An Interview with Raed Bawayah - Eretz Israel Museum

An Interview with Raed Bawayah

Photo: Raed Bawayah, from the series “Bon Voyage”, Aubervilliers, France, 2007

Guy Raz:

Hello, Raed, tell me about your childhood in the village of Qatanaa in the Palestinian Authority. Tell me a childhood memory and how it is expressed in your photography.

Raed Bawayah:

There’s a memory that is still imprinted in me since age nine. It was a hard winter, freezing cold with torrential rains. In class, although we were glad that the school day was over, we covered our faces with our coats because of the cold and the pouring rain. All the kids went to the bus stop next to the school where the bus was waiting. All except me, because I had no money and had to go home on foot, an eight-kilometer walk. […] Just before I reached our house, there was a massive volley of lightning which was so frightening that it even made me forget the cold. This is the source of the “Black Life” in the exhibition’s name.

Photo: Raed Bawayah, from the series “Childhood memories”, Qatana, 2002

GR:

When you worked selling fruit in the Old City of Jerusalem, you saw tourists with cameras and the camera fascinated you. Can you tell me about that?

RB:

Nothing excited me more than watching the huge number of tourists who invaded the alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem, all armed with cameras. I enjoyed looking at that magical device, trying to understand what it was for and how it even worked. […] After disposing of my crateful of grapes by the end of the day I would take up a position facing the photography shops just so I could look at the cameras in the shop windows. They fascinated me, but I never laid hands on a camera until I began studying photography when I was thirty.

GR:

How did the life in the village, or your work in construction and cleaning before you studied photography, influence the language and aesthetic of your photography?

RB:

Photography is an artistic mirror for the artist himself, and before that a mirror of all human life. The photographer is a human first and an artist second. His art reflects his inner being, accumulations of moments of life. What I experienced as a human being influenced my photographs and will continue to do so. The life I went through – I was a shepherd, a construction worker and a cleaner […] – sprouted within me, shaped my humanity and created the desire to discover the gaze of those who live in the shadow and display it in the light. My pictures are the notes of a beautiful melody that is trying to inject some sweetness into the darkness of life. That is my message as an artist.

GR:

Tell me about the four years studying at Musrara – how did you arrive there and what did you take from there going forward?

RB:

My childhood dream of touching a camera went on pursuing me as I grew up. One day I talked about it to Efrat, an Israeli friend whose family’s house I used to clean. […] During our conversation she told me about a study day on art and photography for Israelis and Palestinian-Israelis that was going to be held at the Musrara photography school in Jerusalem. A few days later I visited the school and met the director, Avi Sabag. He made me very welcome, but at the same time he was surprised that a construction worker and house cleaner wanted to join a group of writers, journalists and professional photographers. After a long conversation he understood my burning passion for photography and gave me the opportunity to take part in the seminar. My dream of touching a camera came true thanks to the school. I began to look for a school where I could learn photography in the Palestinian Authority. There weren’t any at the time, and Sabag agreed to let me join his school. The beginning was hard: I didn’t know Hebrew well, and I had to learn technical terms connected to photography which I had never heard. Even when I got used to the language, I had problems getting used to my fellow-students. Although I seemed to be one of the group, I couldn’t forget where I came from, especially because I was living a continuous lie all through the period when I was studying in Musrara. When I was arrested that lie exploded. […] My fellow students and the teaching staff thought I was from East Jerusalem, which would have meant that I had an Israeli ID card, but I didn’t. A few months after I began the program the Temple Mount riots started (2000) and my life as a student turned upside down. The second intifada broke out and a series of terrorist attacks began. The many military barriers and the enforcement of the laws restricting entry into Israel turned me into an illegal. It was a situation that caused me psychological and physical pain during the five-hour journey to the school every day. […] The moment when I was caught and taken through the gates of the jail was a psychological earthquake for me: I realized that I wasn’t at liberty to do what I wanted, and that my dream was collapsing before it could come true! In jail I met an oppressed and crushed group of people, whose only crime was entering Israel to work so that they could feed their children. […] This was the origin of my photographic project of documenting the lives of workers who enter Israel illegally from the Palestinian Authority.

“A good portrait is a testimony to the moment of encounter between two souls: the photographer’s and the subject’s”

GR:

Is portrait photography the way you see the world?

RB:

Yes. A photographed portrait hanging in an exhibition becomes a window onto the world. It’s a window through which we can see all the details of life that we usually forget. It’s a mirror for everyone who looks at it. […] I reveal the world through people after sharing a moment of their lives. A good portrait is a testimony to the moment of encounter between two souls: the photographer’s and the subject’s.

“I went for a walk on Salah E-Din Street in East Jerusalem. There, on the façade of an impressive old Arab building, I saw a sign: “Institut Français de Jérusalem”, with another sign next to it announcing an art exhibition with free admission. I went in”

GR:

Tell me about the chances that brought you to Paris, from the Institut Français in Jerusalem to the residency in the “La Cité” artists’ centre.

RB:

One day, when I didn’t have any cleaning work after school (I carried on working cleaning houses to pay for the four-year program at the Musrara photography school), I went for a walk on Salah E-Din Street in East Jerusalem. There, on the façade of an impressive old Arab building, I saw a sign: “Institut Français de Jérusalem”, with another sign next to it announcing an art exhibition with free admission. I went in. There was a very pleasant man standing at the reception desk of the institute, and I asked him if I could see the exhibition. He answered with a smile, “Of course, that’s what it’s there for.” After going round the exhibition I met the same man again and asked him, “Can anybody put on an exhibition here?” and he said “Yes”. So I told him that I was studying photography and asked if I could put on an exhibition. He said, “If you have pictures, bring them here and the director will take a look at them. She can say if they are suitable for our exhibitions.” I came back the next day and left some of the photos that I had taken in my village for an exercise at the school. A week later I was surprised by a telephone call saying that they really liked my work and wanted to organize an exhibition. That was my first professional exposure and my first professional success, which opened a new page, “the peasant who became a photographer”. It was also my first connection to France, and through it I moved to France thanks to an artistic grant awarded by the French Embassy in Jerusalem after I finished my studies.

צילום: ראאד בואיה
Photo: Raed Bawayah, from the series “The colors of the sun”, Maramures, Romania, 2007

“The people I photograph, mostly on the margins of the society, are my heroes and my mirror”

GR:

What do you expect people to see in your photos?

RB:

I like the idea of people looking at people with a different life style from theirs, a life style we sometimes might not want to see. The people I photograph, mostly on the margins of the society, are my heroes and my mirror.

GR:

What are your dreams?

RB:

I have many dreams, but as the Arabic proverb says, “The hand is short and the eye is keen.” (“I see clearly but cannot do anything with it” – GR)