A Photographer in Gaza

How to take pictures of a war.

Israel’s offensive in Gaza entered its 11th day on Tuesday as the death toll mounted. Several weeks into the 2006 conflict in the region, photographer Scout Tufankjian filed photos and an essay from Gaza on how to take photographs of war. Tufankjian, who had been working in Gaza on and off for about three years, wrote at the time that “the situation now is as bad as I have seen it.” The dispatch is reprinted below.

Click  here to see Tufankjian’s photographs of Gaza. Please note: This slide show contains graphic images that may not be suitable for all readers.

Click to view a slide show.

GAZA, July 19, 2006—I love being a photographer. I doubt that I could possibly love it more. When I’m trying to compose an artful image out of the tattered remains of someone’s son, however, I start to wonder if maybe my job is a little strange.

I’ve had this thought a lot during the last few weeks here in Gaza, where I’ve been working for various magazines and newspapers. While it may seem odd to commute between Gaza and New York, I’ve been working here off and on for almost three years, and the situation now is as bad as I have seen it. My photographer friends here tell me that Israel’s incursion into Rafah in spring of 2004 was worse—so many bodies piled up in one neighborhood that locals had to keep them in a walk-in vegetable cooler—but I wasn’t here for that. More than 100 people have died since what the Israelis are calling “Operation Summer Rains” began, and while a lot of them were militants, a lot of them were not.

Most days here in Gaza begin in the morgue. My driver and fixer, Mahdi, picks me up at my occasionally air-conditioned hotel in the morning and we head to whatever hospital is closest to wherever the Israelis are currently. The Israelis have been moving around a lot—a few days here, a few days there. The militants tend to operate only in their own neighborhoods, so the press corps has been speculating that the Israelis are trying to attract the most intense militants in each area to the tanks and then kill them all. Whatever the plan is, that has certainly become one of the results. The problem, of course, is that these clashes are taking place in and around residential neighborhoods, so every time a tank shell misses the militants, there’s a good chance it’ll hit someone’s home or someone’s kid.

No matter where we are heading, we listen to Radio Shebab along the way to find out what’s going on. Radio Shebab—which is run by Fatah—is a mixed bag. Their local reporting is good and generally tells you what you need to know about where the clashes are, who’s been killed, and where people are bringing the wounded. Unfortunately, the station also plays really horrible homegrown songs about the various factions, most of which would not sound out of place in a Gilbert and Sullivan musical, if Gilbert had written lyrics like “The death! The death! The death of Israel!”

Today and yesterday we ended up at the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Hospital. Their morgue is tiny. In some drawers, two bodies share one gurney, curled up like brothers or lovers, something I have never seen before. The morgue attendant is reluctant to open the doors, but he relents for me after Mahdi convinces him that it is the only way to show Americans how many people are dying here. I photograph these bodies every morning, knowing that the chances of one of these pictures running anywhere are pretty slim: Most readers have no interest in being confronted by a corpse while eating their cornflakes.

The news this morning is that there will be no funerals today. Israeli tanks are still in the area, so it’s unlikely that Hamas will be able to hold a service for its gunmen that doesn’t end in a massacre. I wander back to the hospital, where the normally quiet lobby has become a triage center. There are only six beds in the ER, and around 60 people have been wounded this morning, so the hospital has thrown a bunch of cots on the ground, and doctors are rushing around trying to stabilize people. Young militants toting Kalashnikovs keep getting in the way, tugging on the doctors’ arms, trying to get them to treat a brother, a friend. Small kids from the neighborhood have also sneaked in and are looking around like it’s a carnival. Meanwhile, the lights keep blowing out, so a janitor is on a ladder, changing the fluorescent tubes.

I’ve spent a lot of time in working in hospitals during the last few weeks. You get unfettered access here (Wanna see us try to save a guy missing his entire lower body? Come on in!). But the streets are also becoming more dangerous. The current Israeli incursion is a little bit outside town, where there are no side streets I can use to approach the action safely. Plus, the Israeli tanks are backed up by helicopter gunships, which scare the crap out of me. At least with tanks, you know what direction they’ll be shooting in. Over the last few weeks, two journalists have been shot, and a lot more have been shot at, so unless you have an armored car, it makes more sense to cover this incursion from the hospital. Still, the thought of missing good pictures eats at me, so I’m relieved to see all of the local journalists sitting in front of the hospital smoking cigarettes.

My fixer, Mahdi, is completely unflappable. I’ve been working with him for more than a year, and I have never seen him be wrong. When he says that we are safe, I believe him, and when he says something is too dangerous, we don’t go. For the last few weeks, he’s been bringing his puppyish 16-year-old nephew, Bubbus, along as a kind of errand boy. Apparently Bubbus, who is named after a kind of fish he’s said to resemble, was driving Mahdi’s sister nutty and she ordered Mahdi to get him out of the house. Bubbus has the quite sensible habit of taking for the hills at the slightest sign of trouble. This can, however, be problematic, since we have to find him after the trouble has passed, and trouble in the form of Israeli helicopters comes with additional cell-phone-jamming powers.

All and all, I have it pretty easy here. My hotel has a generator that runs 24-7, while most Gazans have electricity only a few hours a day, if that. The IDF bombed the main power station a few weeks ago, and it looks like it might take years to fix. My hotel even has wireless Internet and hasn’t yet run out of food, which is served on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean. (Gaza has the sweetest strawberries in the world.) More important, I can leave whenever I want to, something most Palestinians can’t do. If I decide that I want to see the opening night of my boyfriend’s play, or catch a Red Sox game or attend my mother’s 60th birthday party at a Connecticut casino, I can.

But most of the time, I’m happy to stay. The nights are not as much fun as they were before the foreign press corps picked up and left en masse for Lebanon and Haifa, but I enjoy my days more now that the streets are not clogged with other reporters. Although international attention has shifted to Lebanon, the violence here continues unabated, so there’s plenty to do. And the Gazans generally treat me with warmth and courtesy. They see the foreign press as a lifeline—a chance to tell the world their story. Almost everybody believes that the world will listen.

I have my doubts. Polaris, my agency, sends me plenty of e-mails reassuring me that my pictures are not being sent out into a void, but the outside world doesn’t seem all that interested in making the shelling stop. My politics are pretty simple. Killing people is bad. Killing civilians is worse. Killing children is an obscenity—whether it’s the Katyusha rockets that killed two kids playing in their yard in Nazareth or the 6-year-old girl killed in her house in Shajiya. But no one in charge of this conflict has much to gain by stopping it. With each new atrocity, the extremists on both sides gain greater strength. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has never been more popular in Israel, and Palestinians are hunkering down behind Hamas.

I asked one of my best friends, a local AP photographer, how he was doing and he said, “Work is good. The situation is kharra (shit).” That pretty much sums up life here. It’s the essential contradiction of what I do. If my kid were killed, I wouldn’t want some grimy little snapper sticking her lens in my face, but I do that to people every day. I don’t beat myself up for it, either. I’m here to work, not to watch or to hold their hand and experience their pain. And it’s my job to show that the shelling leaves real people, crying real tears, over their really dead sons and daughters.