Written by Dean Asher Wednesday, 07 March 2012 20:52
It’s important for Americans to realize that human rights are universal.
Against the Wall: The Art of Resistance in Palestine (Lawrence Hill Books) is a book purporting to show the politically charged protest art painted upon the Israeli West Bank barrier wall by renowned street artists, including Banksy’s group Pictures on Walls. When U.K. photojournalist William Parry took his camera to the Middle East in 2008 to shoot and research his book, he captured more than spray paint and symbolism. Parry hopes that his stirring photos of the Palestinians struggling to get by, while cut off physically and economically by the wall from the rest of their land, will bring their problems to the forefront of Western thought.
The Israeli government says the wall is being built in the interest of Israeli security. The wall, though, branches out several kilometers away from the Green Line—the internationally recognized boundaries between Israeli Jewish and Palestinian lands—effectively annexing huge tracts of Palestinian territory. A wall of this nature, along with the Jewish settlements being built further and further out into Palestine, are in violation of international law, and opponents like Parry believe these are very conscious acts by the Israeli government to push Palestine further off of their own land and create more room for Israel.
While many of the photos in Against the Wall of course depict wall graffiti by artists such as Banksy and Ron English, many more show a Palestinian plight that is frankly difficult to view. Groups of workers line up like cattle at checkpoints in the wall to attempt to find work on the other side. Old men, women, and children are violently pushed aside in crowds and protests, and protestors sport gruesome wounds inflicted by Israeli soldiers who will then deny them access to treatment for hours on end—if they get it at all. Parry hopes this exposure to both struggle and resistance will counteract a Western media bias and raise awareness among Brits and Americans to the Palestinian side of the conflict.
Parry was in St. Louis February 29 as part of his book tour for Against the Wall’s U.S. publication, and I had the chance to sit down with him for a one-on-one interview.
Tell us a little more about the whole project. When did you go to shoot it and when did it come out?
I was going to do a piece for a U.K. magazine called the Middle East in March ’08 to sort of follow up on the project that Banksy and all the other street artists had done there around Christmas of ’07. Now that the media circus had gone out, I wanted to go in and see what the local people had to say about it. I’d been there many times in the past, and every time I went in I was photographing the artwork just because there was such an amazing range of it, and it was becoming more and more painted. On that particular visit, as I was leaving, I texted the person who’s now my wife and said, “Somebody should document this, because one day the wall’s not gonna be here, and it would be great to have this sort of record for posterity to show this amazing spectrum of work and solidarity,” and so forth.
And as I left the country, I thought that was not a bad idea. I certainly had the means to do it with my camera, so I took it to the publisher in the U.K., which is Pluto Press, and they said, “Great, let’s do it.” In order for it to be financially viable for them, they had to get a U.S. co-publisher. Once they said yes, I got some funding from a patron in London, did all the research there from late July for 10 weeks, documented the artwork I thought was going to be relevant, and got all the interviews. I came back and basically put it away for a number of months because I just found it really, really depressing. Every day was a story of extraordinary hardship, and at the same time, every day was an example of great privilege to the Jewish Israelis that I saw. So that sort of left me a little bit dispirited and down. When I got back to it, it eventually materialized in June 2010 the support of Banksy’s group, Pictures on Walls. The U.S. published it April 2011.
How long have you been interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I did my Masters in the U.K. in the mid ’90s and then took the first job that was available to me, which was teaching English in an international school. A lot of the kids there were from Syrian and Lebanese families. There weren’t any Palestinian students in mine, but these students were really well informed about the politics and the history of their region. This is something that we just didn’t get taught at school, so I really felt embarrassed that these 13-year-olds were teaching me the history of where I was working, and that they were so passionate about it, so committed; it really impressed me.
I thought, “I’ve got to rectify this,” so when I went back to the U.K. in 2000, I started to do a bit more research. I went to a number of meetings organized by some solidarity groups and thought it sounded intriguing and unfair and I had to see it for myself. In 2004, I flew out for the first time and in 2005, I did my first article based on the issue, on two students, one from Gaza and one an Israeli Jewish guy who struck up a friendship through a program called the Olive Tree Program. I interviewed them at the beginning of their course, and after the first year I went out to see them and their families, and to sort of see what had materialized after that first year. That was my first taste of it that way.
How did that work out? Did it change their own perspective? Did they bring it back to their families?
That was an interesting experience. Because Israel’s a very powerful player in the relationship there, anybody who has anything to do with Israelis could be regarded as a collaborator in many ways and not be trusted, so the guy who was from Gaza basically had to keep it really quiet. Obviously, his immediate family knew, but certainly his friends and all that in the community just thought he was on a scholarship in London, whereas the Israeli Jewish guy could speak about it more openly because there wasn’t that sort of threat. Israel isn’t occupied by the Palestinians, so you don’t have that same sort of element of the potential for collaboration. I didn’t end up meeting the Palestinian’s family because of the Israeli pullout of Gaza so everything was in turmoil there; he and I ended up meeting in Cairo. I did meet the Israeli student’s family in the north of the country. It was fascinating getting their views on Israel and why they needed Israel and so forth because they were Holocaust survivors. To this day, though, they’re not friends anymore. It almost seemed like a convenient thing when you’re there, but when reality comes back in, it still pulls people apart.
