our photographic work reveals a fascination with the Middle East, particularly in exposing the flawed and corrupt western lens of the Israeli / Palestine issues. Where did this interest stem from?
I grew up hearing a lot of graphic stories from my maternal grandfather about his youth. During the Second World War he was taken from his home in Poland by the Nazis and used as a forced labourer working in dangerous coal mines of occupied Europe. So I think that this, combine with both my parents being social/welfare workers, laid the groundwork for an interest in human rights and the value of transmitting stories.
I’ve been to the Middle East a number of times over the years. I’ve always tried to go there seeking to better understand the region whether it be to Syria, Gaza or Israel. The Middle East as a whole is an area prone to great misunderstandings by outsiders. These misconceptions can travel far and colour people’s prejudices about Arabic, Islamic and similar cultures, such as here in Australia. I believe it is important to communicate experiences of people from the region accurately. These people are just like you and me and deserve to be treated as such – it is that simple. Unfortunately, the twisted legacies of colonisation and military interventions will continue to haunt the region but this just makes finding understanding even more important.
What are you trying to awaken in the viewer?
There is a term coined by scholar Ariella Azoulay called ‘regime-made disasters’. The regime-made disasters are a long term catastrophic circumstances inflicted on an entire population or minority by a ruling power. These disasters are orchestrated and managed to keep certain populations ‘in-check’. The ruling party will only seek to keep the scale just below the threshold of outright humanitarian disaster in an effort to minimise international criticism. The West Bank is a textbook case of this.
The daily manifestations of ‘regime-made disasters’ are often bureaucratically based or ‘pin pricks’ of violence like land seizures or individual home demolitions. They’re not the apartment blocks being levelled or thousands of refugees crossing borders, which are more visually attractive to major news organisations.
As a result, you have groups people who recognise that there is a disaster, those who either don’t recognise it or just outright reject it. Education and awareness is the first step to towards removing this lack of recognition. Constant documentation by local and international individuals and groups helps challenge the status quo by using photography (such as ActiveStills) and the spoken word, drawing, music, painting, etc.
From my own perspective, I’ve given presentations a number of times since i’ve returned to Australia. The overwhelming response is genuine shock and “we didn’t know” this was happening. In September 2016, a range of photos I took of the conditions Palestinians face at Checkpoint 300 were used in an installation in London for the ‘Week for Peace in Palestine & Israel’. It touched a nerve apparently, as some pro-zionist groups lobbied the organisers to include a statement by the Israeli Defence Forces which gave their excuses for the conditions – security concerns. Even, Alan Dershowitz weighed in calling it ‘anti-semitic’. I found all, this amusing because these allegations when examined on the ground, quite simply don’t hold up to scrutiny.
“During the Second World War (my grandfather) was taken from his home in Poland by the Nazis and used as a forced labourer working in dangerous coal mines of occupied Europe. So I think that this, combine with both my parents being social/welfare workers, laid the groundwork for an interest in human rights and the value of transmitting stories.”
n 2015 you volunteered in Bethlehem, often monitor the Israeli checkpoint in Bethlehem. What was this experience like and what was the greatest thing you took away from it?
Yeah, in 2015/16, I was a human rights observer in the occupied West Bank. I was with a team reporting on human rights abuses in the Bethlehem governorate of the West Bank including arrests of children and home demolitions by the Israel military. We also provided a protective international presence outside schools which faced harassment by the Israeli security forces. Such harassments were clear breaches of the UN Convention of the Right of the Child (ratified by Israel in 1991). If Australians knew how often one of our government’s allies allowed soldiers to regularly fired teargas into school yards and rubber bullets (and sometimes lethal rounds) at school children walking home they would be horrified.
Another primary responsibility was to monitor the freedom of movement of Palestinians and the humanitarian situation at a major Israeli checkpoint set up inside Palestinian territory in northern Bethlehem on the road to Jerusalem. Checkpoint 300 (or Gilo checkpoint), as it is called, was first established in 1994 as a temporary structure. Since then it has been developed into a massive terminal like structure along the ‘Separation Barrier’. We would get up around 3.30pm and go to the checkpoint and stay for 4 hours. Literally thousands of Palestinians labourers would pass through the checkpoint in the early hours. Unskilled labour from the occupied territories plays a key role in the Israeli construction industry. The workers are low paid, compared to their Israeli counterparts and their rights are limited, however, they are employment opportunities in the West Bank poor so there are limited choices. Checkpoint 300 isn’t designed to handle as many people as it receives in the mornings and the queue management practices of the Israelis are poor. On numerous occasions, I would join the Palestinian workers in the checkpoint lines. The Israeli soldiers managing the checkpoint turnstiles would regular open and close their flow. Creating surges and stoppages. On one occasion, I remember being lifted and carried 5 metres in a crowd surge and intense pressure on my ribs from the crowd crush when the surge stopped.
In all aspects of photography was a useful tool. Either as a collector of evidence or even a deterrent measure to make soldiers think twice before acting in the presence of a camera. One of the biggest things I took away from the experience, aside from human resilience, is the reinforcement of that ‘regime man disaster’ I mentioned earlier. The checkpoints and military presence at schools, was another node in the matrix of control which sustains this disaster in the West Bank. Only the Israeli state can dismantle its control structure in its occupied territories but accurate reporting and documenting experiences of the local Palestinians can hopefully add a significant amount of international pressure.
