With Our Ideas We Take Our Portrait: Reflecting on the Work of George Azar

George Azar is a Lebanese-American photographer and filmmaker who has been documenting life in the Levant since 1981. At that time he left California to photograph the Lebanese civil war with an eye to the complexity of the human experience of those events. When the first intifada began in 1987, Azar documented life in the West Bank with the same fine-grained approach. During the second intifada, Azar’s This is Palestine project moved in a different direction by focusing on what, as Darwish says, makes Palestinian life worth living.

In this collection, the second in a series of Palestinian youth commentary on photography, Palestinians who grew up in Bethlehem during the second intifada look at Azar’s photographs of their city from the first intifada and in more recent years. Comparing the first intifada with contemporary days, they recognize similar hopes and fears. They also detect changes. Azar’s work makes us wonder: What is the different resonance of a homemade flag as opposed to one produced in a factory, far away? We read here about a famous Bethlehem oven that demonstrates the creativity and work that goes into maintaining Palestinian tradition. These writings also embrace the ambiguity of images that capture Israeli violence and Palestinian steadfastness in one gesture. Together they highlight how Palestinians have refashioned their identities in the face of political trauma while maintaining a commitment to collective survival.

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Top left: 3 June 2013. Besiktas Dolmabahçe Mosque hosted volunteer doctors and the injured demonstrators and was used as an infirmary. Photo by Ahmet SIK/Nar Photos.

Top right: 31 May 2013. Turkish riot police continue to attack the protestors who are resisting the demolition of Gezi Park. According to Istanbul’s Chamber of Doctors, there are approximately 100 injured people. Photo by Eren Aytuğ/Nar Photos.

Center: 28 May 2013. Police use tear gas to disperse a group who are standing guard in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in an attempt to prevent the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality from demolishing the last remaining green public space in the center of the city. Photo by Tolga Sezgin/Nar Photos.

Bottom: 5 June 2013. People gather at Taksim Square and Gezi Park to protest Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP government on the 9th day of the Gezi Park resistance. Photo by Tolga Sezgin/Nar Photos.

Covering Gezi: Reflecting on Photographing Daily Life during Extraordinary Events

After a few days, we asked one of our friends to go buy us some gas masks. He called and said there had been a run on them, and prices were up to 350–400 Turkish liras each (approximately $160–$220). We opted for some cheaper construction masks, and made do. But we had to learn how to cover such an event. We are not war photographers.

Later in the evening, another member of the Nar Photos Collective chuckled:

During one of the major stand-offs, we positioned ourselves at the very front of the protestors—a mere ten meters from the police. Not ten minutes in, we both got shot with rubber bullets and immediately had to seek cover and come back to the office! Knocked out in less than ten minutes!

The Nar Photos Collective is an independent photography agency in Istanbul, with some members based out of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey. Established ten years ago, they specialize in social documentary photography. Most of their stories feature narratives about changing landscapes (both social and physical)—projects developed over long periods of time and often shared with relevant non-profit groups. They do very little coverage of spot news. Even the spot news section of their website is full of stories about demonstrations and activism. Their office, a small very modest two-room apartment made up of a few desks and furniture outgrown by friends, is just down the street from Taksim Square—a transportation hub and a public space with a long history of protests and demonstrations as well as large gatherings and celebrations.

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[Above image: Fatima Hammdo in a traditional dress and an army uniform, from the Alkarsiffi family album, 1970s.]
"For many years these photographs were hidden. In these bags lay my life’s work and passion, but I often wondered if that really mattered and what I could do with them. After we started working, I felt as if I remembered myself again. I kept this archive safe for many decades. The forgotten lives, friends that died or went away, places and ideas that no longer existed, were brought back. The light was shining on them again."
—Diab Alkarssifi
Click for more images from The Lebanese Archive of Diab Alkarssifi

[Above image: Fatima Hammdo in a traditional dress and an army uniform, from the Alkarsiffi family album, 1970s.]

