“I am Nabi Salih” — photo exhibition shows there is more to village than weekly protests

By Silvia Boarini : Palestine Monitor:  September 13, 2011

The brainchild of Alison Ramer, the photo project “I am Nabi Salih” aims to show the human faces behind the iconic village, famous for it’s popular resistance movement.

Looking at the images covering the walls at the Academy of Arts in Ramallah, one might not realize that these photos were all taken by young adults, between the ages of 14 and 17.

The young artists, all from the now-iconic village of Nabi Salih, were handed digital cameras and under the guidance of internationally renowned Palestinian photographer and video maker Issa Freij, sought to document a different aspect of their daily surroundings.

“There are many aspects of Nabi Salih that I can show,” says Rawan Jalal Tamimi.

“I am Nabi Salih” manages to portray a side of the village that remains unknown even to the tireless Friday activist. More importantly, Ramer stresses, “it was a chance to do something other than just bringing more journalists or more NGOs to the village.”

Ramer’s relationship with Nabi Salih goes back a long way. She first arrived in Israel from the USA in 2006 as part of the Zionist Youth movement, but quickly decided she needed to explore both sides of the divide. She wanted to try and understand Palestine.

Her first port of call was Nabi Salih.

“The village has played a big part in educating me about the occupation,” she says.

Community leader Bassam Tamimi, currently imprisoned for participating in the Friday demonstrations, once told Ramer, “you came to remove the occupation from your mind.” And Ramer agrees. She says that is exactly what coming to Nabi Salih has done.

“The power is understanding how to take a photo that will attract people’s attention,” Issa Freij says.

The multi-layered context in which these children live–with daily military incursions, night raids, arrests and the aggression at Friday demonstrations–means that this participatory workshop has worked on different levels: both as an art project but also as trauma treatment, empowering the children to regain control of their world.

On the opening night of the exhibition in Ramallah, the excitement is palpable. Kids run around the gallery, eager to point out which set of pictures is theirs.

The young Rawan Jalal Tamimi points at a group of pictures depicting sparse, domestic interiors captured in beautiful lighting. One picture is of an old woman baking bread. “These are my photos,” she says proudly.

It was the first time she had a camera all to herself. She chose to document the poverty in Nabi Salih and the camera opened doors to a world she did not know.

“I discovered that nearly half of the people of Nabi Salih live at or below the poverty line,” she explains. “Now when I take photos I understand that there are many aspects of Nabi Salih that I can show.”

She hopes that Palestinian officials will visit the exhibition. “There is no work and many families have low incomes. Officials should come here to really understand how it is,” she says.

Tamimi now also appreciates the power that comes with holding a camera. Seeing people looking at the photos on the wall has made her understand the potential of a picture, that it can carry a message to the outside world.

She points out that now, “I understand more about how people react to an exhibition and that you have to bring the right picture to the story you want to tell.”

“The village has played a big part in educating me about the occupation,” workshop producer Alison Ramer says.

Palestinian Video-maker Issa Freij, who run the workshops, nods as Tamimi says this. “That’s the power, he says, “understanding how to take a photo that will attract people’s attention.”

A veteran photojournalist and filmmaker, Freij was initially sceptical of teaching children, but now is convinced they are the best students. “It was hard to catch their attention at the beginning,” he says, “because they were not into photography. You know, this isn’t a game. It’s serious stuff and there are rules for it.”

The photos on the walls are all extremely good in terms of composition, exposure and focus but it is the wide range of subjects covered that really makes it stand out from the average participatory workshop exhibition.

“At the beginning we were choosing one subject for the whole group but the kids were going everywhere together all the time. And the village is only one street,” Freij laughs, “they were all coming back with the same photos.”

So themes were assigned. This forced the children to look into Nabi Salih, rather than at Nabi Salih. The subjects go far beyond the usual shots of soldiers but all analyze and reflect how the occupation impacts everyday life.

There are photos tackling the lack of playing space for children by portraying toddlers using weapon parts left over by the army as toys. One set of photos takes on the theme of water shortage and another one examines the problems of garbage disposal. These are issues that most children, from an early age, will already be familiar with here.

The cameras will remain with the children and the hope is they will keep on taking photos as a way of telling an alternative story of the village and of exposing the occupation.

This is an undertaking that may prove less dangerous, or fatal, than the weekly demonstrations but that, as they have learned, also has an impact.

This exhibition is now on display at The International Academy of Art Palestine, but is bound for a tour of Europe, the US and elsewhere. It has already widened the horizons of the participants and will go on to widen the horizons of viewers abroad for months to come.