Hanna is in Gaza and has a blog. It’s not always about what she does in the world’s largest open air prison — there are other topics: architecture, photography, women, the museum. But here she writes about a current exhibition of Israeli and Palestinian photographers in London, “Beware the Cost of War,” that removes credits and captions from images of Israel and Palestine (for many of the photos, its Gaza and southern Israel last winter, specifically) as a way of looking, hopefully, at conflict devoid of identity, ideology, politics. It’s interesting, gruesome, and mostly it works. The New York Times photo blog covered the show and quotes organizer, Israeli photographer Yoav Galai: “People want to see the world as they see it: there’s good guys and bad guys.. I wanted to give the pictures back to the photographers. Away from the headlines. Away from pro- or anti-something. So you can see the reality of the conflict.”
The images represent the conflict, and they’d come to represent “one side” if printed in a newspaper and given a caption, we are supposed to believe. Like Hanna, I looked for the first sign of Israeli or Palestinian in every photograph — the Star of David on the medic’s vest, for one. (Actually it’s quite easy to pick out the Palestinians, by the quality of clothes and the extent of wounds and destruction). This proves the curator’s point, in a way, that we need to connect suffering with its subject, presumably to lay blame and understand its context. Galai said he was inspired by this bit of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others:
To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide-bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordnance. To the militant, identity is everything. And all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.
But what about moral equivalency in a conflict, in this case last year’s assault on Gaza, that doesn’t demand a balance of both sides, given the shear imbalance of dead and casualties (13 Israelis, 3 of them civilians, to 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians; crude rockets falling on Israeli towns, to guided bombs destroying Gaza’s only flour mill, bulldozers flattening chicken farms, and white phosphorus falling on children and a UN school). From scopophobia:
…I came across a picture of a dead dog (the “victim” of a Hamas rocket attack in southern Israel) next to images of dead Gazan children buried in piles of rubble that used to be their homes. I understand they were short of images of Israeli suffering (so they had to include some war criminal soldiers with minor cuts to rouse outr empathy), but really? Rather than open my eyes to the suffering of the Other, this collection of photographs showed me that the suffering is not the same. That saying “individual suffering is immeasurable, let’s not play the numbers game” is really closing your eyes to reality.
By creating a moral equivalency between the victims of both sides, this project is not taking a neutral stance ‘reaching across the lines’ as it fashions itself as doing. If you say to me “Israelis are suffering just as much as Palestinians,” you are actually saying this: one Israeli home damaged in Sderot is worth 25,000 homes in Gaza, one Israeli soldier captured is worth 11,000 Palestinian prisoners is Israeli jails, 13 Israelis killed (3 of them civilians) is worth 1,400 Palestinians (most of them civilians), 60 people in Ashqelon with PTSD is the equivalent of 40 years of occupation. And those kids who live upstairs from you, who sometimes come home from school singing an unbearable number of repetitions of “Biladi,” their lives are worth as much as that of a well-bred Israeli dog.