Life in black and white

Antti Kirves
Raed Bawayah

Palestinian photographer Raed Bawayah is looking for the images of his tough childhood that were never taken.

For Raed Bawayah, photography is an art that cannot be chosen. People are born into it. “We have to eat, have sex, go to the toilet, and we have to take pictures. It’s inside us. Photography is desire for me. When I am in the darkroom and the image starts to appear on the paper – that is my orgasm.”

He spends a lot of time with the people that he photographs. Photography is about studying humanity, not just about producing pictures for the pages of the newspapers.

“The camera has to be honest. That’s why I don’t do press photos. I don’t think that I can reach reality if I go on the street to photograph running people. It’s important to know the people, the way they think and their culture. The photographer has to convince the subject about his own sincerity. Then the person is like that in front of the photographer, without any pretence.”

Energy is created when the lives of a photographer and a subject meet, as well as a good portrait. “The camera changes the encounter because we humans want to look beautiful, perfect. I don’t direct my subjects but rather wait for the right moment, which I can see in my mind. I let them do what they want. I tell them what I’m trying to do, what message I’m trying to transmit through my work. I choose the moment but they choose the situation.”
In the English language the word shot is used for a photograph. “I do think that the camera is a weapon. You have to know how to use it because otherwise it is possible to kill with it.”

Childhood images

Bawayah, 38, is a Palestinian born in the village of Qatanna, a good ten kilometres from Jerusalem on the West Bank. When Bawayah was seven, his father died in a car accident. His childhood was tough. The family lived in a small house; eight children and an illiterate mother. The children slept side by side with the mother, in order of height from the smallest to the tallest.

There is no photograph from those times but the pictures of Bawayah’s childhood are indelibly corroded on his mind. “When I take a picture in a way I am still looking for that childhood picture. The mind is like a computer: when it boots up, it goes through stuff on the hard disk. My hard disk is full of images about my family and childhood. They give me the motivation and strength to do what I am doing now.”

Bawayah had to start work at the age of ten. He picked cherries in Israel. The boy was afraid to go alone to the place where the workers were picked up in the half-light before dawn, so his mother accompanied him and waited until the vehicle came. In the evenings they usually went to sleep on an empty stomach because there was no food. During the summers Bawayah sold grapes in Jerusalem’s old town, which was full of tourists. When the boy saw their cameras, something began to tickle him inside.

But he had never touched a camera until he got the opportunity to study photography at the age of 29. By then he had 15 years of building and cleaning work behind him. His mother could not understand why the boy was going to study photography for four years; it would have been better to buy a camera and earn money by photographing weddings.

Bawayah returned to his home village as a photographer, to photograph his family and those close to him. The experience was good and gave him a lot of self-confidence. “I travelled to my past and those places where I had suffered as a child. I went there to make them into beautiful, clean images and places.”

Beyond news images

Bawayah currently lives in Paris but tries to visit his family in Palestine at least once a year. He has a residence permit in France, so it is easier for him to travel than other Palestinians. “The situation in Palestine has worsened day by day for as long as I can remember, and now it is unbearable. I’m from there and lived my whole life there and I still don’t understand how people survive under those conditions.”

He says he hopes that there could be peace between the Palestinians and Israelis but thinks it is more realistic to hope the situation would just remain stable and not get any worse. “There is no longer any land to cultivate. When I open the window in the morning, all I can see is the huge concrete wall built by the Israelis. The politicians speak about peace but it is far from the reality. The Palestinians are living in a giant prison.”

Bawayah does not believe in the objectivity of the media. When we see small boys who are throwing stones at Israeli tanks, we are just being presented with a political agenda. “The news images are just decoration for what we are told in the media. They try to convince us with these images and strengthen the political opinion of a particular television channel. These news images are followed by football and American soap operas and by then we have already forgotten the whole story.”

He wants to go deeper than the image we have of Palestine. His message is that the Palestinians are no stranger than any other people in the world. “I want to show the human face of Palestine, that it’s people are living and suffering. We are bored of seeing bodies, dying people and tanks. I want to see my people as part of humanity and the human race.”

His images are black and white. They show people instead of blood, weapons, helicopters or tanks. “I’m against Palestine being used like a logo. It’s not marketing. It’s not Mercedes Benz or BMW. Palestine is reality, it is people, a nation, land, it is culture.”

In Bawayah’s opinion money is the worst thing that has happened to photography. Money makes the media go round and money is politics. “Photography is like a big factory. It has lost the feeling of creativity and the message about humanity. Of course it’s necessary to sell pictures to make a living, but in a way photography died when the first photo was sold.”

The struggle continues

All Bawayah’s images are black and white and have been taken in available light. Anything else would be too much intervention in how things are. “The light that is added to people is invasive and it changes their reality. Light is important to us, we draw with it. A black and white image is aggressive to the eyes. Maybe it is also connected to black memories from my childhood. The world is black and white, but more black than white.”

When there seems to be war, disease and hunger everywhere, there is less white all the time. “The world is a disaster. According to Darwin we should already be developed, modern people. But excuse me, Darwin, we are eating each other!”

Bawayah continues the struggle with his camera. Although there is a lot of black in his images, there is also white. Hope lives on.

“Of course I am angry when I see war and people who have no food and those who live on the street and those who fight wars for nothing. Of course I am angry when I see this black around me. We have to fight for that white. It’s thanks to that the human race goes on and produces new humanity.”

“Otherwise it would be all over.”