How Many Photographs Will It Take to Make a Difference in the Middle East?

The farmers frantically picked their olives in the blazing hot sun. We were on a boulder-strewn hillside in Palestine, near the edge of a recently completed Jewish settlement.

Some of the farmers had started to carry their bags of olives to their carts, when suddenly a group of settlers came running down the hillside whooping and hollering, accompanied by a man blowing a horn. The settlers swooped into the grove of trees and grabbed for the olives, pushing and shoving the farmers.

Armed — with Cameras

Several of the settlers were photographing the confrontation as others tried to remove the bags of olives. Soon, police and soldiers arrived. One of the soldiers had a video camera to record the event. An officer from the border police had a camera, too, which he pointed at the settlers. The settlers, in turn, pointed their cameras at the border police.

I photographed a scuffle between a settler and the Israeli authorities while several settlers shot video and photos of me.

Here we were in the middle of a skirmish in one of the world’s longest-running conflicts, all photographing each other. Documentary photographers each and every one of us — and each with his own agenda.

In the West Bank, Jewish settlers clash with Israeli authorities after attacking Palestinian farmers over a dispute about olive trees.

Jewish settlers film Israeli authorities who in turn film them during a dispute with Palestinian farmers.

Does Photography Really Make a Difference?

Over the past 70 years, more photographs and footage have been produced to document this small area of the Middle East than any other location in the world.

But, I wondered on that hot afternoon, has it made a difference?

Oh sure, photographers have won awards, become famous and changed the course of their careers because of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. But what has it done for the people concerned?

All this photography — decades of film and now a decade of pixels — and the situation has only gotten worse.

So the question is, does photography really matter? Can it be a force for change?

The answer, as with many things, is yes and no.

During the Progressive Era, Lewis Hine’s early 20th-century photographs of children working in sweatshops were used as part of a successful campaign to reform child-labor laws. Jacob Riis’ late 19th-century images of immigrants living in squalid conditions helped get the New York State Tenement House Act passed.

More recently, however, capital punishment in Texas continues despite Ken Light and Suzanne Donovan’s amazing book, Texas Death Row. And there are more refugees today than when Sebastiao Salgado started showing the world their plight.

It’s About the Audience

The difference in these cases is not the quality of the photography or passion of the photographers; it’s the audience.

As Susan Sontag has put it:

A photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude.

The Vietnam War dragged on for 16 years despite a steady flow of memorable, award-winning images by photographers such as Don McCullin, Larry Burrows, Horst Fass, Nick Ut, Eddie Adams and Kyoichi Sawada.

Ultimately, though, Ut’s powerful image of the Napalm-burnt little girl and Adams’ photograph of the execution of a Vietcong prisoner did have an impact. They helped create the climate for change.

To again quote Sontag:

Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one — and can help build a nascent one.

A Palestinian boy hurls stones from his slingshot at Israeli soldiers.

Last of the Bedouin

Meanwhile, back in Palestine, I lay on a mattress in a Bedouin camp in the Jordan Valley, looking at the stars and the moon and listening to the restless animals locked in their pens. At dawn, the headman invited me over to his tent so we could share a coffee and watch the sun rise.

Suddenly from the east, a monitor plane appeared and swooped down on the Bedouin camp — photographing the movements of the tribe. The Israeli government is trying to drive the Bedouins away from their traditional grazing lands, because these areas have now been designated military zones.

Israeli military personnel were taking photographs to advance the government’s agenda.

Who knows if their pictures, or mine, or those of the Israeli settlers or Palestinians, will ever make a difference here? One day, perhaps.

A Bedouin tends to his flock of goats and sheep as an Israeli reconnaissance plane films his activities.

6 Responses to “How Many Photographs Will It Take to Make a Difference in the Middle East?”

  1. There are many good points made in this articles, but I think that photographs are merely tools. And it's a reflection of the photographer. In a larger content, no matter how biased or unbiased photographer is, it's impossible to convey change through what fits in the corners of your frame. However, it is possible to convey a message to a larger audience, and that's where these ethical questions come into play.

    I too have done some coverage in the Middle East and witnessed first hand similar circumstances. However, even the best of photographic document is useless, and most likely damaging without proper context.

    The reality is that in some situations, especially in the one that contains this much historically driven content, picture is never 1000 words.

  2. Do photographs of any subject affect change? I think they do all the time. I think your photos affect people.

    Photography is able to help bring the public discourse to a different level. Video of Rodney King being beaten by police helped bring the issue from the shadows into the light. Does police brutality continue? Sadly the answer is yes.

    We must ask the questions you are asking? Is it worth risking one's life to tell a story?

    I believe we must tell stories and evaluate what we did and make adjustments in our next story to be even more effective. In the best of situations we may only affect change in a few people's lives. Was that worth it? I think so.

    My faith as a Christian is what helps me keep telling stories.

    In the scripture Luke 8:8 it says, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Christians are asked to spread the seed and they are not told to do the harvest. The seed is the word of God.

    Journalists are spreading the seed. Some seed will fall on hard ground, birds will eat some of it, but some will fall on fertile ground.

    These are good questions to ask if they help you spread the seed to more places. But please don't stop telling the stories of people. We need to know not just about injustice but also celebrate the joys of life as they happen.

    Great post--made me think.

  3. Don McCuillin said once he hoped with each photo of war he took one would finally be the one to shock people out of accepting the idea of war. Sadly, never happened.
    The mass media publications that moved McCuillin's work out to the everybody have no interest in that any more, and the small arenas that have taken their places haven't the impact to thump across the breakfast tables of millions, all at the same time.
    I've worked in similar places and hoped the same, as well, and result, also, nothing. major. changed. at. all.
    Guernica, the Picasso painting, became famous well after the Spanish Civil War, but Franco remained in charge all through the 1970s, almost 40 years after the event.
    'Nuff said, really.

  4. Words and quotes serve their own respective purposes in the content of a story but they are only meaningful if they can also convey a visual sense as to what the writer was seeing and feeling at the time.The same is true with pictures the purpose of photography is to convey in images what a good writer can convey with words.Does photography matter? To me YES,the image of a slumped over John F Kennedy moments after he was cut down by an assassins bullet or the image of the moment that challenger exploded are etched in my mind forever.Photographs are a powerful tool that help keep memories(good or bad)alive forever.

  5. How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb>? Only 1, but the lightbulb has to want to change. Same with the M.E. Only ONE Photog, but the M.E. has to want to change, they don't. Next story....

  6. This reminds me of a poem I read by Carol Ann Duffy called War Photographer; it asks the same questions as this article.

    In his darkroom he is finally alone
    with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
    The only light is red and softly glows,
    as though this were a church and he
    a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
    Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass

    e has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
    beneath his hands which did not tremble then
    though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
    to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
    to fields which don't explode beneath the feet
    of running children in a nightmare heat.

    Something is happening. A stranger's features
    faintly start to twist before his eyes,
    a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
    of this man's wife, how he sought approval
    without words to do what someone must
    and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

    A hundred agonies in black-and-white
    from which his editor will pick out five or six
    for Sunday's supplement. The reader's eyeballs prick
    with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
    From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
    he earns a living and they do not care.

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