You wanted to start your book documenting the resistance art, but where did it go from wanting to just shoot that to also documenting the struggle itself?
Like the Pictures on Walls project, I thought it would be a fantastic way to get people in the West interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who might not normally be. That’s what I hope the book is achieving. In the U.K., the sales are good; here, they’re mediocre.
So are you yourself a big fan of art?
In general, yeah. Living in London is a great sport for all of that, with some of the best galleries in the world. In terms of street art, I never really was that exposed to it or aware of it, so this really opened my eyes to it. It’s sort of an aspect of London that I guess I was fairly oblivious to for a good number of years. There’s such a rich concentration of it there. Some really provocative, humorous stuff.
What was your favorite wall piece you saw while you were there?
I think Banksy just has this fantastic ability to cut to the heart of an issue with extraordinary economy and wit, and to supplant a power relationship with remarkable economy. I think I appreciate that about him, but at the same time, there are loads of sentences and statements by just ordinary individuals who have just scribbled their messages on the wall. Some of those are profoundly moving and, again, also cut to the heart of a lot of the issues there, so for ordinary people to record those sentiments on the wall for all of us to see, I think that’s a very powerful medium to get their points of view across. It’s some very, very heartfelt stuff. A lot of it is asking the Jewish community there and abroad, “How can you, who were put into ghettos, go and inter another group of people in a ghetto?” Those kinds of things are quite moving, quite powerful. There’s just a ton of humor, too, which is always a fantastic way of defusing a very depressing scenario. There’s one piece that said, “In my previous life I was the Berlin Wall. The beer was better there.” These kinds of little things where you’re going along and see such hardship all around just lifts your spirit.
You said you put the book away for a few months because it was so depressing. A lot of the photos in there show things like an older man pushed against a barrier in a crowd. How do you handle shooting things like that while you’re there?
It’s certainly emotionally difficult; like the Bethlehem checkpoint with the workers packed in there—that was particularly difficult and was one of my first experiences of the project. I didn’t have a translator with me, so I asked if anyone spoke English and I told them what I was doing, why I was there, and the nature of the book, and asked them to tell everybody what I was doing, because otherwise it’s a very voyeuristic exercise. To be photographing someone in that sort of dehumanized state, you feel really self conscious about it In fact, in many ways, as a Westerner, I felt these guys do retain their dignity, because they’re doing this because they have no other choice. They have to get to work, because the economy in the West Bank is so screwed by the occupation and the wall; they need to feed their families and send their kids to school.
Because I come from the West, which does play a very important role in maintaining this asymmetrical power relationship, I felt in many ways it was my own dignity that was lost there, because we in many ways are responsible for that reality. I promised the people I would use their pictures and stories to try to communicate that to people in the West, because I didn’t feel it was as represented adequately in mainstream media, and I would try to convey their stories to people to try and alter that dominant Israeli narrative that we have in our media. I’ve since gone back with the book to as many people as I can so far to say, “Here is the materialization of it.” It was important to go back and speak to that people, because you almost feel like you’re exploiting their misery in some ways, but to say, “This is what I’m doing and I hope it’s having some sort of impact,” is an element of reclaiming that initial sense of capitalizing on their misery.
You’ve mentioned Western media is biased on the matter and that they focus on the Israeli frame. Are you worried this will lead Westerners to call your work biased or anti-Israeli, or has it been successful?
People might say it’s biased; I wouldn’t say so. Again, what I’m trying to do is create a more level playing field; the Israeli narrative is so predominantly carried in our press. I also think, historically, the context of the conflict isn’t given to help people understand this isn’t two people fighting over the same land: This is a conflict that is based on colonization in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Palestinian people, as people who are being colonized, have a right to resist, just as you or I would be within our full legal limits to try and resist them as well, using force if need be if somebody broke into our homes. I think, of course, there will be people who use the anti-Semitic card, as it’s a very easy card to pull out, but the book has been out since 2010. There has been no media coverage that I’ve ever seen where people have found any factual errors with it. It relies on sources like the U.N. and various human rights groups, and everything in it is founded on international human rights laws, so I’m trying to promote them and give a voice to them, because I think those are underrepresented.
You mentioned in your book your publishers were very supportive of the project from the onset. What is the difference between them and the general American media mindset regarding the conflict, and were there ever any points where you still butted heads over the project?
Both publishers are small left-wing publishers, so I think that’s why they were interested from the start, because they see their job as giving a voice to an unrepresented voice. In terms of butting heads, it only happened with the American publisher in that, from a commercial point of view, they thought if it didn’t have Bansky on the cover, it wouldn’t sell. For me, one of my favorite pieces is Ron English’s “Pardon Our Oppression.” I think it is visually very powerful and certainly has direct relevance to a U.S. audience so I was hoping that would make it to the cover, but the U.S. co-publisher was insistent Banksy was on there, which of course is a reality I have to accept, because they’re not there to lose money.