"For many years these photographs were hidden. In these bags lay my life’s work and passion, but I often wondered if that really mattered and what I could do with them. After we started working, I felt as if I remembered myself again. I kept this archive safe for many decades. The forgotten lives, friends that died or went away, places and ideas that no longer existed, were brought back. The light was shining on them again."

Diab Alkarssifi

Click for more images from The Lebanese Archive of Diab Alkarssifi

[Top: Bab Trablous, Hama. “A bag of bread cost around 25 cents two years ago, but the price in Hama is now $1,” reports a photographer from Lens of a Young Hamawi. “Nowadays, every family member - men, women, and children - take their turn fetching bread.”]

[Bottom Left: Yassin and Maryam Sabbagh, a brother and sister playing in the street in a regime-controlled neighborhood of Homs, January 2013. A half hour after the photo was posted on the Lens of a Young Homsi page they were killed by mortar fire.]

[Bottom Right: One of five similar graveyards in Qasayr in which roughly 1000 of those killed in the last two years, both fighters and civilians, have been buried. Local volunteers from the town decorate and maintain the graveyards.]

The Lens of a Youth Photography Collective: Documenting Life and War in Syria

As much as the war in Syria is one of weapons, it is also a war of images. Photographs and videos circulated online have altered assumptions, confirmed biases, and framed narratives at every stage of ongoing developments. In the past year, a number of Facebook pages have emerged as part of the “Lens of a Youth” network of photography collectives, covering nearly all the different cities and towns in Syria. Each individual collective’s moniker declares the place it is from, such as “Lens of a Young Aleppan” or “Lens of a Young Hamawi.”

Not surprisingly, the idea of systematically documenting all the cities through a coordinated photography collective came from “the capital of the Syrian revolution”: Homs—but it quickly spread across all of Syria. Nebras, who works on the “Lens of a Young Deiri” page, says the Syrian uprising contains many elements, but that in his “personal opinion, media is the soul of the revolution. The effort to document every event, no matter how large or how small, is what keeps it alive.” 

The collectives have become a popular source of images of everyday life, violence, and destruction in neighborhoods from around the country. While most of the photographs and videos coming out of Syria seem to exclusively feature either images of war or images of peace, the “Lens of a Youth” pages have a variety of pictures from daily life in Syria. The pages exhibit photographs of destruction and protests, but also of street corners, houses, and city landscapes.

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 [The Arab Image Foundation’s archive search page.]
“I Have The Picture!” Egypt’s Photographic Heritage between Neoliberalism and Digital Reproduction (Part II)


The Arab Image Foundation (AIF)—a private archiving initiative founded by a group of artists and collectors in 1997, and run through foreign and local grants—appears on the surface like the very antithesis of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt (discussed in Part I of this article). While based in Beirut, the AIF holds a substantial collection of photographs from Egypt and represents an important model of archive and heritage-making in the region.
The AIF’s approach to preserving and curating its extensive photographic collection is highly professional. Its online database is well presented, described, and sourced. The author and source (provenance) of every image is acknowledged on the main website. Additional information about the technique and size of each photograph appears through the advanced search option once the viewer has registered on the website (registration is free). However, this online database is not entirely immune from criticism, most notably in how its search categories are constructed. Many of the categories are poorly chosen and seem to reflect the database-maker’s own research interests: categories such as “old woman,” “smiling,” or “frowning” are subjective. While information about photographic technique and artifact size is given, there is no indication of medium (e.g., carte postale, carte de visite, part of an album, loose mounted or unmounted print). Such information remains crucial to the social and cultural historian in order to understand the circulation and usage of any given photographic object. Photographs should, ideally, also be scanned with their edges visible. Cropping the edges of a photographic object strengthens its reading as a dematerialised “image,” as it denies a key feature of its “objectness.” In this particular context, cropping the photograph’s edges is one way the AIF translates a three-dimensional social object into a two-dimensional aesthetic text. Compared to the Library of Alexandria, however, and compared to the very poor archiving record of the region in general, the AIF database appears as a breath of fresh air. Despite its shortcomings, it was clearly conceived by archivists (or by artists and photographers who share the archivist and historian’s respect for the artifact) as well as for researchers.


