Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Tanya Habjouqa is a finalist of the 2014 FotoEvidence Book Award. She was born in Jordan and educated in the United States, receiving her masters in Global Media and Middle East Politics from the University of London SOAS. Beginning her career in Texas, she documented Mexican migrant communities and urban poverty before returning to the Middle East.
Tanya is known for gaining unique access to sensitive gender, social and human rights stories in the Middle East. She is a freelance photographer, features writer, and a founding member of Rawiya photo collective (founded by five female photographers from across the Middle East).
A 2014 World Press Award winner for Daily Life, 2nd prize stories, she is also recipient of the Magnum Foundation 2013 Emergency Fund for her project, Occupied Pleasures.
Habjouqa has worked on the front lines in Iraq, Lebanon, Darfur, and Gaza. Her series "Women of Gaza" is in the permanent collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Art.
Based in East Jerusalem, she is working on personal projects that explore socio-political dynamics, identity politics, occupation, and subcultures of the Levant.
Tanya received an honorable mention for the 2012 FotoVisura grant, the 2011 SND Silver Award for her Gaza story A Life Less Ordinary, the 2007 Clarion Award for coverage of the Israel-Hezbollah War for Bloomberg and the 2006 Global Health Council award for humanitarian photography with her Darfur coverage.
Her work is represented by East Wing, an international platform for photography, founded in Doha, Qatar.
SB. You studied in England and started your career as photojournalist in US. Why did you return to the East Jerusalem?
TH. I was born in Amman, Jordan.... my father is Jordanian and my mother is American. I left when I was four to live in Texas with my mother but kept my connections to my family in Jordan growing up with summer visits. I have been based in various locations of Middle East through my work since 2002. So both places are home and made their mark on my character. I did my high school studies (except sophomore year in Jordan) and BA in the US.... I received my masters in London at SOAS. Despite covering the West Bank as a freelancer over the years, and growing up with the narrative of Palestine on my doorway when in Jordan, I never anticipated that it would be my home nor certainly that the narrative of an occupied reality would be something I would have to explore within teaching my children their identity politics. The unequivocal truth is that East Jerusalem became my home through marriage. It was not a place I longed to return to like so many others denied access. I am from an uber minority group in Middle East…the Circassians. If anything I imagined exploring the Caucasus and making sense of my own inherited story of identity politics and loss. Interestingly, being one of the most covered and scrutinized media stories in the world; many journalists often work with a timid paranoia in how they portray this reality. Trying to report this occupation in a supposedly “balanced” way that actually distorts the lived reality. To borrow from the title of a superb work by Edward Said, by marrying into this conflict and having children here, it gave me “Permission to Narrate”. To say things more directly…. and to explore in my work a more overt social documentary nature not timidly outlined in hard news restrictions.
SB. Why the life in the occupied territories of West Bank is of special interest to you?
TH. After years of documenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for media and Ingos, the issue turned intimate for me. My marriage to a Palestinian and subsequent birth two children has turned this conflict into a lived and shared narration, and now more than ever I see the importance of celebrating the humor that infuses life amidst the oppressive environment.
My anthropological training along with growing up the neighbor to this heavy political narrative long shaped an interest in story telling in the Occupied territories… It was long apparent it was not being covered representatively of the lived reality. It was almost always told in reductionist manner of the same tired tropes. Where Palestinians were either victims of or proponents of violence, and rarely with the nuanced context needed. But the main thing was having children here. My husband, despite being a well-respected lawyer (who happens to have an Israeli passport) was accosted by mall security guards in front of my then almost two year old while I was heavily pregnant. Simply for debating a racist demand at the door. I always had grappled with how I would explain this reality to my daughter when she was old enough to ask questions…about the Kafka reality of navigating checkpoints and such and why her friends would not be able to visit her despite living 15 minutes away. As a mother, I want my children to understand this reality and to not feel removed from their culture simply because they have an ID that (in theory of course) makes their lives easier than the vast amount of the population. They can drive through checkpoints instead of walking through them; they can access the sea and airport unlike others. But in moments like the mall incident, however, that theory is really disproven. So while I have my daughter in a preschool taught in Hebrew and Arabic, with some fabulous Israeli teachers and mothers in addition to Palestinian…well those little pockets of normalcy are just that. Pockets. So having children here who are inheriting the heavy weight of this narrative, well I wanted to find a way to explore that narrative and celebrate the impressive human side of how the Palestinians despite 47 years of occupation have kept their humanity, civil society, and respect for one another as a people.