Have you kept in contact with any of the people or families you shot? Have their situations changed at all?
Some. I have an awful lot more to do, and we’re talking about a second edition for that exact purpose. My premise is that this wall is going to strangle neighborhoods and communities, so let’s see five years down the line what sort of an effect it is having. So I do know some of the families and have kept in touch with a few of them, and their situations have deteriorated further. For instance, one guy who has lost a bit of land to an Israeli colony, that continues to be built closer and closer to his property, and I really don’t see his house being there in a few years; he’s just going to be squeezed out.
There’s another family that had their house demolished twice in the past. The wall actually, when I was last there, was being built right through their village, so they were going to be further isolated from their communities and would have to go through checkpoints to get to their own village. At the time, those checkpoints there hadn’t been set up yet but by now they are, so their lives are more difficult.
Another woman is someone I have been following since 2006, and psychologically, you can see the extraordinary impact it’s having on her particularly, because she’s the one I always see. She just looks more psychologically frail every time I see her. 2014 is going to mark the 10th anniversary of the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the illegality of the wall, so that might be sort of a peg to use for a potential new edition.
So far, it seems like a lot of those international communities are stepping in and agreeing that the wall is illegal, but they aren’t actually doing anything to enforce that or change that. Does that have a chance of changing soon?
I think the major thing to watch right now is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement called for by Palestinian civil society. It’s being more widely embraced around the world, and they’re turning to the civil rights movement and Gandhi for inspiration, but also particularly to South Africa and dismantling Apartheid there. Its’ growing year by year, and you can see signs that the Israeli government is concerned by it.
Also, like the South Africa situation, America and the U.K. and the rest of Europe supported the regime there. It’s only when grassroots organizations work up that major changes take place, and of course that only happens when businesses start to hurt that people start to think about doing it not only for a moral reason but an economic one. Hopefully, that’s what’s going to happen.
There are a lot of bands starting to boycott playing in Israel, tacitly or explicitly. I think that sort of thing is gaining momentum and conveys a very powerful message to people who wouldn’t necessarily think about the issue, but finally, if one of their favorite bands said, “I’m not going to play Israeli Apartheid,” suddenly it’s cool then to follow that same call. If that means, then, that certain companies or penchant schemes start to divest from Israeli companies, it’s going to lead somewhere. Governments will always follow unwillingly.
On that note, people in America are so many thousands of miles away from this and aren’t directly affected by it. Why do you think they could care about these things you are photographing?
For Americans, they support Israel with $3 billion in military aid every year. That results in a lot of anti-American sentiments, which could result on attacks on Americans, here or abroad. That’s unlikely to happen, but more importantly, I think, is the fact that the U.S. economy has been hurting for a number of years. And yet this sort of blind support of Israel continues, so your tax dollars are going to support the oppression of people who are facing colonization. So, from a human rights issue, I would hope people would take interest. Secondly, I think your services here could probably make much better use of that money than sending F16s and Apache helicopters there. The wall is one of the latest instruments of that colonization, that system of Apartheid, and that instrument of oppression.
It’s also important for Americans to realize that human rights are universal, and there might be times where Americans depend on this sort of international framework respecting the rights of all, regardless of where they came from. We see that suspended in Guantanamo, and that gives other countries the right to use it as they see fit. We should be very worried if we have that breakdown of international law. These are one of the few mechanisms there to keep some element of civilized norms. We saw Israel use its administrative detention to detain people, and there was a guy named Hadar Adnan recently on hunger strike because he had been arrested by the Israelis without any charge. This can go on for months and years, and when the Israeli spokesperson was asked to comment on administrative detention, he said lots of democracies also use administrative detention. Guantanamo would be a perfect example of not giving people basic rights, and it’s giving other countries an excuse to forgo those rights, as well.
You’re trying to bring this to the forefront of Western attention, but you say in your book that nothing compares to actually going there physically and seeing it yourself. For a lot of youth in the Midwest, that’s not going to be possible for them to do. What can they do to help, or change what’s going on there, or even anything going on here?
One of the best ways is BDS: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Follow your bands—if a band is taking a stance on it or if they plan on visiting Israel, you can influence them that way. Get on their Facebook pages; that’s changed the stances of a lot of bands recently, from Cat Power to Jello Biafra to Sandra Wilson last week. Lots of bands are starting to listen up, and a lot of that has originated from their Facebook pages, where people who love their music get passionate about it.
Just like South Africa: We called on these bands not to play there; we’re doing the same thing now. The cultural boycott on South Africa had a very big impact on spreading awareness. I think that’s one way for people who can’t get over there yet can certainly get involved and get interested. Also, this speaking tour here is mostly on campuses through student groups, so I’d say get involved with them. Arm yourself with information. Find out yourself from groups here.
There are a lot of people and families here who are from Palestine. Just take a moment to speak with them and get the stories about their struggles. I think you’d be pretty stunned by hearing it firsthand from somebody who has experienced it. | Dean Asher
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