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A Window and a Mirror: Peter van Agtmael’s Notes from the Field

I took this photograph in the Jenin refugee camp in April, 2015. The camp, in the northern West Bank, was notorious for a ten day battle during the Second Intifada that left 23 Israeli soldiers and 52 Palestinians dead, including 22 civilians. Earlier in the day I’d gone with my friend and journalist Irene Nasser to a performance of “The Siege” at the Freedom Theatre.  The play recounted the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem during the second Intifada, told through the experiences of five Palestinian fighters who took refuge there. Because the church is revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the siege received massive international attention. It ended after 39 days, with the surviving militants going into exile in Europe or Gaza. One of the things that struck me during the play was how much the scenes, set, and lighting mimicked reality. By tearing one of the images from context, you could ask potent questions about the things we feel when we look at photographs of conflict. For many, images of violence play an important role in sensitizing us to the brutality of war. But violence is only a small part of war’s depravity. War is troublingly and unexpectedly familiar to most who find themselves in one. But the overemphasis on representing it solely with violence creates a distancing effect that denies photography one of its greatest abilities–to be both a window and a mirror.  

Afterwards a friend of a friend offered Irene and me a tour around the camp. As we wandered the streets we came across a family hanging banners and streamers in anticipation of their son being released from prison. Adnan Omar Al Azaizeh, 20-years-old, had been in jail for a year for allegedly throwing a molotov cocktail at an Israeli position in Jenin. His mother had been permitted to visit him once during his imprisonment. They were preparing a huge party to celebrate his release.

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The boy in the photograph was watching from the shadow of the wall. We made brief eye contact, I took two photos, then he turned back to watch. Later we learned that Mustafa Sheta, a Freedom Theatre board member had been arrested days earlier. A journalist and researcher working for the UN, he remains in jail without a charge.

Peter van Agtmael, 2015 Emergency Fund Grantee & Magnum Photos photographer

Katerina Voegtle