SB. Your images from West Bank are filled with humor. Why did you decide to use humor to describe a difficult life in an occupied zone?
TH. In general, I often utilize humor where applicable as I find it can be the most marked way to remind viewers of a shared humanity. And since most of my work is in Middle East, I find we have a wonderful dark humor to celebrate, in part a reaction to the often-surreal political situations we find ourselves in. Of course some stories are simply too sad to find the humor. So proximity and connection are also a part of my approach. Ultimately, I want to shake up reigning misconceptions and stereotypes. Jumping into other people’s realities, connecting. It is a gift when people allow you into their lives, and trust you w that representation. I love the absurd situations you find yourself in as you try to make a photo shoot happen. Like when a group of women in niqab invite you in for cake and tea and have a wicked sense of humor. Your own stereotypes challenged. I love that it is almost never boring. There are some fine photographers based here…Israeli, Palestinian and foreign doing phenomenal (and necessary) documentation of the more immediate harsh reality. I saw an opening to explore something not being told in the media.
SB. What Occupied Pleasure is about?
TH. Occupied Pleasures explores those rare moments of respite for Palestinians living under arduous political and economic conditions, which have shaped their lives and identities as humans.
From a besieged Gaza where a five-minute boatride is the epitome of freedom…
Throughout these journeys, the Palestinian narrative is often portrayed through a narrow prism, reported in a context of unclear emotions and ideologically motivated treaties.
Despite the inability of Palestinians to maintain and sustain a “normal way of life” and amidst this jarring reality, men, women and children often manage to steal moments of simple joys – quirky, modest moments of illiustrated in some of these photos.
Media coverage of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) is certainly not lacking; however, its population suffers from misrepresentation and a loss of a focus on the individual. Because Palestinians are typically viewed as proponents of violence or victims of violence, their human narrative is often denied.
West bankers cannot access the sea, be it gazas small slice of the med or any other sea for that matter…cannot know their fellow Palestinians, even if they are family or friends. When I show my gaza work to friends in west bank and Jerusalem or vice versa, they are always eager to see what they can’t experience for themselves. This work celebrates the glimmers of hope, dignity and laughter, all of which override the emblematic stress of an occupied reality.
Palestine is most often portrayed in one particular narrative …we all know about struggle and violence but what people don’t often see is that there is life in these areas…
SB. Why did you choose to show pleasure rather than suffering?
TH. It was inspired from a political context, about the pursuit of even the smallest pleasures under occupation. The project was initially conceived while completing “Women of Gaza” in 2009. While in the Gaza Strip, one industrious man shared w me his story, highlighting his refusal to be deprived of his right to love, and snuck his young Jordanian bride through the smuggling tunnels which link the beleaguered coastal enclave to Egypt. He said, “It was like an Indian love film, her standing there and trembling, covered in earth ….I ran to her and covered her with my kisses.” That moment stayed with me and infused in me a desire to capture those little nuggets of happiness and light that Palestinians literally find at the end of the tunnel.
Many Palestinians when approached with this project agreed the theme of pleasure in Palestine itself was never discussed, as it was never relevant to occupation …a Palestinian film maker explained to me that as traumatized people, often forced to focus on miseries that sometimes their was a reticence to highlight pleasures publicly. But such ability to find pleasure highlights humanity…. She explained that pleasures are a form of resistance …the human spirit cannot just live on misery and drama. You need comedy, happiness …I feel that these small pleasures are more telling about daily life in Palestine. Palestine’s narrative exists in big head lines in news, house demolishing, and settler violence, war on Gaza… But what about what is before or after such moments? You cannot highlight their reality by only miserable moments… A family in East Jerusalem, while waiting for the day their house will be demolished…. knowing the orders have been given and it can come at any moment… they wait and try to make best of it.
SB. In another interview you said: “I use an anthropological approach to my subjects which is already more respectful than a news approach”. Can you explain?
