Ahlam Shibli: Interview

Ahlam Shibli is a Palestinian photographer. Her project ’Trackers‘ focuses on young Palestinians of Bedouin descent living in Israel who volunteer for the Israeli army to act as trackers – searching for people and weapons on the Israeli borders.

  • Why did you want to photograph these volunteers?

    My work is about what’s happening to the Palestinian community in Israel, about Palestinian against Palestinian and Arab against Arab and also about the notion of home. As volunteer trackers, these men are paid only pocket money but, when they leave the army after three years, they are allowed to buy land at a 75 percent discount from the Israelis on which to build homes. But the land they are buying was the land their families owned before Israel was created. And they’re not given the opportunity to join the Israeli army as anything but a volunteer, they are just used temporarily for their expertise in the region. It may provide a short-term solution for the trackers as individuals but I’m interested in the wider picture and what this does to their and my society as a whole.

    How long have Palestinians been working as trackers?

    It’s been happening in some form since Israel first came into existence in 1948. Some of my images show a father and son who are both trackers, but there are other families who are now into their third generation.

    How are they viewed by their fellow villagers?

    They are always in fear of being seen as traitors. This is an active army and so the volunteers will always be involved in some form of warfare. Some of them refused to be photographed for the project because they were afraid of being prevented from going to Mecca. I had an invitation to show the work in Gaza but decided against it in case there was any backlash against the individuals. I don’t want the focus to be on them; the problem is with the community and what I want this project to do is encourage people to think about and talk about that.

    What are your views?

    The trackers will say that because they are Arabs in Israel it’s difficult for them to find other work to do but I don’t feel that gives them any justification for joining the Israeli army and I don’t have any respect for them because of that. But at the same time I don’t want to judge them as individuals either. I chose not to discuss their specific reasons for volunteering while I was taking the photographs because really it’s about a wider issue. There are a lot of feelings of shame attached to being a tracker and people want to hide those feelings. It’s also interesting that it’s a common situation in countries where people have lived under some form of colonisation, including Africa, India and Algeria.

    Were you treated differently because you are a female photographer?

    Many of the trackers were surprised that I was a woman travelling alone. And they weren’t sure whether to trust me at first. But it became easier when they realised that I wasn’t so much judging them as highlighting the situation they were in.

    What are you working on now?

    I’m photographing gay, transexual and transgendered people who have emigrated to the West from Asian and Muslim countries. I’ve already taken 40 images in clubs in London but it’s an ongoing project and I’ll be taking photographs in Amsterdam next.

    You’re speaking to me from Haifa on the first day of the ceasefire. What is it like to be there now?

    It’s a very empty city. Today it’s also very quiet compared to recent weeks but it’s still a dangerous place. I’m here because I have to work but we all have to be careful and remember to keep close to the shelters.

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