November’s Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip saw journalists from many nations risking their lives in the process of reporting for the outside world. Despite Israel’s targeted attacks and the many challenges faced by journalists, the eight-day war on Gaza showed more than ever how important it is to have reporters on the ground.
Anne Paq is a French freelance photographer and member of the photo collective Activestills. She documented life in Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense.
EJC: What was the main focus of your work before the offensive began?
AP: Partly, I was there to continue work on the documentary film Flying Paper about creative resistance through kite making and flying among Gazan children.
Besides, I was there to develop photographic archives and stories for Activestills.
I also wanted to document more on artists and alternative sub-cultures in Gaza, following up to Activestills’ multimedia piece Not a Dreamland, based on my photos and videos.
EJC: Reporting from Gaza during the 2008-09 war was nearly impossible. Why were journalists allowed into Gaza this time?
AP: I think the international condemnation of Operation Cast Lead, and the heavy criticism against Israel for forbidding foreign reporters to enter Gaza forced Israel to act differently.
Something that needs to be highlighted is the pressure made on journalists. The Israeli army sent text messages warning reporters based in Gaza to stay away from Hamas officials. Some foreign journalists were clearly instructed by Israeli authorities to stay at three main hotels and not move around.
EJC: What was your experience reporting on the ground?
AP: Working was very difficult because the bombardments were taking place all over Gaza. Moving around was dangerous, nowhere was safe to go.
It was physically exhausting. Funerals, for instance, were very hard to cover. I would spend hours standing to find the right spot, among several photographers and cameramen, and run around to keep up with what was going on.
Besides working hard during day time, it was very hard to sleep at night when the bombings were intensifying.
It was emotionally challenging to concentrate on capturing the best shots, and hold back emotions in the face of such atrocities.
Getting accurate information was another challenge, having to face chaotic scenes. At Shifa hospital, it was difficult to obtain reliable information about names of dead and injured, or types of injuries due to the high number of casualties.
EJC: In what conditions were you working?
AP: I was with other internationals, mainly independent journalists, activists, people I trust. It was helpful not only for safety reasons but also to get the right information, cross-check facts, interview people, share impressions.
Dealing with frequent electricity cuts meant that one moment I was working from my flat, the next I was in a restaurant with all my equipment to carry on working.
Members of Activestills were very supportive in sharing, from distance, part of the work I was doing which involved selecting, editing and posting photos online, writing text and captions. Being the only foreign female photographer there at certain times, I also appreciated the support from local Palestinian photographers.
EJC: You documented the war through the eyes of the civilian population in Gaza. How is that reflected in your photos?
AP: I focussed on civilians, who comprised most of the casualties. I spent a lot of time at Shifa hospital, where I saw women, children, elders. I looked for specific details by documenting injuries at close range, for example, or showing pieces of shrapnel.
It was also important to document demolitions of homes and civilian buildings like the Council of Ministers or the civil department of the Ministry of Interior.
Some details could be useful to establish whether a war crime was committed.
EJC:You took photos showing destroyed buildings, dead bodies, injured children, grieving families. How difficult did you find it witnessing firsthand what was happening?
AP: It’s tough but you have to breathe deeply and swallow tears when you do this job.
You make your own choice about what to show. I had graphic pictures which I didn’t release.
It was really frustrating to lose track of the dead and injured, not to know their names, with so many bodies rushed inside the hospital. Whenever I was entering the mortuary, I was only let in for few seconds to take pictures.
EJC: Could you describe any photo that you consider particularly telling of what this war looked like?
AP: The photos that will stay in my mind are related to the al-Dalou family. On the fifth day, an air strike directly hit their home in Gaza City killing at least 10 members of the family in the single deadliest incident of the onslaught. Only one family member survived.
The same day of the strike, I went on site where workers were searching the rubble for some bodies missing.
During the funerals, four kids were laid on the floor for few minutes, in a shop near the demolished home, for women to say their goodbyes.
They were wrapped in Palestinian flags, with their eyes left open. I took several pictures 1 meter above them. In one, a Palestinian woman was touching the children’s faces very gently. That remains one of the strongest pictures.
EJC: With Israeli air strikes hitting media buildings, killing and injuring journalists, how did the media work to ensure accurate reporting come out of Gaza?
AP: Those attacks didn’t stop journalists from reporting. I was really impressed by the way Palestinian journalists and cameramen worked day and night.
Some were going to locations following bombings, despite knowing Israel usually hits the same targets repeatedly. Journalists from Al Aqsa and Al Quds TV offices continued broadcasting from different locations, just after being attacked.
The widespread use of social media was remarkable, with bloggers, activists and citizens uploading their own videos and engaging online. Every time there was a strike, few minutes later you knew via Twitter where the attack occurred and whether there were casualties.
This piece was first published on December 22, 2012 At the European Journalism Centre http://www.ejc.net
Alessandra Bajec, Italian/French bilingual, holds a Master’s degree in conflict resolution and a Bachelor’s degree in political science.
Between June 2010 and May 2011, she lived in Palestine, where she made her first steps as a freelance journalist. She also contributed as English radio newscaster to Voice of An-Najah (An-Najah University).
Her articles have appeared in various Palestinian newswires, The Majalla, Mashallah News and others. Her interests include Palestine, the Middle East, independent journalism, peace, human rights, and international travel.