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.
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.
Scout Tufankjian is a photographer with Polaris Images. Her book, Yes We Can (powerHouse/Melcher Media), documents her two years covering the Obama campaign.