I just saw a photo in the news from last week in Hebron; it is shadowed black with violence and fear. Your eye immediately finds the only touch of bright light, a flaming weapon (a rock? A bomb?) that a young presumably Palestinian boy is throwing at an Israeli soldier; yet another day of violence in the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank. Hebron is the home of the Tomb of the Ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, and is considered sacred by the three religions that derive from their lineage — Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It is one of the most contentious places on earth.
I was in Hebron last week photographing too. My image from Hebron is a bleached, desert brown. Your eye finds first the two armed Israeli soldiers, strangely almost sophomoric with the attention from the cameras. Then your eye goes to a large traffic safety mirror showing an empty street colored still more barren, empty brown. We are in the “sterilized zone” of Hebron, meaning that the Palestinians who have lived here for generations, built markets and communities here, are allowed in only at gunpoint.
Two images and two narratives, of the same place, possibly on the same day. As I begin to understand the complexity of Hebron the dark image bothers me because it caters so completely to our inclination to simplify complexity to a good vs evil dichotomy. In the U.S. we are far away and trying to make sense of a muddy situation, so we simplify our narratives to good guys vs. bad guys, black vs. white. After 10 days in Israel and the Palestinian Territories all I can see are the many colors of grey, representing the many unanswerable questions of this region.
I know that the Israeli settlers are here because they claim the Land of Judea, settled by their ancestors Abraham and Sara. I know that the Israeli Military is here because they are duty-bound to protect Israeli settlers, wherever they might be. I know that the Palestinians are here because they honor the same ancestors, and have farmed the lands of Hebron for many centuries. I am here to try to understand the shades of anger, the toll on human lives, and the role an individual can play as a small piece of the peace discussion. There is no peace without empathy; there is no empathy without understanding.
So my narrative becomes the many colors of grey. I see the weapons and the bleakness of destroyed community, and I see the cheery colors of a hopscotch board for the Settler children’s play. I see the red and green national colors of the angry Arabic graffiti on the walls, and I hear from an Israeli/American father who is nervous but proud of his son who has just joined the military, is working the check points, and is playing his part in Zionism. The complexity grows as the narratives build, and are as varied as human lives. Absolutely nothing here is black and white, and it seems wrong to portray it as such.
The photographer Annie Griffiths describes the inclination to limit our visual narrative to the sensational and most shocking as the “the easy image”; she maintains that it is much harder to tell the complexity of the human truth. Our challenge as photographers is to move beyond the obvious image and look harder for the complex human narrative; it is always there. Our challenge as viewers is to be willing to read the grey, and to see the complexity of the human narrative in all its colors.