World Press winner Kent Klich's recently published Gaza Photo Album offers a series of pictures examining the aftermath of the Israeli army's Operation Cast Lead. The 22-day attack on the Gaza Strip in 2008-9 left more than 1300 Palestinians dead, caused more than $1bn worth of damage to civil infrastructure, and destroyed or ruined thousands of homes. Klich's work constitutes an original and compelling testimony. He spoke to Guy Lane about media representations of Gaza, the current state of photojournalism, and the need to bear witness.
GL: How did the Gaza Photo Album originate?
KK: It started back in 2000-1 after the start of the second Intifida. I don't know if you remember, but there was lots of talk about suicide bombers, so I went to Gaza to visit some of the families of the bombers. As you well know it was already called the biggest jail on earth because people then, as they do now, had a really hard time getting out. So I worked there 2001-2, co-operating with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) and the Gaza Mental Health Programme. After that I went home and did a couple of stories which were published in magazines, and I noticed afterwards that my work – it was black and white then – looked pretty much like the rest of the work that came out of Gaza: normally, violent angry men with weapons, or women crying.
© Kent Klich, The Home of Mohammed Akasha, doctor (from Gaza Photo Album)
After 2002 I stopped working there, but I was still getting reports from Gaza and thinking about the area. And while I was considering the work – and why it looked much like most of the photographs coming out of Gaza – I started thinking about the representation of the Palestinians in the press in the West. I figured that I needed to look at how images showed the public and the private aspects of Gaza life. For example, there were very few photographs of the private. And there was so much public horror and so many public problems that, in the images, the Palestinians ceased to be like us. Of course, when you are there meeting people and families, that's almost ridiculous to talk about, but I was thinking how they were represented in the press.
© Kent Klich, The home of Mohammed Shuhada'Ali Ahmed, unemployed (from Gaza Photo Album)
Anyway, in 2008 I thought about going back into Gaza. It was still blocked off from the rest; people could not go out; construction materials couldn't get in. The PCHR started working on a project called 'Narratives under Siege' which I found very interesting because it was focused on everyday life. But when I started thinking about meeting and photographing the families involved, Operation Cast Lead happened. The attack was so strong, and there were so many people killed – I think we're talking about more than 1400 – that I couldn’t get in until February 2009. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work with family photographs, or private aspects of life, to show the part of the representation which is rarely seen. I spoke to the people at PCHR and said that I really need your help to do this. We started working in all areas of Gaza – but only interested in private houses. Of course, they suggested factories, mosques and hospitals; but I said that we've all seen those images, they will be shown all over, but we don't see the interiors of private homes.
© Kent Klich, The home of Saleh Mohammed Lim Gayet, doctor (from Gaza Photo Album)
I was sure that if we would see people’s apartments, their kitchens, their bedrooms and their living rooms, you know, they would look different... but there would also be a lot of similarities – to your home or my home. And I thought the identification with the fate of the Palestinians would be stronger that way.
How strictly does Hamas control the area? Is there a relationship between Hamas and the Palestinian Centre which was helping you?
I could work freely. I would meet up with a fact-finder in the morning and then we would go to visit an area; and I also had people researching so that every day we would go to a new place. No, there is no relation at all between Hamas and PCHR. I never met anyone from Hamas – speaking to me or wondering what I was doing. I didn’t need to have any discussions with Hamas at all.
All the photos are landscape format – did you conceive them as a book immediately?
Well usually I work on book ideas, and this is how I saw the project straight away. And interestingly, on the third day I met a man who showed me his family album. I had already had the idea that I wanted to see people’s albums because family history is – for me – an alternative history.
© Kent Klich, from Gaza Photo Album
Anyway, he showed me his album which I liked very much because of its private nature, and the good times it showed amongst parents and grandparents and so on. The cover of my Gaza Photo Album is actually a photograph of the cover of his album. As soon as I saw it I thought this will be the cover of my book.
You’ve spoken about how you wanted to produce something different to the conventional reportage or photojournalistic material that usually comes out of Gaza. I suppose that puts your work into a different area of practice, moving it towards galleries and book publishing?
Well, this is really interesting because one of the images from Gaza Photo Album won First Prize in the General News category at World Press. In a way I am moving from the media to the art world, and to galleries and museums (usually I have more exhibitions in museums than galleries). But what I think is happening – looking at Sweden or Denmark for example – is that because journalism is having such a hard time economically, there are less reporters out in the world, less reporters working on long projects, less reporters reporting. But some of the interesting bigger projects, which are basically journalistic from the beginning, are now coming into the art world and are being supported by arts foundations. So we’re living in a time where there is a mix. The Gaza work was first shown in April in Stockholm in an art gallery. Then I had an exhibition in a New York gallery that does a lot of photography. Now it has been exhibited at the Hasselblad Centre in Gothenburg. At the same time they told me that I won the first prize at World Press.
© Kent Klich, The home of Sa'ber Dakhil Allah L'Ariah (from Gaza Photo Album)
And have you returned to Gaza since the Photo Album work?
In December I was back borrowing and photographing from people’s family albums, copying their pictures. For the Hassleblad exhibition I made a grid with 100 images from Gaza: from old black and white prints to colour digital pictures. The old photographs are interesting because they show different levels of history – in one image, for example, you could see part of the train tracks that went through Gaza – from Damascus to Egypt – in old times. Then there were pictures from overseas – Austria, London, Sweden – because so many Palestinians have been forced to move out of the Middle East just to find work. You had weddings, dancing, and beach scenes. You had all these different layers in the display of 100 photographs. It is fascinating because unless we have been there it is so little-known to us.
If we can’t identify with people, if we can’t feel their grief or their sorrow, if we cannot feel what they are living – because the conflict is getting so out of hand – then we don’t see them as people, but only as masses. One hundred die, and then one thousand four hundred die. Then I think it is as if they did not exist.
For me the Gaza work is a way of saying – yes, they existed, they had a name.
Gaza Photo Album - Kent Klich (publ. Journal)
Gaza Photo Album is published by Journal, Stockholm, as an English edition for Europe, and a Swedish edition.Umbrage Editions, New York, has published Gaza Photo Album in English for the US. Politisk Revy, Copenhagen has published Gaza Photo Album in Danish.