Eman Mohammed is the only female professional photographer based in the Gaza Strip. The self-taught, 22-year-old Palestinian, whose photographs have appeared in The Guardian and Le Monde, has been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2006. Her latest portfolio appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of the World Policy Journal.
How did you teach yourself to take pictures?
In the journalism field in Gaza, it’s all about experience. It doesn’t matter if you have a degree from Harvard, it’s a war zone. What matters is if you can’t handle it. So I started reporting when I was at University, then I became a reporter at a local [paper]. That opened a door for me—I was just 19. Because I am a girl, [photography is] a no-no. I used reporting as an excuse to take photos, and I had so many colleagues that were so friendly to me, but photography is not something they can teach—they [can only] give tips. They taught me the basics but I had to go from there.
You said because you are a woman, it was a struggle starting out as a photojournalist. Is it still difficult?
Yeah. It will always be. It’s like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it will never go away. It will get easier sometimes, it will be harder sometimes, but it will never disappear. That’s the case in Gaza.
For your portfolio focused on a single family in Gaza—the Khaderis. Why them?
I was looking for something more specific than just destruction, war. You need something more emotional to get connected with the story. They were walking by and I just stopped for some rest and they were really friendly. We started talking, and at first I didn’t even noticed how destroyed their house was, and I didn’t even notice the pigeons. They felt like no one was listening to them since all the [television] crews came, shot, and then left.
How long have you been taking pictures of the Khaderi family?
Now a year and a half. It became more interesting than it was at first. Every photographer has his own way of making stories. To me the most important thing is to bond with the people that the story is about. Every time I go there they are the only people left [in their neighborhood]. It’s easy to keep up with their story, it’s not like they are moving. It gets more and more interesting. It’s not one of those stories where you can just go there for a month. It shows you the daily life in Gaza. The real daily life.
You said that the story gets more interesting as time goes on. Why?
Because we bond with the story. You have something to say, you have feelings towards it. It’s wrong to show your feelings, it’s wrong to let your feelings control you, to get emotional. If that had happened I would never have been able to cover any side of the war. But at the same time, I get to define my stories. Some are going to be related to emotions, and some aren’t, they simply aren’t. So whenever I am around, [it’s like I am not there]. They are just being themselves. Because if they noticed me, and started posing, pretending, staging, it would just ruin the whole moment. It would ruin my shot.
What is the status of the Khaderi family now?
To me, I would say it’s worse. Sometimes you would think they can just pick up the pieces of their lives and move on. But I don’t think that was the case with them. The father, Mohammed, is suffering from a sort of trauma. He had to remove the rubble of his house. He had to do it because the police forced him, the UN, because they were doing some sort of screening process for the whole area. He told me two days ago that he got emotionally related to the house, so when the house was gone, when the rubble was gone, something was gone. He felt like the house was gone twice, not once. It’s the same when you talk about electricity, water, food, things you need—the basics. But if you talk about the mental health, his family’s mental health—it’s nothing good. I think it’s brave of them to stay there but it’s not like they have a choice.
When you’re taking these photographs, is there an intent to raise awareness about life in Gaza, or is it just about making pictures?
It really depends. You see many destroyed houses, many families crying on the ground. But it’s different when I learn something I didn’t know. In every story I get something I never knew about it. But it would never be just shooting photos. I believe I am so new—I have been in this field only four years, and that’s nothing compared to others. If I would start now shooting photos just for photos, I would have nothing to look forward to in my career. At the same time it’s easier for me to look at people as people instead of as subjects. It’s like looking at a baby and thinking he doesn’t understand—he does.
—Seth Walder conducted this interview for the World Policy Journal