Between two worlds. One of extreme grit, isolation and heaviness. Another light, glowing, surreal. The subjects of these photographs are suspended somewhere in between, stretched on a torturer’s rack, neither wholeness nor disintegration their clear fate. Suspended in potential energy searching for release. There is always a straining, contained and vibrating at the edges and in the details. We see it in the slightly hunching back of Wa’ed, lurching forward in determination, or is she holding herself up with an ache that is too much for her youth. The unbearable quietness of these images hangs in an echo chamber. We suspect that when the voices come, they will be screams and roars.
But there is also sweetness, tenderness, care, protective hugs. Girls still fidget and grin shyly with dimples and untied shoe laces. Bright sparks of purple and pink and boy’s rambunctious whistles pierce the dusty, walled off landscapes, where even the foliage of olive trees is dampened to grey.
This is the amazing space of the in-between, the liminal, the almost, that Alessandra Sanguinetti captures in so many of her images of Palestine and the Palestinians who live there. This place, usually associated with dramatic extremes of spectacular violence and eternal conflict, is revealed to us in its quieter moments, no less terrifying for the veneer of calm that presses them into the photograph’s frame. Fearful expectation and hesitation hover in the eyes of children, the same fear that becomes edgy concern in the eyes of stern adults. All is tired, watchful suspense.
In the early Autumn of 2003, Alessandra Sanguinetti made her first visit to Palestine, just as the most intense days of the second intifada were dissolving into an exhausted phase of recuperation. As people were attending to their wounded, assessing their losses (of lives, houses, limbs, eyes, parents), clearing away rubble and entering the slow pains of rehabilitation, Sanguinetti traveled through the refugee camps of Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip. She witnessed the early stages of the West Bank Barrier’s construction. At that time, it had already surrounded Qalqilya in the north and was beginning to cut through Jerusalem. By the time she returned a year later, the wall had stretched further, slicing past Bethlehem and into ‘Aida Refugee Camp, where she found the day-to-day life of families continuing nonetheless.
The almost fluorescent and intimidating eeriness that appears in much of Sanguinetti’s other work on children and animals in the Argentinian countryside, becomes in Palestine something gentler. She seems to approach her subjects with the respectful distance of someone attending the wake of a stranger, paying attention to the mourning of those who survived.
In the wide shots of Gaza, we see small figures of children returning home from school, or holding hands (we can almost feel how they grasped each other suddenly in a startled fear) as they walk past destroyed houses. Looking down on Gaza, the landscape is portrayed as if from a spaceship touching down on a post-apocalypse planet.
It is this slight and sensitive remoteness, neither aloof nor beseeching, which has allowed Sanguinetti to touch the spaces of isolation in which Palestinians are waiting. Waiting for something that is there to go away, waiting for something heavy to be lifted, waiting for the residue of what has stormed through to evaporate, waiting for something new, but not anything in particular, to come.
Her subjects often appear oblivious to the camera’s presence, caught in intense moments shared between themselves. The little sister of Khalil Abu-Thaher stares at her brother, her own worry and trepidation prevent her from disturbing the teenager who sleeps standing up. His head injury is not visible, but we know that something is not quite right in this dreamy image. The sandals in the hallway of a Gaza home, pockmarked with the bullet holes of an Israeli attack, do not tell a story, but they invite questions that one might not want to ask. Have the owners of those shoes fled barefoot? Are they still huddled inside? They could be dead, or they may just be sitting down to an afternoon meal. Here is where the political situation, the life of Palestinians under occupation, is expressed so brilliantly. This uncertainty is indeed how life is. Nothing is ever clear, no future is fixed, no mundane routine of everyday life free of insecurity. Is this how people live in a land of tragic magical realism?
Sanguinetti does not impose a falsely satisfying narrative on her subjects or their context. In these photos there is no assertive political analysis or authoritative ethnographic cataloguing of an alien culture. Nor does this photographer seek to fill that gap, that absence of firm meaning, with chatter or message, hope, symbolism or sentiment. These images let the uncertainty be. That diffidence is what unsettles. The patient viewer can begin to understand the bravery and sympathy that is necessary for holding abstraction and pensive sadness in our gaze without pity. Sanguinetti is willing to come near to the vibrating undercurrents of possible eruptions without demanding the easy drama of conflict or rupturing violence. It is this oblique (but never furtive) approach that offers viewers insight into fundamental aspects of the political situation, the social lives, the history and present days of Palestine. This relentless haziness is frustrating, which is what life for Palestinians in Palestine is. But that vagueness also means that the story is not over. In the mists of uncertainty there is still potential. There is creativity, and beauty, and always there is resistance and the future.
Maybe it is the formal portraits that offer this relief, if not hope, the most. The images of generations together show the connections and innovations that sustain the past with the future. Legacies of wisdom, a heritage of colors and keys, memories of lands lost, burdensome and inspiring.
Wa’ed, whose father was shot and killed in the family’s home as he called his daughter in for lunch.
Mohammad, whose glittering personality seemed undimmed by the missile that burned him when it exploded into a car as the boy was walking past.
Nidal, who co-directs Markaz Lajee, a youth center for children in Aida Refugee Camp, with a member of the center.
Holding a photograph of herself, Riham, a school girl from Gaza who lost an eye after a bullet passed through her mother’s hand that was attempting to shield her child from the sight of her bleeding father (shot by another bullet.)
Rawaan, a determined high school girl stands next to a watchtower outside Aida Camp. Her father was killed during the second intifada.
Twins Ahmed and Mahmood, charming, polite boys trying to become men. Cousins of a militant who was martyred during the second intifada, sons of a man assassinated during the first.