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Negation and nostalgia: Interview with Palestinian photographer Rula Halawani

Renowned Palestinian photographer addresses the significance and distortions of memory in her new exhibition. This interview was originally published on Art Radar (16 February 2016). 

Image: Rula Halawani, Untitled 8, 2015, “For My Father” series, archival print, 100 x 150 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

For My Father” opened on 18 January 2016 at Ayyam Gallery Dubai, and will run until 3 March. In her debut exhibition with the gallery, Rula Halawani takes a journey into the Palestine of her past. She tells Art Radar how she strives to make her work relatable and about “being Palestinian in Palestine”. 

Rula Halawani (b. 1964, Jerusalem) started out as a photojournalist, but after nine years, decided to alter her approach to the medium, using the camera to create art that was better attuned to her feelings and opinions. Her image-making is characterised by an experimental approach to documentation, such as through the use of negatives and filters. Her work explores the Palestinian experience under Occupation, as well as its spatial, architectural and material aspects. “For My Father” is a series of monochromatic, hazy images of significant places from Halawani’s childhood that have been distorted beyond recognition through the dual filters of memory and loss. 

Halawani holds a BA in Advanced Photography from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada (1989) and an MA in Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster, London (2001). Her work is part of several important collections including the British Museum, the V&A and Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. She is based in occupied East Jerusalem, where she was born, raised and has lived for most of her life. 

Art Radar asked Halawani about her current exhibition “For My Father” at Ayyam Gallery Dubai and the themes, politics and stylistic choices in her work. 

Rula Halawani, Untitled 4, 2015, “For My Father” series, archival print, 100 x 150 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

You started out as a photojournalist but made the switch to becoming a visual artist in the late 1980s. Could you tell our readers why you decided to change your methodology and approach? 

I was born and grew up under occupation in East Jerusalem. I only started learning how to take photos in Canada, when I was going into my fourth year of study in Math and Physics. I had nothing to do over the summer, so I took a photography course. In my first class in photography, I realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life – that I’d found myself. 

I returned home at the end of 1989, when the first Palestinian uprising was in its second year, and began a career as a photojournalist. My family was basically disappointed, because they thought that for a smart woman I could do better than this job. I ignored them and people’s reactions, and carried on taking photos. My training in photography had only been technical, basic things with no real theory behind them. Because of the uprising, it seemed obvious to do what other photographers were doing – photojournalism. I started just like any other photojournalist, taking photos that represented some of the basic issues taking place, such as land confiscation, or that tried to capture the direct face of the conflict, such as Israeli soldiers shooting at kids, young Palestinians throwing stones and petrol bombs at Israeli soldiers, or the Israeli army arresting Palestinians. 

From the beginning it was not an easy job. Besides the fact that I was a woman and there were very few other women working, there were even fewer Palestinians working as photojournalists. Most of the others were westerners or Israelis. My problem in comparison to the others was that I could not put my feelings aside. I was trained like they were to “get the picture”, and I know many of them felt sympathy towards the people they were shooting. But for me, the relationship to what I was shooting was different. The problem for me was that the picture was not a separate thing or event to document; the pictures I was taking were part of me, and I was part of the pictures I was taking. Photographing my own society in conflict from the position of a photojournalist was somehow not working for me. The pictures were fine, they got published in many places, but I felt something was wrong in relation to what I was doing. 

The first Intifada ended and was followed by the Oslo peace process. Like many Palestinians, I really wanted to give peace a chance. I had a break; I was able to take photos of people being happy for a while… But as the peace process developed, the events that followed filled me with worry: the worry of losing my city, Jerusalem, and the right of exiled Palestinians to return to their homeland. The days went by and in my eyes things only got worse: Jerusalem became closed off to the West bank, Palestinians couldn’t move, more of the land was taken; more Israeli settlements, more killings. 

In April 1997, I went to Hebron to cover demonstrations that had been set off by Israel refusing to leave the city. Some young kids about 16 and 17 years old appeared and started throwing stones at the Israeli army. I recognised them from the year before when I’d met them playing soccer. They were fun kids. I had got to know them a little; we began talking, and I showed them how to use my camera. Now one year later, they were in the middle of clashes with soldiers. One of them came and threw stones and he was slightly injured by a rubber bullet in the leg and some Palestinians took him away. His injury wasn’t too bad. But after a few minutes he came back and started throwing stones again. Within a few seconds there was a loud shot and he fell down. He had been shot point blank in the head and died instantly. 

Later, when I saw the photograph I’d taken of him lying on the ground, I realised he’d still had a stone in his hand. I was devastated by the incident. Why did he come back after he was already shot? I couldn’t understand why such a beautiful kid, so full of life, would come back to die. I am a nationalist, and I believe in struggling for our rights, but I couldn’t understand the boy’s willingness to sacrifice his life for the land. I felt very confused; what was more important: the lives of people or the piece of land we live on? I’d always thought life was more important than land, but after the incident with the little boy, I realised that without land, a free land, there is no life. 

