Face to Face in the West Bank: the Roots Photography Club

If you’re driving slowly enough along Highway 60 adjacent Israel in the West Bank, about halfway between Bethlehem and Hebron you might glimpse a pack of youngsters roaming around a hardscrabble field marked by low stone wall surrounding a rough-hewn cabin. They’re local Palestinian and Jewish photography students, focusing on commonplace IMG_0144 (2)scenes, everyday subjects, and each other; deploying cameras to elevate the ordinary to artwork. One late afternoon in June, dozens of their neighbors crowded into the cabin, to see and celebrate the first works of these first sixteen members of the Roots Photography Club.

It’s not easy in Israel to find Jews and Arabs joined in the same activities. People tend to stick with their own, and Israel is not alone in having deeply divisive issues that wedge ethnic groups even further apart. All the more so in the hotly contested area outside the state’s pre-1967 border, variously called the West Bank, Palestine, Judea and Samaria, the Palestinian territories, Eretz Yisrael. There, residents of the separate Palestinian and Jewish villages cross paths only incidentally, and sometimes violently. The weekly photography programs that I lead for the Roots cohort are rare exceptions, bringing together kids from families undisciplined just enough to risk resisting the strong forces opposed to the mix. Palestinian community leader, Ali Abu Awwad, and ‘settler’ Rabbi Hanan Schlesinsample6ger, founded Roots upon the premise that ‘None of us plan to leave this land, so as long as we’re here, we might as well face our neighbors and improve our daily life.’ That’s not a prevailing sentiment. For the kids in the program, this is the first time they’ve regularly faced their peers from the other community.

The program activity could be soccer, singing or gardening. I happen to know my way around a camera, and I’m in the area half the year. Citizen photography has long been used in conflict zones to capture clashes and abuse, but I’m intrigued by deploying the medium to bring people together, communicating through an unspoken artistic language and maximizing the equipment the kids all have – eyes and hearts. I emphasize light and composition principles over technical skills, with assignments that demand slowing down to rediscover the surrounding environment and rethink about the people in it.

We start by learning the fundamentals. Name, grade, family, village, favorite this‘n’thats about each kid, followed by the basic functions of our simple point-and-shoot cameras. Then we move to assignments, working in pairs as we explore the tangible and abstract during the six week program. Photograph your partner from four different angles, in four different actions, four different expressions. Shoot scenes and objects you regularly pass by without notice. Put your partner in the scene. Does it suit or offset his/her personality? You’ve been called by the famous poet Amichai or Darwish, who wants illustrativsample9e photographs for – ‘the heat is thick and heavy’; ‘the stranger, the lonely one and the curious meet in this place’; ‘this does not work, I can fix it.’  The most talkative part of each ninety minute lesson is our lively critique of the day’s work, which tests our Arabic and Hebrew translation team.

None of this happens easily. I just bring some know-how and the gear. But for the Roots leaders, each step in recruiting students and rounding up transportation, translation, facilities and food runs into the surrounding forces that occupy minds and banish inclinations toward kindness. Still, they sense the minor miracle and merit of bringing together supposed enemies. I’m just glad that each kid is having a positive experience alongside their new found neighbor and thinking through the usual from unusual angles. You change one mind, you change the whole world.

Back in the joyously noisy, standing room only cabin, guests zoomed in for a close look at the pictures, a plate of fried food, a diet Coke or lemonade, and sweets. I finally got loud enough for our program assistants and I to officially present our graduates with their Certificates of Membership in the Roots Photography Club, allowing future workshoIMG_0144p participation and access to the website. They kids soaked up the exuberant ovation from the unlikely group of neighbors that they brought face to face. Then they went out to take pictures, trade prints, and play soccer.
Readers: You can help Roots’ photography club members continue their work by donating your underused digital cameras that have been replaced by your smart-phones. All simple point-and-shoots with rechargeable batteries and chargers that definitely still work are acceptable. Please contact brucepshaffer@gmail.com by October 10 to arrange pick up or mail to B Shaffer, 5668 Old Stage Rd., Boulder, CO 80302

Save the week: Roots leaders R. Hanan Schlesinger, Khaled Abu Awwad and Ali Abu Awwad will be in Boulder and Ft. Collins during the weeks of October 11 and 18. Watch BJN and other community publications for their schedule of events.

More about the founders, and the event at Bonai Shalom on October 15th:

Haver Hosts Shorashim/ Judur/ Roots Founders: Rabbi Schlesinger

Meet Shorashim/ Judur/ Roots Founders: Khaled Abu Awwad

Previously from this author about Roots

About Bruce Shaffer

From Jerusalem and Boulder, photographer/contributing writer Bruce Shaffer muses on regional issues. Bruce photographs for several NGOs in Israel and the West Bank, and his work has been included in Ha’aretz, The Times of Israel, The Jewish Daily Forward and other publications, documentaries and organization websites. He leads combined Israeli and Palestinian Youth Photography Workshops in Israel and the West Bank, and freelances for feature writers, organizations, guides and tour operators in the region.

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  1. Terrific program. Thanks for the article. –Mark

  2. Bruce, this seems like an amazing program. Your creativity and wonderful way with people shines through! You are using so many of your many talents and this is definitely out of the box! Hatzlocha!

  3. Author's correction: Rabbi Shaul David Judelman was the Roots founder, along with Ali Abu Awwad. R. Hanan Schlesinger is on the Roots leadership team.