Tanja Habjouqa: Occupied Pleasures

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Apr 12 2016 / 21:11 PM

Photographer Tanya Habjouqa’s series award-winning series Occupied Pleasures portrays an individual’s ability to find pleasure even in the face of destruction and sadness. Laurence Cornet delves into the stories revealed in the series shot in Palestine

Tanja Habjouqa: Occupied Pleasures
A family in Gaza City enjoys a picnic on the beach, one of the few options left to most families in Gaza unable to escape the siege. 2009

Photojournalism in Israel and Palestine has a long-serving, essential role. Narrative is a key part of the conflict, with its associated clichés — the screaming woman with her hands in the air, the kid with the V sign, the long queues at checkpoints and other rocks-against-guns confrontations.

While Palestinian academics, intellectuals and photographers work with archives to present new narratives and counter-narratives, documentary photographer Tanya Habjouqa decided to deconstruct today’s Palestinian experience through side-stories. “My project came from a personal dissatisfaction with the way it was being portrayed and with something that I felt was lacking,” she says. “My imagery, though very simple in some ways, pushed the traditional boundaries. It’s political, but very subtly. How can you attack that narrative?”

The conflict she focused on is a less direct one, as in the case of a young woman from Zataara village who found a quiet corner in the mountains to practice yoga. Hidden behind an olive tree, halfway to the top of the slope, she is surrounded by an immense brown-striped mountain range altered by no artefact. “Some of the Yoga practitioners say they try to access one popular spot with Roman ruins that Israeli settlers try to intimidate Palestinians from visiting. They call it, "inner resistance’”, the caption reads.

A young lady, from Zataara village, finds a quiet corner in the mountains to practice yoga.  Some of the Yoga practitioners say they try to access one popular spot with Roman ruins that Israeli settlers try to intimidate Palestinians from visiting. They call it, "inner resistance".

This is the first photograph of the book, a response to the title, Occupied Pleasures. No mere provocation here, but a determination to shift focus within a well-known political situation. “As a freelancer, I always try to find different ways in, and that comes from my academic background in anthropology,” Habjouqa explains. “I worked on heroin addiction in the Old City, or on the LGBT communities that were bringing together Jewish and Palestinian. That was only when I married a Palestinian and became pregnant that I really started analysing on a deeper level this ‘black-humoured opera.”

Her determination to pay particular attention to Palestinians’ creative resilience was not an easy one—pleasure is not something all of them would describe as filling their life, but most understood her approach and sometimes even participated in the making of a photograph. When Habjouqa met for a portrait a young man who had just bought a sheep for Eid, the sun had started to set and the scene lacked natural light. Being a sporting type, he spontaneously lit a cigarette and frowned in a theatrical gesture, sitting next to the long-eared creature that stared back at him in a puzzled way. His playfulness radiates to the caption, which points out: “He named the sheep Morsi, referring to the recently-deposed president of Egypt at that time.” The incongruous scene unfolds in front of the separation wall, precisely where the concrete surface is painted with the graffiti of a handcuffed man and of the word “free” scribbled in clear capital letters.

West Bank: After grueling traffic at the Qalandia checkpoint, a young man enjoys a cigarette in his car as traffic finally clears on the last evening of Ramadan. He is bringing home a sheep for the upcoming Eid celebration. He named the sheep Morsi, referring to the recently-deposed president of Egypt at that time.  2013

In such a visually saturated context, the choice of using photography was everything but mundane, especially in a place where, as another caption reads, “historical family photos are a rare treat for the community, displaced three times since 1948. Those who managed to hold on to the images feature them proudly in their simple clapboard homes.” Many things have been lost to history, and Habjouqa unravels the complexity of her subject with fine-drawn layers of narrative. The captions, gathered at the very end of the book, don’t interrupt the flow of the photographs and capture what’s missing.

Having heard many stories about Rafah Zoo keepers’ creativity, she made it one of her first stops upon arrival in Gaza. Over the struggling years, they have famously smuggled in animals through the tunnels, stuffed them once they were dead, and, most legendary of all, dyed donkeys black and white so they resemble zebras. Wandering around the alleys in search of those hybrids, and all she encountered were baby lions tamed by a pensive woman— the donkey-zebras had reportedly been fed to the lions, who were starving and were much more difficult to replace than donkeys.

A woman plays with two baby lion cubs born in the Rafah Zoo in Gaza.  Gazan Zoo keepers are renowned for creativity, faced with limited options; having famously painted a donkey as a zebra, smuggling in animals through the tunnels, and stuffing them once they are dead, as animals are difficult to replace. 2013

While walking by the sea on the same trip, Habjouqa found a donkey of another kind—one forced by its owner to bathe in the sea. Judging by the horizontal angle of its ears and of the boy, the animal’s reluctance is obvious. The amusing skit takes on caustic accents though when, all things considered, the sea is for many a rare slice of freedom or as Habjouqa writes, “the epitome of freedom.”

It’s no surprise then, to learn that from Habjouqa that “inspiration for this project came from an interview, in 2009, with the groom in the wedding photo, refusing to be deprived of his right to love, snuck his young Jordanian bride through the smuggling tunnels to Egypt. He said to me, ‘No matter what this occupation does to us or takes, we will always find a way to live and love.’” Tanyahabjouqa.com

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art, on shelves now