After witnessing his death, I decided I could not continue as a photojournalist. After nine straight years of photojournalism, I realised that I couldn’t just keep documenting kids growing up and getting killed – I couldn’t just keep watching and thinking that my camera was doing something about it. I didn’t want to be a photojournalist, but I still wanted to take pictures; the problem was I had to find a different way to relate my photography to how I was feeling, to being Palestinian in Palestine. 

I decided that one of the things I wanted to do was teach photography. There were no professional photography courses in Palestine, and I thought that perhaps that could be a role for me, my contribution. I got a scholarship and went off to do an MA in London. I wanted to give the children and young people of Palestine something I have cared for very much. I also wanted to see them happy, growing and graduating, and carrying on something I have loved so much. In terms of my own photography, I hoped that I might learn an alternative way of doing it. 

Rula Halawani, Olive Tree II, 2003, “Life Through a Lens” series, digital archival print, 60 x 90 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Do you think of photographers, especially in the context of your work, as memory-makers? What is the role of collective memory, and memory as identity, in a place where identity is imposed and people are subject to segregation and dehumanisation? 

Photography is just like any art. Memories are very important to every human on earth, especially to us Palestinians. In my project they document the changes in the land itself, and how my people can’t reach most of their land, and how they have been replaced with other occupiers. 

In “For My Father”, you leave all your photographs untitled, despite the fact that they evoke specific memories of specific places. This is a departure from your previous series “Presence and Impressions” where you mention the exact location of places. Could you explain the reasons behind your choice(s) to highlight or omit specificity/identification? 

Actually 90 percent of my work is untitled. With my series “For My Father”, I deal with collective memories stuck in my head since childhood. I would like the spectator to look at the work and think of the whole country and its neighbouring countries, not just to think of a certain village or city – that’s why I did not give titles. “Presence and Impressions” is different, I wanted observers to think of that specific village or city and think what happened to the place itself and its original residents. 

The exhibition is an attempt to come to terms with the unexpected changes in the landscapes of your childhood. What are the reasons for these changes? Are you referring to only physical/spatial changes or also altered recollections as you changed? 

The series speaks of not only the changes in the landscape itself, but also access, meaning that my people vanished from these places. Many of the photos express how Palestinians can’t reach these areas because of the closure on Gaza and the apartheid wall in the West Bank. They can’t reach the land that was occupied in 1948, and as a result you see emptiness in some of the photos. In others, where you see motion in the figures, these people are Israelis replacing the Palestinians, and the emptiness signals the vanishing of my people in these places.

Rula Halawani, Untitled 5, 2015, “For My Father” series, archival print, 100 x 150 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

“For My Father” was previously titled “Confused Memories”. Could you elaborate on the decision to change this title? 

For every project I have a working title and “Confused Memories” was only a working title. Well, actually I almost never plan my projects. My projects come to me as I experience a situation, live it and then I allow it to unfold into a story. I started this project in 2013, when I visited the north of Palestine with my family for the first time since high school. We went to Ras al Naqura next to the Lebanese border, which was one of my favourite places in Palestine when I was 12 years old. I stood on top of the hill looking down on the Mediterranean Sea and was shocked at how different it was. I could not find my memories of this place, so I decided to do a project about my memories as a child in the country. 

When I began working on my project, I started remembering the places I visited with my father as a child – he was the one who took me and my siblings everywhere. All of these memories were connected to my father: when I was 12 years old he took me and my sister to Syria, in Syria he told us that part of Syria was occupied by Israel, and when we went back home to Palestine, he took us to the borders of Palestine and Syria, showed us the occupied part of Syria, and showed us Syria from Palestine. I remember telling my father when I was standing on the border that I feel safer and freer on the other side of the border, meaning Syria, and after standing on the same border after so many years, I looked at the skies, and spoke to my father. I told him that I do not feel safe on either side, and I’m not free… 

Could you talk about the stylistic choices of this series, such as the use of monochrome and distortion, the absence of people and how they tie in with the theme of nostalgia and clarity? 

With every new project I decide to do, I experiment with different cameras in order to be able to get the right effect that articulates my project. With this one, after experimenting with different cameras, I did not get the results I wanted, so I bought about 16 filters and experimented with them. I have chosen five filters for this project. The main one that gave that overall effect was the infrared filter; the other filters gave the distortions. Actually, the absence of people in my projects started after the series “Negative Incursion”.

Rula Halawani, Untitled II, 2002, “Negative Incursion” series, photographic print on metallic digital paper, 124 x 90 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Tell us about “Negative Incursion”. I read that you were in Ramallah during the Israeli incursion of 2002, after which you created the series. You mentioned then that it was that night that your “hopes for peace died”. 

“Negative Incursion” was my first project after I quit photojournalism. It happened a few months after my return from London, where I was doing my Master’s in photography. Very soon after, the major Israeli army invasion of the West Bank happened – “Operation Defensive Shield”, they called it. On 28 March 2002, I was in Ramallah when the Israeli army invaded. I was shocked. The city that I knew very well suddenly had been transformed into a dark and scary place. 

