of photography is to tell stories in a different way. The main question is how we portray others. It should be a tool to let the oppressed people be seen and heard. And it’s also an amazing tool to build bridges and connect people. My aim is not to simply make photos but to understand something while making my photos. I hope my work can raise questions in the viewer and allow them to examine the conditions that other people living in this world face every day.
—Eduardo Soteras Jalil, interviewed by Anna Akage-Kyslytska
Editors’ Note: Eduardo Soteras Jalil is represented by the agency Neutral Grey.
Anna Akage is freelance writer from Kiev, Ukraine. More of her work can be found on her writing portfolio website.