Between 2002 and 2006, photographer Gillian Laub made more than a dozen trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories to shoot portraits of everyday people going about their lives. Those lives, often interrupted by violence and bearing the scars of the conflict, are explored in her new book, “Testimony” (Aperture). The Forward’s Rebecca Spence spoke with Laub about the process of making the book.
RS: When did you begin this project and why?
GL: I began going to Israel and making pictures in April 2002. I went because the second intifada had happened and I felt that the images coming out of Israel, mostly of war torn territories and bombings, were not fully representative of what was going on. Being there as a teenager, I remember being struck by how beautiful it was. So in some way I felt a duty and responsibility, because I am a photographer who shoots for magazines and has a way to say something, to do just that. I went on my own, innocently, with a journal, and just started taking portraits.
RS: How did the book take shape over that time?
GL: I was initially trying to focus on regular life and people, and specifically not news stories, but when there’s a bombing you realize that there is absolutely no way that you cannot deal with this. I visited a rehab clinic, and that’s when everything changed. The first woman I met there was Kineret. Here’s this young, beautiful girl, age 19, who was blown up, and it was literally hard to look at her. She had this gorgeous glow and was not bitter at all. I was amazed how the people living with the wounds of the situation, who didn’t look for it or ask for it, were not filled with anger but were actually incredibly compassionate.
RS: How did you start photographing Palestinians living in the territories?
GL: First, I got a grant from World Press Photo, and each grantee had to make pictures related to the title, “Enough.” Because of this grant, I went back to Israel and decided to photograph Israelis who had been injured in suicide bombings. When the work was exhibited in Amsterdam, it was hung next to a photographer who had shot in the West Bank and Gaza the same summer. In addition, I was surprised to hear Israelis saying to me: “I wonder what the other side is like. We’re proud to be Israeli, but we don’t agree with what our government is doing.” I heard this across the board, even from soldiers. I thought that I would love to meet Palestinians who didn’t instigate anything and were also injured civilians. In 2004, I went to The New York Times Magazine and they gave me the opportunity to continue. Since I am not a conflict war photographer, I had no entrance into the territories, so their support was crucial.
RS: What was it like going there as a Jewish photographer?
GL: First of all, I would never deny that I’m Jewish, but not one person asked. The journalist who was translating for me was Palestinian, from East Jerusalem. Every day at the checkpoint, I was hoping and praying the soldiers would be on good behavior, because I would feel mortified if they weren’t. Going in with Palestinians, you feel the tension — you can cut it with a knife. I would bring with me pictures of Kineret and the other Jewish Israelis I’d photographed, and my Palestinian subjects would all be so touched by them. It was so hopeful, because every family I visited had such compassion. When I would return to Tel Aviv, where I was staying with Kineret, I would share stories from the other side. I felt like a go-between.