A rooftop in one of the houses in the Bedouin Township of Rahat, Israel. © Silvia Boarini
In her latest project, Italian photojournalist Silvia Boarini focuses her camera on the lives of the Bedouins of The Negev. Images from her ongoing body of work ‘Bedouin Land’ were recently exhibited at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch, a well deserved result after working for many months to highlight the life and conditions of the Bedouins.
For this event Silvia collaborated closely with the Israeli charity, Negev Coexistence Forum, and thanks to this partnership the exhibition became more than just a photography show. Silvia hung her photographs alongside images taken by Bedouin children from the unrecognized village of Wadi Al Nam. This exhibition was accompanied by talks covering the situation of the Bedouin minority in Israel and the impact that participatory photography workshops can have on communities was also discussed.
Two of the representatives from the unrecognized village, Al Araqib, who feature in Silvia’s documentary, were invited to take part in the first talks held at the exhibition. This gave them the opportunity to represent their community and discuss their struggles to survive in a harsh, unrelenting environment where there is little security, or the resources that we as Londoners have come to expect as our day to day right. Following the event, Amnesty’s officials visited the Bedouin village of Al Araqib and have stepped up their condemnation of Israel’s actions in the Negev.
Silvia first moved to London at the age of 19 and it was during her studies that she became aware of photography’s power to create international awareness of current affairs and social issues. At the time she was studying for a BA in Communications studies at Middlesex University and took up photography as a hobby. Having grown up in a home where political and social ideas were readily discussed, Silvia was encouraged to hold her own views on politics and current affairs. Researching and understanding current social affairs is Silvia’s passion and photography has provided a way to explore this interest and bring attention to unacknowledged peoples and social issues.
A child stands next to the carcass of a sheep slaughtered for the Friday meal. Many of the sheep in the unrecognized village of Al Araqib escaped after the first demolition in July 2010 and have never been recovered. Al Araqib, Israel © Silvia Boarini
LIP: Is Bedouin Land your first major body of work?
Silvia: I have another ongoing body of work called Land of the Prickly Pears in which I explore life in the Occupied Territories and inside Israel. I started that in 2004 while I was studying photojournalism at the LCC. I add chapters to it with every trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank. I think when I first visited, I was overwhelmed by a deceiving sense of normality which you quickly discover is simply a way for people to cope with life under occupation, given, for example, that your husband or your son has been in prison for the past 10 years, or you suffer from depression because you very simply can’t get out of your village. I couldn’t take it all in and make sense of it, so I still tackle it bit by bit. Bedouin Land is an off-shoot from this ongoing work.
Women sit in the midst of the destruction following the fifth demolition. Since the beginning of the year, the landscape has completely changed. The rubble dominates the view and it piles up higher after each raid. Al Araqib, Israel © Silvia Boarini
LIP: What inspired you to explore the plight of the Bedouin community in Negev?
Silvia: It was a lecture I went to at SOAS in London. It was given by an anthropologist who was completing her PhD on Negev Bedouins. I had heard about the situation in the Negev before, but Kathryn Koeller’s lecture really made me want to follow this through.
It’s a story that touches on many different issues: human rights, land rights, indigenous rights but most of all, it turns the spotlight on Israel itself. This is a story unfolding within Israel’s 1948 borders, which are really usually the only internationally recognized borders, and it’s a story that although is a spin-off of the conflict, does not have the ‘security threat’ label attached to it. It is simply about the rights of the citizens of a state, about the concept of equality and about what I think is the only hope for the middle-east: peaceful coexistence. The fact that Israel’s government still hasn’t found a way to deal with its non-Jewish minorities should really open many questions about its commitment to peace.
In a nutshell: Bedouins were forced to move from their ancestral lands in 1951, soon after the establishment of the State of Israel. Since then, Israel’s government has tried to group them in seven townships, all the while making the evacuated areas available for Jewish settlement and afforestation (usually carried out by the Jewish National Fund). About half of the total Bedouin population of the Negev, around 90,000, lives in one of the seven state-planned townships while the other half continues to claim their right to live in the lands owned by their forefathers and to demand that their rights as Israeli citizens be honoured. This latter half lives in forty villages that are unrecognized by the government and are routinely demolished by the authorities. These villages lack running water and electricity and don’t exist on any maps. Al Araqib is one such village. It has been demolished seven times since July 2010. With each demolition life becomes harder but the residents are in for the long term and continue to rebuild their houses with the help of local and international volunteers.
After each demolition, villagers, relatives and activists help rebuild family homes. The Al Turi tribe returned in large numbers to Al Araqib in the late 90s, upon learning that the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and Israel Land Administration (ILA) intended to plant a forest on their ancestral land. They have seen their houses razed to the ground and their crops destroyed countless times. Since July the government has stepped up the demolitions and in the space of three months, the village has been destroyed and rebuilt six times. Al Araqib, Israel © Silvia Boarini
LIP: As a woman what challenges have you had to face on this project?
Silvia: I think if anything being a woman opened many doors. Bedouin men and women lead quite segregated lives, with unaccompanied men only visiting women to whom they are related and vice-versa. As an ‘international woman’ I was allowed in the women’s quarters but also in the men’s Shig, the tent in which they eat together or meet in the evening to discuss village matters. I really think being a woman makes you look like you are going to be less of a problem. I think as long as you are respectful, state your intentions and you show the pictures that you are taking then hopefully all is clear and there can be some trust.