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[The Arab Image Foundation’s archive search page.]

“I Have The Picture!” Egypt’s Photographic Heritage between Neoliberalism and Digital Reproduction (Part II)

The Arab Image Foundation (AIF)—a private archiving initiative founded by a group of artists and collectors in 1997, and run through foreign and local grants—appears on the surface like the very antithesis of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt (discussed in Part I of this article). While based in Beirut, the AIF holds a substantial collection of photographs from Egypt and represents an important model of archive and heritage-making in the region.

The AIF’s approach to preserving and curating its extensive photographic collection is highly professional. Its online database is well presented, described, and sourced. The author and source (provenance) of every image is acknowledged on the main website. Additional information about the technique and size of each photograph appears through the advanced search option once the viewer has registered on the website (registration is free). However, this online database is not entirely immune from criticism, most notably in how its search categories are constructed. Many of the categories are poorly chosen and seem to reflect the database-maker’s own research interests: categories such as “old woman,” “smiling,” or “frowning” are subjective. While information about photographic technique and artifact size is given, there is no indication of medium (e.g., carte postale, carte de visite, part of an album, loose mounted or unmounted print). Such information remains crucial to the social and cultural historian in order to understand the circulation and usage of any given photographic object. Photographs should, ideally, also be scanned with their edges visible. Cropping the edges of a photographic object strengthens its reading as a dematerialised “image,” as it denies a key feature of its “objectness.” In this particular context, cropping the photograph’s edges is one way the AIF translates a three-dimensional social object into a two-dimensional aesthetic text. Compared to the Library of Alexandria, however, and compared to the very poor archiving record of the region in general, the AIF database appears as a breath of fresh air. Despite its shortcomings, it was clearly conceived by archivists (or by artists and photographers who share the archivist and historian’s respect for the artifact) as well as for researchers.

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[Front page of the 15 November edition of the Washington Post newspaper featuring Majed Hamdan’s photo of Jihad Masharawi mourning his son’s death.]

Whether one sees it as an image of universal suffering as a result of war or as a particularly Palestinian image, photographs like this summon honest introspection and difficult feelings, perhaps even more than the bloody images of conflict that often cause viewers to avert their eyes. Given news standards that lead journalists all too often to focus on leaders’ statements and casualty statistics, it is a small moral breakthrough that this image should take up space on the front page of a major paper. It is an invitation to feel something about a Palestinian family far removed from Washington, DC.
Yet, photographs like this one have provoked the argument that dead children are part of Hamas’ media strategy. According to this argument, Hamas baits Israel into killing Palestinian children in order to make Israel look bad. On 18 November, 2012, a post on Honest Reporting concluded, “The media must acknowledge that dead babies and children play an essential role in Hamas’ propaganda war.” A few days later, in a blog entry entitled “The Media Bear Some Responsibility for Civilian Deaths in Gaza,” law professor Alan Dershowitz took the argument a step further by asserting that the media are complicit in the deaths of Palestinian children: “If the international community and the media want the conflict between Hamas and Israel to end, they (OR: we) must stop encouraging this gruesome Hamas tactic.”
On 28 November, 2012 in The Washington Post’s op-ed pages, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, picked up the argument. Oren asserted that Hamas has a strategy of making it seem as though Israel is perpetrating war crimes, and that the US media “help advance its strategy.” “Hamas knows,” he writes, “that it cannot destroy us militarily but believes that it might do so through the media.” In other words, while Israeli missiles killed an estimated 103 civilians—including three journalists and 33 children—and Hamas rockets killed four Israeli civilians during the November fighting, and even though Israel has been carrying out a crippling economic blockade against Gaza for five years, it is Hamas that poses the existential threat to the state of Israel via its media strategy.

