Jaffa from Inside: Three Photographers plus One

Yaarah Shehori

In September, Camera Obscura, a college for the arts, hosted the graduation exhibit of its photography majors. Among them was one who did not actually take the pictures she showed. Galit Hinon, 26, entitled her graduation project “Three Photographers”. She exhibited fifty pictures shot by Jamila Abu Ayish and Khulud Kharub, 13 years old, and Sabrin Safi, 11. The three are from Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood. For an entire year they photographed themselves, their relatives, friends, surroundings, houses – whatever enabled them to get their feelings on film. Galit Hinon accompanied them.

The three young photographers turned the gallery of Camera Obscura into a distinct social reality, even – for a moment perhaps – into part of Ajami itself. The eye was not coolly anthropological. They photographed within the neighborhood and its houses. They created a living environment, composed of their lives, as reflected in a well-kept living room or the schoolyard. This was their album. In the text accompanying the exhibit, Galit Hinon wrote: “This is the territory of the neighborhood, of the girls’ social class, of their age and culture.”

Ajami is destitute. Within it, for the last eight years, the Baqa Center (Baqa is Arabic for “enduring”) has operated a project called “Art in the Community”. Five days a week, the neighborhood children come to the Center to play, get help with their homework and make art. To keep its universal perspective, the Center remains independent of governmental budgets. Its project is directed toward the neighborhood children, but it also educates, by a kind of ricochet, the artists and volunteers who come to the Baqa Center to make a change.

Eyal Danun, a teacher at Camera Obscura, arranged a meeting with the Center, looking for ways in which the two institutions, one in Tel Aviv and the other in Jaffa, could cooperate. Among the college students was Galit Hinon. Later she reported: “The people of Baqa gave us a tour of Ajami. They suggested we might make a graduation project in connection with the Center. That very weekend I saw a TV documentary about the housing problem in Jaffa, especially in Ajami. Like many Israelis, I had only seen Jaffa as a place to eat good humus. I decided that I was going to go there. This was a gut decision. I had no idea what I was getting into. I had never been a political person.”

The camera changes hands

When Galit Hinon arrived in Ajami, this time with a camera, she saw the neglect and misery that blight the neighborhood. “I began to photograph. I did mainly streets, yards, the fronts of houses. My first attempts were empty of people, almost severe in their spareness.”

Then Hinon took part in a trip to the Negev with the Baqa youth group. Here she first put her camera in the hands of the children. They shared with each other, each taking the same number of shots. The next meeting took place at the Center, where they looked at the photos from the trip. Hinon proposed that they make an album. “I said we could cut up the pictures, draw on them, and write. At first they were taken aback. The pictures are pretty, they said, so why cut them up, why draw on them? I wanted them to understand that the photos could be raw material to work with. I wanted to stress the process and not the result. We worked on the album together three weeks, so that they could show it at their school.”

Eight children were involved. Of them, three girls persisted.

Three photographers

“Each time,” says Hinon, “one of the girls took charge of the camera for a week. She could photograph anything she wanted, and the other two waited their turn. It’s very hard to wait. They were bursting with curiosity about what would be in the pictures. Me too.

“When we’d look at the photos, there was of course an initial excitement. But the purpose of the meeting was to talk with them about why they chose to photograph what they did and why they preferred one picture to another. I wanted to explain what the camera does to us, to show that it encloses the world in a single frame, forcing us to concentrate. We talked about the need to think before shooting.”
Not National Geographic

The three girls photographed their surroundings: the street, the schoolyard, the little brother asleep in his parents’ bed, the sister posing like a model. In one of Sabrin’s photos, she is the subject. She is sitting on a green hill, and next to her is a baby looking off to the side. This is one of the few pictures taken outside Jaffa.

Hinon: “Deciding where you place yourself is very important. Sabrin chose to photograph herself outdoors in nature. The picture was taken in the village near Ramallah where her mother was born. They were on a family visit. Sabrin and her sister told me that while they were there, they heard cannon fire. At night soldiers came and knocked on the door. She told me she was afraid, but she chose to focus on the village and nature. She photographed the donkey, the goats, the hen and her eggs. ‘I took pictures of the eggs,’ she said, ‘and that night the chicks popped out.’ That was her reality. On that same night, though, reality included soldiers and shells – a different kind of shooting.”

For the graduation exhibit at Camera Obscura, Hinon chose fifty pictures from among the hundreds the girls had taken. She kept them moderate in size, printed on ordinary paper. Beside them she placed the portraits of the three photographers, which she took herself. In the exhibit catalogue, the Chairperson of the Photography Department, Yossi Nahmias, wrote as follows:

“The photographic images that I find most interesting … are those that show their maker as one who sees himself less and less as a ‘photographer’ in the narrow sense, whose aim is ‘to catch moments and print pictures,’ and more as one who specializes in deciphering and mapping out a given visual-cultural space, and who knows how to enter that space, in a well- informed way, to influence it.” This definition would seem to fit Hinon’s work precisely. She broadened the concepts of “photographer” and “artist” to the point where she could let go of her tools almost entirely: to be a photographer without a camera, to be part of the society, to act in it, without hesitations about being influenced or influencing. She entitled her exhibit “Three Photographers”, but she was a fourth, behind the scenes.

After the exhibit opened, the three girls were invited to see their work on the wall. Hinon: “Before they arrived, I worried they’d say about this or that picture, ‘Why’d you put that one? I don’t look good.’ But not at all. They were in shock. I talked with them about the fact that everyone who visits the exhibit sees their work and the process they have been going through. After that I showed them the school.”

The camera is still in Jaffa, and the girls are using it. Galit Hinon continues to volunteer at the Baqa Center, working with children.

One of the photographs at the exhibit shows a birdcage. It is unclear whether it’s empty or there’s a bird inside. Hinon: “We spoke about the fact that they can photograph things according to how they feel, just as they would write in a diary. The camera can be a tool for expression. The birdcage is a picture of this sort. In Jaffa children like to catch birds, put them in cages, and feed them. I think they also let them go.”