Looking at Gaza

May 19, 2021

IN 2005, a group of photographers took a stand alongside the people of the small Palestinian town of Bil’in, and documented their fight to stop the Israeli government’s construction of the infamous separation wall in the occupied West Bank. Inspired by the possibility of co-resisting the occupation, the group went on to form Activestills, a collective of Palestinian, Israeli, and international photographers whose work has become vital in picturing the struggle against Israel’s colonial policies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Activestills’s photographs are not meant to create spectacular journalistic images of victimhood or heroism, but to visualize precarity as an outcome of political and military strategies, and at the same time to point to the way oppressed communities challenge on a daily basis their continuous dispossession and subjection.

During the collective’s fifteen years of work, they have photographed four major Israeli military operations on the Gaza Strip and its deadly effects on its residents: Cast Lead (2008–9), Pillars of Defense (2012), Protective Edge (2014) and the current operation. After thirteen years of Israeli blockade and several wars, Gaza’s infrastructure is debilitated. The strip’s two million residents lack access to clean water, experience regular electricity cuts, and suffer severe shortages in essential medical equipment. Unemployment rates, particularly among young people, are among the highest in the world.

One of the most comprehensive projects on Gaza is by Activestills photographer Anne Paq. Titled “Obliterated Families,” it was created in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and clearly shows the devastation caused by Israel’s repeated military offensives. The project focuses on ten families out of 142 that were destroyed during the bombardment as a direct outcome of a consistent policy of attacking residential buildings in densely populated urban areas from the air, causing them to collapse on entire families. By emphasizing the names of the victims of the deadly attacks and on the survivors, the project exposes how the universal basic rights to life and protection from violence are withheld from the residents of Gaza. In this way, it challenges the accepted norm implemented throughout all of Israel’s military operations in Gaza as to “whose lives are regarded as lives worth saving and defending, and whose are not.”

An “ungrievable life,” writes Judith Butler, “is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.” For the Israeli government and army, the unjust death of Palestinian civilians is nothing other than “collateral damage.” Yet in Activestills’s photographs—including this portfolio of images made between 2010 and 2021 and edited by Keren Manor—Palestinians appear not as disposable victims, but as individuals whose deaths are mourned and whose loss is painfully felt by their families, and by those who dare to look at and acknowledge the overwhelming destruction caused by Israel’s assault on Gaza.

— Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum

Editor’s note: This gallery contains graphic images.

To learn more about the collective’s work (archived here), see the book Activestills: Photography as Protest in Palestine / Israel (Pluto Press, 2016).