Read more on Do Photographs Pose an Existential Threat to Israel?

[Front page of the 15 November edition of the Washington Post newspaper featuring Majed Hamdan’s photo of Jihad Masharawi mourning his son’s death.]

Whether one sees it as an image of universal suffering as a result of war or as a particularly Palestinian image, photographs like this summon honest introspection and difficult feelings, perhaps even more than the bloody images of conflict that often cause viewers to avert their eyes. Given news standards that lead journalists all too often to focus on leaders’ statements and casualty statistics, it is a small moral breakthrough that this image should take up space on the front page of a major paper. It is an invitation to feel something about a Palestinian family far removed from Washington, DC.

Yet, photographs like this one have provoked the argument that dead children are part of Hamas’ media strategy. According to this argument, Hamas baits Israel into killing Palestinian children in order to make Israel look bad. On 18 November, 2012, a post on Honest Reporting concluded, “The media must acknowledge that dead babies and children play an essential role in Hamas’ propaganda war.” A few days later, in a blog entry entitled “The Media Bear Some Responsibility for Civilian Deaths in Gaza,” law professor Alan Dershowitz took the argument a step further by asserting that the media are complicit in the deaths of Palestinian children: “If the international community and the media want the conflict between Hamas and Israel to end, they (OR: we) must stop encouraging this gruesome Hamas tactic.”

On 28 November, 2012 in The Washington Post’s op-ed pages, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, picked up the argument. Oren asserted that Hamas has a strategy of making it seem as though Israel is perpetrating war crimes, and that the US media “help advance its strategy.” “Hamas knows,” he writes, “that it cannot destroy us militarily but believes that it might do so through the media.” In other words, while Israeli missiles killed an estimated 103 civilians—including three journalists and 33 children—and Hamas rockets killed four Israeli civilians during the November fighting, and even though Israel has been carrying out a crippling economic blockade against Gaza for five years, it is Hamas that poses the existential threat to the state of Israel via its media strategy.

Read more on Do Photographs Pose an Existential Threat to Israel?

[Image on top: Israeli bombardment, West Beirut, 1982.]
[Image on bottom: After an Israeli airstrike, Fakhani, Beirut, 1982.]

Beirut Photographer: Interview with George Azar

In 1981, George Azar traveled from U.C. Berkeley to Beirut, Lebanon to see the Arab-Israeli conflict first hand. He got a job as a stringer photographing the Lebanese civil war for the Associated Press and United Press International. He was captured by the Israelis during the 1982 invasion and taken to Israel where he was released in Jerusalem. He returned to Lebanon and continued photographing the war until 1984. As the thirtieth anniversary of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre approached this year Azar returned to Beirut to search for the people in some of his most memorable photographs. His story, and the story of his subjects, is explored in the film “Beirut Photographer,“ to be broadcast on Al Jazeera English as part of the documentary series Witness, beginning 5 December.

While many photographers documented the string of Lebanese wars from 1975 to 1991, George’s commitment to live in Beirut from 1981 – 1984 during a period of intense violence and turmoil stands out. He was not just another foreign photographer parachuting in for a few weeks to create sensational, action-packed images. Although he is clearly attuned to the political complexities and concerns of the multiple parties and groups in the conflicts of the region, his main interest has always been in individuals – whether they were street-level fighters or non-combatants caught up in events they had no control over. The large number of photographs of children and young people in his Lebanon work also speaks to a real empathy for their particular situation. But he never slips into pathos. He never asks for the viewer’s pity. Rather he depicts them directly and simply as they struggle to come to terms with violence while also remaining children – happy, full of bravado, frightened, playful. It is his dedication to depicting the lives of ordinary people that really makes his work live on, whether he was photographing war in Lebanon, the intifada in Palestine, or making documentaries around the region.

The photographs included here are samples of his work from that period. Jadaliyya co-editor Michelle Woodward spoke to George about his experiences both in the early 1980s and in 2012.