TH. Since my projects deal with the intimate telling and/or representation of other people’s lives, I would say maintaining the dignity of the story you are telling is key. It is their story, after all. Shoot slowly if you can, take your time…. be willing to come back, let them get to know you and feel comfortable. Put in your time w tea, coffee, and conversation. I have shot for a wire news agency during the 2006 Israel war on Lebanon…I was appalled by the lack of respect I saw many news photographers utilizing to get “the” shot during moments like funerals. The nature and urgency of the hard news media industry can have less than desirable and often disrespectful affects on how that news is gathered. However what is interesting is how social and online media has allowed for greater participation and a conversation to ensue in places that once had only a “top down” media imprint. Photographers have to be on their toes now more than ever, as the chances that how they represent individuals will view that work and have the opportunity to respond. However, in places like the Middle East, various parts of Africa, and India and Bangladesh…photography is growing and many of their photographers have gained international respect and exposure. They are challenging the stereotypes that have been placed on them through various narratives and mediums for over a century. Many are utilizing the medium not only to challenge stereotypes abroad, but also to challenge injustice in their own country to their own governments.
SB. How do the restraints of access to Gaza with Israelis controlling access In and out and a government with theocratic tendencies affect your work as a photographer there?
TH. At the time that I first went to Gaza as a freelancer in 2009, Mubarak’s Egypt made it difficult to gain access from the Israeli-controlled border. After struggling with access, a friend working for an NGO gave me cover and I finally went. At that time, the media trend was focusing on a loss of women’s rights under Hamas. I was curious to see how prevalent this was, and additionally why the focus was on one segment of the population (women) as opposed to an entire population affected by the siege and trauma of the December 2008 attacks. At the time — and things have changed since — Hamas was not at the top of the list of restrictions the Palestinian population of Gaza was suffering from. The siege was multifaceted, so I chose the focus on women from a different perspective than the loss of women’s rights under Hamas. Instead, I explored how their lives were more broadly affected by their environment. How were women able to continue with their dreams, day to day activities, work, and care of their families in this very tense environment where their husbands could not find work, where people were still left with post-traumatic stress, The stress and restrictions limiting movement and opportunity because of the siege is now only exasperated by increased social restrictions from within because of what was until only recent an emboldened Hamas. I had more difficulty moving around while documenting Gaza for my recent project…more interference from Hamas police on the street and such. I felt more stifled so I can only imagine what it is like for civilians dealing with that and unable to leave. What is happening now since the near total closure of the tunnels and heightened political activity targeting Hamas but ultimately affecting the civilian population of Gaza from Egypt is a different ball game. I have not returned to Gaza since this happened so cannot expand much on it….
Lida Al-Rimawi cuddles her new son, born after smuggling her husband's sperm out of an Israeli jail, sitting beside her daughter Rand.
SB. What is to be a female photographer in the Middle East?
TH. When people ask me if it is more challenging being a female photographer in this region than a male photographer I usually answer no…. I personally have had access to places a male photographer wouldn’t, which ends up being more of an advantage. One example of this is Rawiya photo collective comprised of Tamara Abdul Hadi (Iraqi), Laura Boushnak (Palestinian), Boushra Almutawakel (Yemen), and Myriam Abdelaziz (Egyptian), and myself– we each had previously built careers shooting across the region, working the hard news cycles for various publications. However, we women felt that important social and political stories were still going unseen and wanted a platform to share them. The focus of Rawiya – which means “she who tells a story” in Arabic – is on capturing the region’s social and political issues as well as its stereotypes through photo essays and long-term projects. Unsurprisingly, this has translated into a body of work that spans the spectrum of subjects from the tender portraits and documentation of Egyptian “oriental” dancers, women struggling to gain access to literacy in various countries, displaced citizens to transgenders, and cheeky challenges to perceptions of gender roles, both within the Middle East and to an international audience. I sincerely believe that being a women has directly led to some of most intimate access that I have had…I have covered the so called “street” in conflict zones…along with male photographers. But there are times I am going to gain access to a house hold and family that many male photographers will not because of my gender…I am less of a threat. (mind you some of my favorite male photographers have unique ability to gain access anywhere). I have also photographed breaking news and the majority of “Occupied Pleasures” while heavily pregnant. I sometimes joke I should construct a fake pregnancy belly when shooting stories because people really don’t feel threatened by a toppling pregnant woman…. In some cases I swear people took pity on the pregnant photographer and opened their doors and stories!
