How Many Photographs Will It Take to Make a Difference in the Middle East?


The farmers frantically picked their olives in the blazing hot sun. We were on a boulder-strewn hillside in Palestine, near the edge of a recently completed Jewish settlement.

Some of the farmers had started to carry their bags of olives to their carts, when suddenly a group of settlers came running down the hillside whooping and hollering, accompanied by a man blowing a horn. The settlers swooped into the grove of trees and grabbed for the olives, pushing and shoving the farmers.

Armed — with Cameras

Several of the settlers were photographing the confrontation as others tried to remove the bags of olives. Soon, police and soldiers arrived. One of the soldiers had a video camera to record the event. An officer from the border police had a camera, too, which he pointed at the settlers. The settlers, in turn, pointed their cameras at the border police.

I photographed a scuffle between a settler and the Israeli authorities while several settlers shot video and photos of me.

Here we were in the middle of a skirmish in one of the world’s longest-running conflicts, all photographing each other. Documentary photographers each and every one of us — and each with his own agenda.

Does Photography Really Make a Difference?

Over the past 70 years, more photographs and footage have been produced to document this small area of the Middle East than any other location in the world.

But, I wondered on that hot afternoon, has it made a difference?

Oh sure, photographers have won awards, become famous and changed the course of their careers because of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. But what has it done for the people concerned?

All this photography — decades of film and now a decade of pixels — and the situation has only gotten worse.

So the question is, does photography really matter? Can it be a force for change?

The answer, as with many things, is yes and no.

During the Progressive Era, Lewis Hine’s early 20th-century photographs of children working in sweatshops were used as part of a successful campaign to reform child-labor laws. Jacob Riis’ late 19th-century images of immigrants living in squalid conditions helped get the New York State Tenement House Act passed.

More recently, however, capital punishment in Texas continues despite Ken Light and Suzanne Donovan’s amazing book, Texas Death Row. And there are more refugees today than when Sebastiao Salgado started showing the world their plight.

It’s About the Audience

The difference in these cases is not the quality of the photography or passion of the photographers; it’s the audience.

As Susan Sontag has put it:

A photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude.

The Vietnam War dragged on for 16 years despite a steady flow of memorable, award-winning images by photographers such as Don McCullin, Larry Burrows, Horst Fass, Nick Ut, Eddie Adams and Kyoichi Sawada.

Ultimately, though, Ut’s powerful image of the Napalm-burnt little girl and Adams’ photograph of the execution of a Vietcong prisoner did have an impact. They helped create the climate for change.

To again quote Sontag:

Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one — and can help build a nascent one.

Last of the Bedouin

Meanwhile, back in Palestine, I lay on a mattress in a Bedouin camp in the Jordan Valley, looking at the stars and the moon and listening to the restless animals locked in their pens. At dawn, the headman invited me over to his tent so we could share a coffee and watch the sun rise.

Suddenly from the east, a monitor plane appeared and swooped down on the Bedouin camp — photographing the movements of the tribe. The Israeli government is trying to drive the Bedouins away from their traditional grazing lands, because these areas have now been designated military zones.

Israeli military personnel were taking photographs to advance the government’s agenda.

Who knows if their pictures, or mine, or those of the Israeli settlers or Palestinians, will ever make a difference here? One day, perhaps.Palestine - Is photography a force for change?