Read more about George Azar discussing his experiences as a photographer in Beirut.

[Figure 1. “The Wife of Amin Yusuf Bek.” Source: Memory of Modern Egypt website.]

Archiving initiatives and concepts of photographic heritage currently emerging in the Middle East are shaped in very different ways than was the case over the past century. They are conceived along the lines of two models. One is a digitization model, as seen in the Library of Alexandria, which destroys artifacts in order to produce data. The second […] is a model of neoliberal fiefdoms where photographic heritage becomes the privilege of the select few. In both cases, public interest, in the form of open access, and research interests—the two aspects that framed public archives throughout the twentieth century—remain strikingly absent.

Read more on “I Have the Picture!” Egypt’s Photographic Heritage between Digital Reproduction and Neoliberalism (Part I)

[Figure 1. “The Wife of Amin Yusuf Bek.” Source: Memory of Modern Egypt website.]

Archiving initiatives and concepts of photographic heritage currently emerging in the Middle East are shaped in very different ways than was the case over the past century. They are conceived along the lines of two models. One is a digitization model, as seen in the Library of Alexandria, which destroys artifacts in order to produce data. The second […] is a model of neoliberal fiefdoms where photographic heritage becomes the privilege of the select few. In both cases, public interest, in the form of open access, and research interests—the two aspects that framed public archives throughout the twentieth century—remain strikingly absent.

Read more on “I Have the Picture!” Egypt’s Photographic Heritage between Digital Reproduction and Neoliberalism (Part I)

With this bouquet of articles and photo essays, Jadaliyya is hereby launching a Photography Page. The Photography Page aims to provide a space for reflection on photography in its various forms and uses in the Middle East. We showcase the work of photographers active in the region and cultivate critical thinking about photographic practices, representations, and history. The page publishes photo essays, articles, interviews, reviews and more. It also provides information on photographic archives, agencies, and institutions, exhibits, events, and publications.

Submissions to the Photography Page are welcome at photos@Jadaliyya.com. Here are our launching posts for the photography page:

The Swallows of Syria
by Matilde Gattoni

Imagining Tahrir
by Yasser Alwan

"I Have the Picture!" Egypt’s Photgraphic Heritage Between Digital Reproduction and Neoliberalism (Part I)
by Lucie Ryzova

Living Under Threat of Expulsion: Palestinian Women Photograph Life in Susiya Village
by Activestills Collective

Also be sure to check out these two upcoming photography events:

In Tribute to The History of Studio Photographic Practice in Egypt: On Photography, at Studio Viennoise
(Cairo, 14 November - 16 December 2012)

Photo Cairo 5: More Out of Curiosity than Conviction 
(Cairo 14 November – 17 December 2012)

 [A Palestinian youth with his national flag draped over him lies blocking a bulldozer in the West Bank town of Nablus, Feb. 12, 1997. About 100 Palestinians tried to prevent bulldozers from flattening a Palestinian house that Israel claims was built illegally. Image by Nasser Isstayeh/AP Photo.]
Demolishing Palestine

Since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began in 1967, Israel has demolished about 27,000 Palestinian homes and other structures crucial for a family’s livelihood, according to Israeli government statistics (Compiled by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions). Almost half of these were carried out in just the last twelve years. So far this year, 702 people have been displaced and 140 homes demolished.
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[A Palestinian youth with his national flag draped over him lies blocking a bulldozer in the West Bank town of Nablus, Feb. 12, 1997. About 100 Palestinians tried to prevent bulldozers from flattening a Palestinian house that Israel claims was built illegally. Image by Nasser Isstayeh/AP Photo.]

Demolishing Palestine

Since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began in 1967, Israel has demolished about 27,000 Palestinian homes and other structures crucial for a family’s livelihood, according to Israeli government statistics (Compiled by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions). Almost half of these were carried out in just the last twelve years. So far this year, 702 people have been displaced and 140 homes demolished.

Click to view more images