Hyam sits on the rooftop of her family’s house in the Bedouin township of Rahat, Israel © Silvia Boarini
LIP: How long have you been working on the project?
Silvia: I am only at the beginning. I began in February 2009 and since then I have made three short trips to the Negev and most of the work I have done has been self-funded.
LIP: Could you discuss your thoughts on using photography to express political or social views?
Silvia: I think in some way or another we all use photography to do that. I believe we filter everything we see through our pre-conceptions; upbringing; personal history and beliefs, so I think it’s inevitable that we end up using photography to express our views. From the moment I choose which stories to tackle to the moment I frame my photographs to include a tiny fraction of the horizon in front of me, everything is consciously and unconsciously informed by whom I am.
As with any medium, it’s up to us to use it responsibly. I am often sceptical of works that claim to be ‘impartial’ or ‘objective’. What I consider an impartial view may well seem ‘one-sided’ to someone who has just been kicked out of their land or to the government who has done the kicking out. Different audiences will read images in different ways. Stories are rarely black and white and truth is not always somewhere in the middle so I try to report what I see. I do my research and talk to as many people who will talk to me but ultimately what I am presenting is my own work. Words can be twisted but I think images can be twisted too. I represent myself and try to do it responsibly, ethically and honestly.
“Who invaded who? Why is it that now we have to prove that these are our lands?” Sheikh Saiah Abu Madegam Al Turi is the head of Al Araqib. A charismatic man often called upon by the Israeli police to solve inter-tribal disputes. Here he stands by the ruins of his house. Al Araqib, Israel © Silvia Boarini
LIP: What do you hope this body of work could accomplish for the Bedouin’s?
Silvia: I hope this project will contribute to raise awareness and push audiences to learn more about the Bedouins and what is going on in the Negev today. On a practical level, I hope it can contribute to the campaign for governmental recognition of unrecognized Bedouin villages.
Thanks to this event, Amnesty International has made a visit to the village of Al Araqib and has issued a petition and a condemnation of Israel’s policies on its website (here and here). These are important steps and there is a lot of work done by charities such as the Negev Coexistence Forum in terms of lobbying at UN level. It’s still a grassroots movement but it’s growing daily. Hopefully one day no one will even remotely consider donating money to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees on disputed lands in Israel. And moreover, having a forest or a tree named after oneself will be very much frowned upon.
Children play in one of the many empty plots in the Bedouin township of Rahat, Israel © Silvia Boarini
LIP: What advice would you give to those needing to find support or financial backing when embarking on self-funded projects of this nature?
Silvia: I think it’s useful to find an organization with whom you can collaborate and that can facilitate access to the story you want to cover. Collaborating with an established NGO means that you won’t be alone in trying to get your work out there and your photographs will be used for campaigning on clear issues and to achieve clear goals.
A partnership with a charity which has deep knowledge of a situation and has been working on the ground for many years is useful also on the funding front. Funding bodies may be more inclined to help you out if they can be sure that your work will produce results, will be seen and will serve a purpose. And although a partnership does mean you must share a vision and therefore you are no longer your own boss, it is always very helpful to have someone to share the admin and organizational load with when working on a long term project.
As for spreading the word about the Amnesty event, we managed to get the exhibition to coincide with Photomonth 2010 so that we were included on their publicity material. Also, it’s very important to get details onto as many websites and mailing lists possible. I think the fact that this wasn’t only a photography exhibition helped us in terms of audiences. We had people visiting who were interested in the Middle East, and others who were more into anthropology or human rights.
Shortly after the fifth demolition new structures are erected. “We are staying here” says Aziz Abu Madegam Al Turi “We will keep rebuilding. We are not going anywhere”. Al Araqib, Israel © Silvia Boarini
LIP: Do you have plans to revisit the Bedouin’s and if so when?
Silvia: Yes I do. In the new year. Bedouin Land is just at the beginning. I am still looking for funding so that I can spend three to six months really delving into the life of this minority. When I go back I will be moving the focus to the part of the Bedouin population that has made the switch to the townships. The move was forced and Bedouin towns remain the poorest in Israel, plagued by appalling infrastructure and high percentages of unemployment.
Life goes on but the rubble piles up. As recently reported in the news, Israel Police Southern District head commander, Yochanan Danino, wants to see the Bedouins charged for every shekel spent by the state for each demolition. Al Araqib, Israel © Silvia Boarini
LIP: What will you take away from working on this project?
Silvia: I am very happy that I had the patience and found resources to follow this event through from conception to realization. It seemed very far away at first but then time flew by. I am glad I had the chance to work with organizations whose work I admire. I now know I want to do more of this so I am thinking along these lines. I would like to think my photography projects could be part of wider events and made more interesting by being presented alongside talks or charity related programmes.
I have learnt that bringing a project of this nature together is possible; that it takes time and patience; and that results come in all shapes and sizes but they do eventually come. I have also learnt to believe in my ideas more and to explain them clearly in every little detail. I think if you are passionate enough and confident enough people will stick with you and help you out.
Together with the Negev Coexistence Forum, we are hopefully going to export this event to France and maybe Italy in the new year.
Aziz Abu Madegam Al Turi collects water for the sheep from an ancient well. He says: “We are Israeli citizens, we are not doing anything bad. We only want to work and live on our lands in peace.” Al Araqib, Israel © Silvia Boarini
Showcase interview by Corin Ashleigh Brown