Every street and square I visited was dark and empty. No one was in the streets that day except the Israeli army and its tanks. I felt depressed, cold and scared. The only Palestinian I met on the road that day was an old man who sold coffee. Later he was shot dead. I never knew his name, but I had seen him walking around those same streets before. That night I could not take away his face from my memory, and many questions without answers rushed inside my head. 

On the surface, the pictures I took of the invasion could be considered regular photojournalism. I could have published them just as they were, as documents of the invasion. Instead, I printed them in negative. Why? In negative, the pictures were able to express my own feelings merged with the feelings of my people, to explain what had happened to us and to Palestine. As negatives, they express the negation of our reality that the invasion represented. Their darkness allows the spectator to feel the darkness of the days I had witnessed during this incursion. 

The photographs represent some of the stories I had witnessed in Ramallah and others tell stories I had heard and learned in Jenin. But only by manipulating them do I think it was possible to tell the larger story of one period of the Palestinian experience of Israeli repression and destruction of our lived reality. 

Rula Halawani, Intimacy XI, 2004, “The Search” series, black and white archival fibre print, 47 x 72 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

At least two of your series have documented policies of confinement, such as the Intimacy photos in “The Search” (checkpoints), and “The Wall” (spatial/architectural barrier). What were your motivations in capturing these aspects? 

“Intimacy” is a series of photographs I took at the Qalandia checkpoint, between Ramallah and Jerusalem. This body of work examines and captures the experience of ‘the checkpoint’, which has become a hallmark of the Israeli occupation. There are very few faces among the collection of images – rather a multitude of close-ups of encounters between soldiers and Palestinians trying to cross the checkpoint. One of the distinctive characteristics of the Israeli occupation is the way it is both faceless and also highly personalised. Palestinians are treated like numbers, and we avoid remembering the faces of the soldiers who dominate our lives. 

At the same time, the occupation is very personal in the way that it invades and penetrates the space of the individual. At ‘the checkpoint’ there are no privileges, everyone waits in line, and is reduced to an ID number, and everyone is searched and questioned. The machine of the occupation affects each of us one by one, but it is also blind to our individual and collective humanity. 

My other project is about the Wall. I’m not just describing my feelings towards the ugly construction of the wall, but also each photograph symbolises what the years of Israeli occupation have done to my land: the standing stone symbolises tombs of the dead, those I have seen killed by the Israeli army; the water symbolises all the water that was stolen from the West Bank by Israel; the ugly shadow reflected on the wall symbolises the monster of the settlements that casts a shadow over our lives. 

And finally, the emptiness in my photographs symbolises Israel’s continuing attempt to erase Palestinian society, which began in 1948 and continues to this day. So each photo tells part of the larger story of Palestine, a story that all Palestinians know deeply from their own experience, but one that the world only sees the surface of, or has sometimes chosen to ignore. 

My projects are political, yes. But they also try to express aspects of our experience and feelings as Palestinians, as a people. I hope very much that they allow others to look and enter into the pictures, and reflect on their own understanding of these experiences and feelings. Instead of simply telling a story, a very terrible story about a people and what has happened to them, I want to go further and create pictures that, no matter where viewers are from or where they are living, they can find themselves in a part of our story. 

Rula Halawani, The Wall II, 2005, black and white digital archival print, 96 x 126 cm, edition of 5. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

You are the Founding Director of the Photography programme at Birzeit University, which is the first of its kind in Palestine. When was the programme founded? What are its significance, necessity and achievements so far? 

The programme was founded upon my return from London in September 2001. When I finished my graduate studies, I was able to achieve what I’d aimed for and set up a photography teaching programme at Birzeit University, near Ramallah in the West Bank. 

Actually I’m not teaching there anymore. I recently resigned for two reasons: one was that I wanted to devote the rest of my life to art, and the other was that the university never took photography seriously. For the last 14 years they have only offered two photojournalism courses. My aim at the university was to offer a degree in photography, not just two photojournalism courses. I asked many times to run more courses, but they never thought it was necessary. They believed two courses were enough. I did not agree that they were enough in the first place, and at the same time I was bored with teaching only two beginner courses. 

How do you see the role of artists and writers in making issues visible and challenging official or popular discourse? How would you compare this with the role of a journalist/photojournalist? 

Well, I believe nowadays in art much more than in journalist/photojournalist work. Journalism is supposed to be about telling the truth, but these days whenever I decide to listen to the news I feel the truth is not there anymore, almost every news station tells the news according to their interest, and takes sides in the news. Nowadays I do not understand what is going on in our small world. We receive different news about certain issues from nearly every station we watch. I remember years ago, when I used to discuss a certain event happening in my country and in the world in general with my family or friends our opinions were very close, now I feel that because what we hear in the news is different our opinions are so different! 

But art is different because it is about feeling. 

Kriti Bajaj