From left: Peter Morgan, Bethlehem: The crowded queue leading into Checkpoint 300. Bethlehem: The Bethlehem entrance of Checkpoint 300 in the early hours. Images Courtesy of the Artist.
“There is a term coined by scholar Ariella Azoulay called ‘regime-made disasters’. The regime-made disasters are a long term catastrophic circumstances inflicted on an entire population or minority by a ruling power. The ruling party will only seek to keep the scale just below the threshold of outright humanitarian disaster in an effort to minimise international criticism. The West Bank is a textbook case of this.”
hat was it like coming back to Australia and how did it change your perception on our way of life and our attitudes here?
I would say returning to Australia, I became acutely aware of that my distant and no so distant family at some point came to Australia by boat and settled on, and benefited from, land forcibly taken from its original inhabitants. It seemed to me that there was no to little difference between what my relatives did and the actions of those Israelis who seek to further colonise the West Bank. It hit me like a lightning bolt. Colonisation was no longer just a concept or slogan being thrown around at rallies but hit me that it was a reality. I think a lot of people out there are quite comfortable engaging with and challenging their heritage in the white colonisation of Australia as a concept but not prepared to engage it as a reality.
You are producing a photobook of works created in Bethlehem. Please tell me more about this and what the book’s focus/aim is?
So I’m currently working on a photobook based around mornings spent at Checkpoint 300. It is a slow moving labour of love. The book is a collection of mostly images but also notes, conversations with locals and experiences from the time spent at the checkpoint.
Initially I decided to create a book because it one was of the easiest ways to show people what I’ve seen and the conditions at the checkpoint. I started with a single version to show people but the response was so encouraging it has grown to something bigger. I found that books as an object also presents something more tangible to people. It is easy to share links on the internet but people invest more of their time and senses in something they can hold. So I created a book roughly A5 in size so it is very portable. The size and style were informed by some of the works of Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama’s books such as ‘Tales of Tono’. Stripped down and portable like some disturbed flaneuristic travel guide.
In terms of content, the entire book is black and white imagery and text, the only exception being the front and back covers which is a wrap-around image of the green pouch where Palestinians hold the Israeli issued ID cards. The essence, this layout conveys how the realities of checkpoint and restrictions on freedom of movement in the book only apply to those who hold the green Palestinian ID cards.
“I would say returning to Australia, I became acutely aware of that my distant and no so distant family at some point came to Australia by boat and settled on, and benefited from, land forcibly taken from its original inhabitants. (…) It hit me like a lightning bolt. I think a lot of people out there are quite comfortable engaging with and challenging their heritage in the white colonisation of Australia as a concept but not prepared to engage it as a reality.”
lease tell me about your latest Zine project ‘preoccupied’?“
#preoccupied” has its beginnings at the checkpoint too. When passing the bulletproof booths of ID checkers and x-ray operators, you would frequently see the young conscripts absorbed in their smart phones. They would use them to sing along to music videos, surf the net and take selfies – like all young people. However, young soldiers and border guards can also often be seen using their camera phones to film Palestinians and foreigners during protests or other interactions as intimidation or ‘intelligence’ gathering. It is no surprise, that the West Bank is considered to be one of the most heavily surveilled places on earth. Primitive colonial tools of monitoring adopted during the British mandate of Palestine such as photography and permit systems have developed into a high tech networks of biometric data collection and surveillance of online activities in occupied Palestinian territories.
So I became interested in the way in what would have when those who surveyed turned lenses on themselves and the ‘selfie culture’ of Israeli military recruits. I used known geotagged locations in the West Bank to examine the open public Instagram profiles of Israeli border guards and soldiers who had tagged a photo as taken there. The result was fascinating. I was particularly interested in the solitary selfies the soldiers took. There were photos of soldiers in guard towers, in jeeps, on their bases, during combat patrols. They are very open. These images were interspersed photos of them relaxing on beaches, partying or hiking with friends. It showed the human side of these soldiers but also showed how normalised the military occupation had become. So I began collecting and curating these images. My goal is not to condemn or accuse those individuals in the portraits but it is to present the images in a cold analytical way as data to build a portrait of those who serve in an occupying army.
There’s another small aspect which also interests me. It is how the backgrounds sometimes feature Palestinian villages but there are no Palestinians to be seen. These villages look like biblical backdrops or stage sets playing a colonialist fantasy of the land with no native inhabitants.
Your practice is a unique mix of activism, photojournalism and art – what are you hoping to focus on next? Is there another overseas trip on the cards?
I’d like to utilise more playful methods to convey stories and messages. Photography is great but it is hard when you’re on the wrong side of the globe. So lately i’ve been looking into t-shirt making, illustration, meme-making and even selling olive oil as methods of conveying different narratives and develop dialogue amongst people.
Favourite Book At the moment, it is ‘Libyan Sugar’ by Christopher Anderson Brown. It is a photo book of his iPhone photos and web chats from his time spent covering the war in Libyan.
Favourite Film ‘La Haine’(1995) Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz.
Favourite Band / Musician Prince.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be? A home owner.
If you could change one thing about the world what would it be? Free hummus for everyone.