Just out of high school and not quite in college, Aylam Rosenthal is couch-surfing in Israel or perhaps working on a kibbutz right now. Although American, he spends time in Israel with his dad or grandparents, and he carries with him a family gift: his digital camera. His style of photography is highly colorful and light, and his images of peers convey romantic transformations from adolescence to adulthood equal to what you’ll see in GAP lifestyle advertising or Real Simple editorial. This could be a narrative of a young man traveling abroad leaving a trail of Instagram and Facebook photo journal images chronicling discovery of culture and heritage. However, he has ventured past Israeli security crossings into Palestinian territory, zone B, where he’s gained the trust of villagers, photographed them, and retold their stories.
Aylam has made trips into the West Bank with the activist group, Reacha Kamocha (from the Torah, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”), who he learned of from his grandfather. Reacha Kamocha might be described as a grass-roots movement made up of Israelis and Palestinians seeking to end the occupation in Israel and promote human rights. They are not officially a nonprofit/NGO, but their mission crosses political and social issues that embody the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
- Establish contact and communication with Palestinians in villages within central regions of occupied territories.
- Promote solidarity and trust between the two people, which strengthens resistance and advocacy.
- Participate in non-violent activity that confronts settler and military activity against Palestinians.
- Creating ongoing relationships between the two peoples by engaging in cross-cultural activity: learning of Arabic and Hebrew, and participating in each others’ native art forms.
- Creating economic opportunity, particularly for women, by encouraging creation of handcrafts and establishing venues for commerce.
- Using electronic media and social media to portray the struggles endured by Palestinians under occupation and to engage the public worldwide.
- Creating tours of the occupied villages, including virtual tours, beyond the Green Line to expose Israelis and foreigners to Palestinians and their lives to help better understand who they are and what they endure.
Upon making several visits to the West Bank, photographing the people he met, and listening to their challenges and concerns, Aylam used his images and the stories to form editorial that functions a as catalyst for change and fuel for peaceful resistance.
How does an America with roots in Israel gain the trust of Palestinians to take their photos and converse about their experience with occupation?
Since I went with an activist group who had been visiting their villages and helping them for months beforehand, it was very easy to establish trust. Taking candid pictures is simply a matter of being relaxed, and then asking nicely. A stressed out photographer is one of the main reasons that photo subjects feel uncomfortable in front of the camera.
He learned about hardships faced by Palestinians, including loss of use of their primary road that was redirected for exclusive use by residents of nearby Israeli settlements. He also learned of how the Palestinians would loose precious harvest of olives because of restricted access to their own groves that would result in only fractional yields. He witnessed Israel’s violent response to Palestinian peaceful protests in the village of Kafr Qaddum.
To bring his perspective to international audiences, he engaged social media using Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and by becoming a recognized blogger on Huffington Post. Like many people in Israel and elsewhere, he is conflicted about the Israeli-Palestinian situation: on one hand, he loves the Israeli people — their diversity, culture, the food. Yet on the other hand he objects to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the expansion of settlements into Palestinian territories citing article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and he recognizes that Israel’s policies of confiscating Palestinian land and natural resources must be ended.
Interesting, it might be expected that Aylam would encounter criticism and opposition to his first-hand exploration and photo chronicling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in fact, the reception has been the exact opposite:
The responses so far have been overwhelmingly positive. I am very happy to spread my photographs and the stories that I’m gathering, because in the US people generally know so little about the conflict. I’ve had a few friends be incredible surprised by some of the things they learned about Israel/Palestine through reading the stories that I gathered.
I will intrude my opinion here, that the positive response comes when we have the courage to see elements about ourselves that are unjust and need correction. It is often something that confronts who we are culturally or politically — and when the injustices we embody are visualized, the political justification or cultural support for the injustice seems, well, unjust. This is the best of the power of the photography and its use in social media, and even at the beginning of his career as a photo journalist, Aylam is activating change with both.
In his narrative of leaving Kafr Qaddum following the protest, he meets an older Palestinian man carrying a handful of pumpkin seeds who offers some seeds to him. He extends his hand to receive some, and the man smiles at him, and fills Aylam’s hand with all of them.
This act of generosity is common among Palestinians and all Arab people. In fact, it is common among just about everyone I’ve met from all over the globe, including the Jews who have been my lifelong friends in New York City as well as the Israelis I know too. The fact is, generosity is a face-to-face affair, and Aylam, in crossing over into the world of those Israel considers the others, returns with images and stories that bring us closer face-to-face. Can conflicts be solved any other way, and can conflicts continue when acts of generosity interrupt conflict? The answer is clearly no, and the courage to reveal unfairness and disperse images that call out inequality from occupation are excellent expressions of creativity and generosity.
Note: Opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, and are not necessarily held by the individuals, groups, or producers of media featured in this article.