2018 #57

Un/Holy Land

by Tanya Habjouqa

Beyond myth, dogma and media narratives, Tanya’s work transports viewers through the sacred landscapes of Palestine-Israel.

Unseen Platform: How would you describe your working relationship with photography?

Tanya Habjouqa: I see myself as a wearer of multiple hats in order to gain access to different narratives. My background is in anthropology, whilst I worked for years in the humanitarian field, so I’ve tried to pick up respectful approaches to interviewing along the way. I see photography as a liberated form where we can borrow conceptual practices from art, psychology and beyond to enhance the narratives we want to convey. Marry this with investigative journalism and you have an enriched, nuanced approach to storytelling. I started life as a writer but noted early on that some scenes could be conveyed in a single image – without losing its layers and impact…that fascinated me!

Why the title Un/HOLY LAND?

The term “Holy Land” has been so overused in tourism, art and political contexts that it’s lost its meaning. The title was initially a tongue in cheek term I used when discussing the place, because when you’re living and documenting consistent inequalities of the most basic human rights, the term truly irks. It’s so often used by the state to justify policy under a supposed shroud of the “holy”. At the same time, I cannot deny the moments of beauty here. When you enter the underground Coptic well at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or visit Mount Gerizim at dawn, there’s an undeniable energy. I didn’t want to insult those who believe nor the beauty that does exist, so the title is a way to express that perpetual duality.

How do you distinguish your work visually from that of other practitioners working in the region?

I’m fluent in various visual languages, but the work that truly excites me involves having a subject participate in their representation…it’s always more interesting. There’s some truly brilliant photojournalists working here, but I find a lot of imagery lacks the colour, nuance or details of reality here. Narratives of the Middle East are often told in tired tropes. One of the facets of “othering” people is to strip them of diversity and vibrancy, and so it’s this vibrancy I reinstate: the humanity and the complex contradictions of real people.

From where do your relationships with those you photograph emerge?

Working in the Middle East, there is at times restricted access to the stories you ache to tell. With some of the people represented, a relationship is formed, whilst trust and mutual narratives are shared. Motherhood has been an easy lens through which to connect with people, regardless of their political or ethnic perspective. For me, there’s no greater gift than trust from someone allowing you to interpret their story.

Read more (2 min read)

Photo of Un/Holy Land by Tanya Habjouqa

Hiba, 2017. Hiba (28) feels imprisoned in Bethlehem. Israel controls every aspect of life for occupied Palestinians, including the issuance of every birth certificate, marriage license, ID card, and permission to travel (to Jordan, anywhere). Israel refuses to give her family identity papers and they remain years in limbo. Despite this, she managed to graduate as an assistant nurse, and is determined to achieve her goal of becoming a psychologist. She works in the neonatal unit of a Bethlehem hospital. Here, she walks along the separation barrier which closes off Palestinians from Jerusalem (around nine kilometers away) as well as from newly confiscated lands.

Photo of Un/Holy Land by Tanya Habjouqa

Wingless Plane, Nablu, 2017. Twin dreamer Palestinian business men once bought a grounded Israeli airplane, plotting to make it a center piece of a thriving fun fair for families. During the midst of the second intifada, Israeli soldiers closed off their street to set up a checkpoint, making the fun fair impossible to access. To survive, the savvy businessmen opened up a trash compacting sight across the street. Today--the street is open, but the smell from the lucrative trash business makes the fun fair impossible. They have sold off piece by piece the ferris wheel and other goodies to fun fairs across the West Bank. For now, the wingless plane sits as an oddity to passing traffic.

Photo of Un/Holy Land by Tanya Habjouqa

Twins on a farm, 2018. A young mother in her early 20s just discovered she having twins—her first children. She is the daughter of a farmer, married to a young farmer, and lives in the lush Occupied West Bank farming village of Jiftlek. The idea of twins exhilarates and terrifies her. She can’t help but think of growing fruits and vegetables and seeing wither and ripe in same cycles. The area is surrounded by Israeli settler farming towns, and fair access to water (they are not allowed to dig for ground water on their own land) is just one of the issues plaguing them.

Photo of Un/Holy Land by Tanya Habjouqa

The Enthusiast, 2017. A young lady of French descent (raised in French Caribbean) made 'Aliya' six months before. She was one of the most enthusiastic participants in the training session.

Photo of Un/Holy Land by Tanya Habjouqa

Trilogy, 2018. A pregnant mother rests with her daughter in her lap. "My baby is going to be named Diyar. This means home. The meaning is that one day we will return to our village. Our home. Our land." Over the last eight years, a 31-year-old pregnant mother of two known as Umm Ahmad has had two miscarriages and an induced abortion. She was four months pregnant when in January 2015 a tear gas canister entered her house. She hid inside the bathroom to avoid the tear gas, but was still asphyxiated by it and almost lost consciousness. She expressed her fears about being pregnant while living in Aida refugee camp.

Photo of Un/Holy Land by Tanya Habjouqa

Girl With Flowers, 2016. Young Palestinian girl visits her ancestral Palestinian village, hired as a film extra on a Palestinian music video filmed in the ruins of Kufr Biryam - a "disappeared" village from 1948, now a national park. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established in 1901, as the first waves of Jewish immigrants were settling in Palestine under the banner of Zionism. Since 1948, Forests, parks and recreational facilities were strategically placed atop the ruins of destroyed Palestinian villages, so that the fast-growing pines (trees imported from Europe) would erase the history of Palestinian existence and prevent refugees from returning to their homes.

Tanya Habjouqa

East Jerusalem, PS

Bio IMG 4423

Tanya Habjouqa

East Jerusalem, PS

Born in Jordan but raised in the United States, Tanya Habjouqa (b. 1975, Jordan) now resides in East Jerusalem. Her work oscillates between examining details of conflict in the Middle East and addressing the presentation of these conversations by western media outlets. Beyond acknowledging the damage of polarised debate, the artist also subtly pushes at the boundaries of how these issues can be visualised. In a place where meaning is saturated through innumerable clichés, Habjouqa’s work instead strives for an authentic representation of everything from gender and human rights to dispossession. In recent years, her projects have been commended by the likes of TIME, Smithsonian and World Press Photo.

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