Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Eid Al Adha

The photographic language of the middle east is so often tied up in the most dramatic incidents and extreme behavior. On both sides of the political and ideological divide photographers have inevitably been seduced both by the horror of violence and the mawkish romance of suffering.

I have been guilty of this too. My first assignment in Israel and the West Bank in late 2000 was filled with trips to refugee camps, desperate hospitals, besieged settlements and the fighting at the Ayosh Junction in Ramallah (where the violent clashes happened with a horrible kind of predictable regularity that would make a swiss railway timetable look slapdash!) It was a terrifying, awful cocktail of tragedy and as journalists we were all (completely legitimately) committed to fearlessly, unflinchingly and repeatedly reporting the dreadfulness that was unfolding.

The intervening decade between my last visit has not seen a great deal of improvement and many aspects are much worse.

But as I stepped out in the first light of dawn yesterday to photograph the celebration of Eid Al Adha I was overtaken by the uneasy feeling that I had missed something important about the essential nature of life by ceaselessly pursuing the headline moment. The impetus to re-examine my persona approach came from conversations with my friend and colleague Geert Van Kesteren who has been producing extraordinary and insightful photojournalism from this corner of the world for many years and has gained a deeper understanding than most about what effect the international media coverage is actually having.

We walked up the hill through Silwan towards the Dome of the Rock. As we progressed, the numbers swelled, all heading to the mosque and afterwards to the graves of their relatives to offer prayers and honour their departed family. The atmosphere was one of understated, dignified observance. Neither solemn (although many were quietly tearful) nor really celebratory. Children sat respectfully talking and showing one another their Eid gifts but there was no boisterousness or sudden movement. Some were dressed conservatively others more casually. Amongst the pictures I made, this one seems to illustrate best what I experienced.

The men of the family; silently reflective, modern in appearance yet traditional in values. They had about them, a certain contentment in fraternal contemplation and occasional conversation. Reading the Quran or even the newspaper, but at all times this unspoken comfort in their duty and respect for the occasion. It is the first time I feel as though I've captured something more subtle and relevant to everyday life in my photography of this particular issue. Perhaps it was the first time I've had the necessary understanding to even be able to aspire to that.


Drew Gardner said...

Hi Justin

Reminded me of 'From our own correspondent' on BBC Radio 4.

Behind the headlines life carries on

A fine insight



Justin Sutcliffe said...

HI Drew,

Thank you for the comment. It might be a sign of growing old or growing up but I really want to make pictures that represent the great majority of life instead of only the extremes.

AS you know, I always appreciate your thoughts, so thanks once again.


Anonymous said...

I think it's always a measure of greater understanding when you can decipher the quiet moments as well as the loud ones. While the old "fireman" role of dropping into the action perhaps requires less cultural understanding than it does generic street-smarts many people doing those jobs do seem to absorb the subtleties of a culture, given time. Do you think that seeing people in extreme circumstances illuminates or obscures their character? To a conflict photographer does "everyday life" seem strange and unusual?

Justin Sutcliffe said...

Dominick, your comments are so perceptive and intelligent as always.

I believe that seeing people in extreme circumstances does indeed illuminate their character but only insofar as it makes one aware of their behavioral boundaries.

What we see at these times is their essence under pressure which is of course not the same as their everyday behavior but nonetheless it is a little window into their core values, both as individuals and sometimes as a group.

As for whether conflict photographers find the "everyday life" to be strange and unusual I can only say that my observation of them as a group is that they are divided rather than united by what they have in common.

Almost anything I could observe about them would only apply to about three people I know. In fact what I find most remarkable about them as a breed is how individual they are. Conflict photographers share only one commonality, their ability and compulsion to cover conflict. The rest of what binds them is a series of individual bonds, like links in a chain more than peas in a pod.

Myself, I have always striven to find everyday life as strange as I possibly can. Mostly so that I never take it for granted.