Palestine through the lens of a ‘caged bird’
- Published: 12 March 2011
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In her continuing series on Palestine, Lynda Renham-Cook speaks to Palestinian photographer Ahmad Mesleh who takes photos of his countrypeople as they struggle to fight against an occupation.
13 March 2011
For him it is more than just photography, his camera is the ‘Eye on Palestine’. The struggle for him is not only overcoming occupation but also one of artistic freedom.
The following is Ahmad’s story through his own words and photographs. The photographs show the desperation felt by the young people of Palestine. Young people who are trapped behind an apartheid wall and who face unmerciful brutality by the Israeli army.
The taking of these photos have almost cost Ahmad and others like him their lives. It is the bravery of Ahmad and others like him that allows us to see the truth. A truth sometimes too brutal to be faced but if Ahmad and others like him risk their life to portray it then surely we should just as bravely face it.
A remarkable man with a constant smile, I spoke to him about his work and his life.
The eye on an occupation
Ahmad compares the life of a Palestinian under occupation to that of a caged bird.
To be under occupation is comparable to putting a bird in a cage, you control when to feed it and where to put the cage. This is our life.
It is a simple example, occupation is occupation and you feel only anger when you keep losing your land and people without any reason. When you leave your home you always know that to get to where you want to go there will always be a checkpoint.
I used to pass mountains to get to my university and walk between guns and jeeps, living under occupation makes you think about what you don’t want and that distances our thoughts from creative thinking because we feel only imprisoned.
I have decided that for myself I want to help my people and I am planning to do photo exhibitions around the world and to also put together my photography book.
For the first 13 years of his life Ahmad lived with his parents outside his homeland of Palestine, in Saudi Arabia where he knew freedom and what it was to live a normal life.
He would watch the struggle of the Palestinian people on the TV. He very much wanted to be there and thought often of returning.
This dream came true in 1999 and he returned home to Ni’lin. Freedom would be lost forever. Back home Ahmad continued his studies at Ni’lin’s secondary school for boys. Much later he began volunteer work and joined the Palestinian Medical relief communities (PMRC.)
Then came the second intifada. It all became very real for Ahmad; the popular struggle against the occupation was his struggle.
In 2003 Ahmad attended An Najah National University and studied information technology. Although he majored in computerized information systems the four years of study were very difficult.
During this period his uncle and cousin were killed in Balata camp in Nablus city. It was to change his life. Ahmad admits that this was one of the worst things to happen to him. He had seen a great deal of unrest in Nablus and the thing he hated most, the occupation, had now stolen his family. Studying in Nablus at that time was very difficult with a great deal of unrest.
Ahmad: ‘Palestinians are human beings too.’
My mother is from Balata Camp in Nablus city, the biggest camp in the west bank. I used to visit my relatives there many times. Just after I started at An Najeh University I lost my Cousin Ibraheem Abu Sarees he was 17 years old.
At the time he was shot he was throwing stones at the entrance of the camp. Ibraheem was shot in his stomach and passed away. It was the first shock of my life.
He was young and he is the only boy between five girls in his family, and when I think about it, I think why do we get shot only for throwing stones while they can shoot us and use any weapons they like, why we should close our mouths and they kill us and take our lands, why people should die every day, and when one of them die they should force a curfew, we are human, we also have feelings we love we hate but we also want to live in peace.
After his son was shot my uncle, his father, lost his mind and he still even now takes medicine and goes to hospitals. I lost my uncle Naeem in 2006. The camp was on curfew and my uncle went out of the house to fix the satellite, and one of the snipers in the area over the camp shot him with only one bullet.
It entered his shoulder and came out through his stomach. It took everything inside his body I know it is difficult to hear but truth must be known, and we lost him forever, and I had to see my mother suffering and her tears again which made all of us feel so bad.
The eye on Palestine
Ahmad first became interested in photography in the summer of 2009. A friend from Canada gave him a small digital camera. At first Ahmad took photos for fun and mostly of his friends. Shortly after he started work as a medical volunteer with the Palestinian Red Crescent.
I used to cover their activities during protests and day by day I found my photos becoming better and I started going deep inside the protests to take pictures even I should not do that, because we are working as a team and we keep close to each other.
It was becoming hard for me to take photos and wear the Red Crescent, special uniform as I didn’t want my friends to have problems from the occupation forces because of my photographic work.
I then decided to work alone to feel more free and get better pictures. I borrowed a Nikon camera from my friend, and at first I found it difficult to use because I didn’t know very much about the features. I decided to learn how to use everything on it. I found some helpful clips on you tube and information on Google.
Day by day my pictures became more professional. I began putting photos on my Facebook page and on my blog which led me to become more known and famous around Palestine, and more people were interested to see the truth.
I started to move from one Camera to another. I used Canon, Nikon, and others. It depends what cameras my friends have, because I couldn’t buy one for myself. People then started to follow me and it encouraged me more.
I like the change and I look all the time to develop myself and my work so I took the next step and taught myself how to edit pictures and to make it more artistic using Photoshop.
Facing the Israeli Army
The Day of a Palestinian Photographer is hard and, especially for those who do not work for big agencies. These independent photographers are working under the fire of the Israeli army without any protection.
When I want to cover the Friday protest against the Israeli apartheid wall in my town of Ni’lin in the west bank, I call my friend to ask him for his camera because I don’t have one of my own. I ask him to charge it and in the morning I prepare myself.
I check the gas mask first. I clean it and I prepare also the yellow uniform, I go to my friend to take the camera and then to the protest. I pray with the people and then the people march to the wall, and then the challenge begins when I have to take pictures with normal professional cameras, I am often struggling on the ground and you have to focus twice, first in your camera view finder and second around you to be safe from any bullets or shots.
I have one second for every shoot, everything is moving fast and when you click to take the picture I call this moment the moment when the universe stops.
You keep doing that for hours and when people run you should run, firstly because you don’t have a press card and you don’t have a helmet or bullet protector and this is one of the hardest parts of being a Palestinian photographer.
I take pictures till the end of the protest and after that I go back to my home, and before I change my clothes, I open my computer and I start uploading my photos onto my facebook page because now so many people waiting for my work and people start commenting and I reply to them and I send some to the media about that event.
Shot while behind the camera
Four months after taking photographs I was shot for the first time. I was shot with a rubber coated steel bullet in my hand during an invasion on my village by the occupation forces. I was taking pictures and one of the soldiers tried to stop me and he shot me.
I couldn’t go to hospital because the army closed the village and I remained at home for four days because my village was under the curfew and this meant we couldn’t leave. A year after being shot I still feel the pain, especially in winter when I can’t move my hand easily. I was shot a second time in my knee, this time with a tear gas canister.
It was so bad that I could not walk. I went to hospital and they told me to stay home for a month to recover but I couldn’t do that. After a week I went to attend the demo and to take pictures, the photography runs in my blood and even now the second shooting still affects me.
The battle, for Ahmad is not only on the ground and between the olive trees and bullets, he also wages another war on the internet. Facebook closed his account without any reason.
I lost more than 3,000 friends and 2,000 pictures on my Facebook account but that didn’t stop me. I challenged them and after 24 hours I have my new account with 1,500 friends and I uploaded my work again.
People told me that if you were reported by them it would make Facebook close your account. Months later I lost that account too with 3,900 members and more than 3,000 pictures. I decided to fight for my right to show the truth.
I also have my own web page eyeonpalestine.com, and today I have more 57,000 visitors and the numbers increase every day. I will never stop spreading the word about the occupation.
To see more photographs by Ahmad Mesleh visit www.eyeonpalestine.com
Images courtesy of Ahmad Mesleh, eye on Palestine.