Youth enjoy some vodka and conversation on the outskirts of Kufr Ni`ma village in the West Bank.
SB. How you combine being a mother of two very young children and an award winning photojournalist?
TH. There are so many stories that I have dreamed of starting or completing! However, in this competitive market, I have to keep them top secret, nurturing them until I am able to complete them and hoping nobody else gets there first. Having a two-year-old daughter and four months old son, I really have to work at a much slower pace now. Not travel as much and certainly not travel to places in overt conflict. I confess that I miss telling certain stories because of this…. however, it has also forced me to become more creative with my approach to story telling.
My biggest career challenge has been balancing motherhood and photography. While I am not a hard news photographer per se (I still take occasional assignments) I have had to completely alter the type of documentary stories that I like to do. I can no longer disappear for weeks and throw myself completely into stories. Now I have to find a way to truly maximize my time in the field. I also have to turn down interesting assignments because they could potentially be in a conflict zone and I have to ensure my first responsibility is to my children.
SB. Is your family supportive to your work?
TH. As much as they can be…it can be hard having a partner whose more or less 9-5 job is more manageable in terms of time management. It is not always obvious to those outside of this freelance lifestyle why there are days of quiet and suddenly you have to run out the door and have no answer when you will be home during the day or night. This does not always bode well with the practicalities of young children, picking them up from day care and such and planning with your partner who has their own workload. It is beyond frustrating, because you want to stay connected, and you sort of deny to yourself that having children will alter your career. I have more or less given up on hard news assignments (sometimes the gods align and things fall into place in these situations) but for now have altered my work approach entirely. I have developed positive relationships with editors who probably don’t always think of me first for hard news (though I am appreciative that some still do ask me) and who will call me for more feature based stories that gives me a time cushion to plan how to take care of the kids while photographing. Is it different for male photographers whose spouses are not in the media field? Probably. I could explore a whole essay on that topic…there are a few couples I can think of who both work in media…. but with rare exceptions, even in those situations it is the mother whose work path is altered more heavily. But again, it is all about how you embrace parenthood. When I can’t leave my children while on assignment with my family in Jordan or my in-laws, I have been known to baby Bjorn my babe and bring them to the field when it is a safe environment to do so. And I believe this has at least partially led to the vibrant, curious, and confident nature of my toddler.
SB. You mentioned that you are started working on a new project. What this new work is about?
TH. In this competitive environment where there are dwindling funds, I have learned that it is best to not talk too much about your work before it is finished. Suffice it to say, as a Jordanian who has long documented not only the political and social realities of conflicts on either side of my border, but also the inevitable role those conflicts pose inside Jordan as one of the main points of refuge for those suffering. Jordan’s entire narrative has long been linked to whatever happens in the Occupied Territories, as well as irrevocable changes from the Gulf war and subsequent US led occupation in Iraq….one of my first assignments from a professional humanitarian organization was the ICRC and JRC documentation of the miserable conditions of the Ruweished (near Iraq border) camp initially envisioned for Iraqis. It actually served as refuge for third country nationals like Sudanese and Somali students who had been studying on free scholarships from Saddam in Iraq who lost everything….who thought they were going to return home with tools to improve their lives but instead had become refugees living in tents in a miserable, harsh environment. The cycle of news in Jordan is a lived reality, we don’t need our televisions, it is tangible. Yet in my years in and out of Jordan documenting the various conflicts that spill human heartbreak and migration, adding new demographics of refugees to our population, nothing to the level the Syrian conflict has been experienced in recent yeas. I will just say that I have made time and provisions to devote my story telling to that story, without going into details. The Syrian refugee issue in Jordan is a well-covered media story. Some of my favorite Jordanian writers like Suha Maayeh and Rana Sweis have contributed more intimately to that coverage, especially on women’s issues. My project will focus on that tradition. I would love to take a break from political stories in the Middle East. Cover something in Latin America or the Caucasus. But ironically, because motherhood has limited travel, I can only work close to home. And close to home has some very serious political realities to explore.