The featured photographer for October 2013 was Samar Hazboun, edited by
Max Houghton, course leader at London College of Communication
Pictures only a women could make … this was the idea that materialised, unbidden, in my search for an October Firecracker. Sometimes, rarely, a body of photographic work breaks through the barrier of something you once saw, and becomes something you now know. So it was with Hush, one of two stories by Samar Hazboun you can see here.
Samar was a master’s student on MA Photojournalism at the University of Westminster in 2011, when I was running the course. The work that won her a place on the MA was an interesting project in her native Palestine on the country’s women, which offered an answer to the many questions she fielded during undergraduate study in Europe. Why aren’t you veiled? Why are you allowed to study? Knowing the representation of her country’s women, and Arab women in general, was at best stereotypical and at worst non-existent, she made portraits of breadwinners and Olympic athletes, veiled and unveiled, to show the rich cultural society she knows so well. Yet the unresolved political situation in Palestine throws up more complex problems than the veil, and Samar knew she had to find a way to bring these issues to light.
‘Pictures of veiled women, and pictures of young boys throwing stones; that’s what you see from Palestine,’ she says, and indeed on the day we speak, the Guardian’s ‘In Pictures’ shows an agency shot of … boys throwing stones. ‘Of course, it is part of the reality. But things are happening that are more dangerous, which are also a reaction to the occupation. We live in a patriarchal society, yet the male here is oppressed. He needs to show his strength and domination, so women suffer because of that too.’
Prior to and during her MA, Samar had been trying to gain access to a women’s shelter in Palestine. All requests were met with a very definite no, but she persisted and eventually volunteered at the centre, becoming close to the women, all of whom had suffered gender-based violence. The centre itself, while providing refuge for the women (many of whom would be killed by family members if they left), functions within the patriarchal system, and is subject to its rules. The women are in effect imprisoned in the only place they can find safety.
‘Women are the ‘honour’ of the family, so it is very hard to bring up subjects like sexual abuse in Palestine,’ says Samar. ‘Men, or let’s say foreign journalists, cannot access the domestic sphere, which is where women are for the most part. There is a gap that needs to be filled.’
Her photographic journey with the women was not straightforward. Samar played games with the girls at first, constructed with the help of a psychologist friend, to help with self-expression, but also for fun and relaxation. She speaks movingly of how she gained their trust and displays a finely tuned understanding of the emotional make-up of these women. One night, as she was leaving, one of the girls jumped on Samar, knocking her to the floor, screaming at her: ‘You’re leaving, you’re leaving us again, you’re like everyone else. You come here and make us love you and then you abandon us!’ Another girl, ‘Yasmin’ (all names have been changed) who was among the most reclusive, was even angrier: ‘You are the worst person I’ve ever seen; you’re going to destroy us. You’re like everyone else; you just take advantage of us. Just fucking leave.’
Samar was hauled out from under a pile of girls, and stayed away from the centre for three days to gain distance. ‘It was very chaotic and shocking. But these women have to live like prisoners so they get easily attached to people, and lose perspective and become much more emotional than under normal circumstances,’ she says. When she returned, Yasmin took her by the hand to her room and told of her abuse and imprisonment at the hands of her own father.
‘I was writing it down and, I couldn’t help it, I started crying. She started crying too; it was very emotional. She was always very isolated, even eating alone. I photographed her in the place she stood most often: next to that fence. She had been in the centre for three or four years; she can’t go out because her father is not in jail and she is afraid he would kill her. She needs proper psychological help, but she can’t access it.’
Samar’s great skill is to harness the emotion she witnesses and transpose it into her visceral black and white images. The images become freighted with the story, which is also published, in brief, with each image. I find a rich interplay between silence and testimony, light and dark, despair and hope vibrating within each frame.
Samar continues to work with disenfranchised women and children, most recently while travelling in Peru. Her work Detained, on children in detention, will be used for a campaign by Norwegian People’s Aid this autumn and Hush will be exhibited in Palestine this month, as part of a conference on women’s rights. It’s work like Samar’s that breathes new life into photojournalism, shining a spotlight on subjects many would prefer remained in the dark.
Max Houghton, Senior Lecturer in Photography, London College of Communication
Documentary photographer and visual artist Samar Hazboun centers her main body of work around women’s rights, with a particular focus on the Middle East. Born in Jerusalem and raised in the West Bank, Hazboun first explored photography while pursuing a degree in International Relations in Prague. Over the past four years, her authentic interest in political expression through art and her personal relationship with the Palestinian case has led her to successfully fuse subject matter and medium into a budding practice of photojournalism. Hazboun’s career has developed hand-in-hand with her ability to reach out to those who have been marginalized by society. With more than 30 solo shows and group exhibitions in over eight countries, and a wide variety of features in the media, she has persistently sought to give a voice to her projects and engage an ever-broadening public with stories desperately in need of an audience. Since receiving her MA in Photojournalism from the University of Westminster in London in 2011, Hazboun has been working on a series of exhibitions of her latest ongoing body of work, Hush. She currently splits her time living and working in Europe, Latin America and Palestine.