In a territory that is usually negatively portrayed, one young man is standing up to insist that the world—both outsiders and those who live there—see its “other face.” Mahmoud Abu Salama, a 28-year-old photographer who was born in the Strip’s Jabalia Camp, wants to show how Gaza and its Palestinian residents live, love and laugh.
In April, Mahmoud organized the Colored Water Festival—a kind of giant, neighborhood water fight in which buckets of playfully dyed water were the “weapons.” More than 200 Jabalia residents participated.
“I didn’t want anything other than to make people laugh, real laughter from the heart,” says Mahmoud. “I was truly happy when I saw women throwing water at each other from the roofs of their houses. It showed me I had done something good. My heart was content.”
He also entered a National Geographic contest called “Moments,” which called for images that “capture and move audiences and judges using a single image focused on a chosen theme and showing an inspired moment.” More than 1,900 aspiring photographers from across the Middle East entered, and Mahmoud won the People’s Choice Award—the entry that received the most votes from viewers (versus the three professional judges). His winning entry: two little Jabalia boys playing upside down on an electrical cable, with big grins on their faces.
“Winning shows that we in Gaza have real talent, but unfortunately are not noticed. In every walk of life, we have great minds, but they are not given the chance to shine and be seen. Yet, there is still a chance to be noticed if you seize the opportunity like I did,” comments Mahmoud. Another Gazan, Fatima Shbair, won an award as well.
In July, Mahmoud organized his own photo exhibit, called Alleys, in Jabalia Camp. He recruited 70 photographers from across the Gaza Strip; each was asked to hang three photos on the walls of the camp that capture Palestinians’ zest for life. His choice of the camp for the exhibit was symbolic. It was in Jabalia Camp that the First Intifada began in 1983. The camp, home to nearly 120,000 people, also is a symbol of the Palestinian refugee. Thus, Mahmoud demonstrated that from the depths of misery another life can emerge.
The exhibit was the destination for Gazans of all ages and backgrounds. University students, children and elderly people all came to see the photos, each of which told a story. His goal is to hold such an exhibit in all eight of Gaza’s refugee camps.
“I believe each moment in our life is a photo opportunity,” Mahmoud explains. “I have reached a point in my career that when I look at someone, I see him with two eyes: one is my human eye, and the other is my photographic eye. Everything, any event can be my subject.”
Like all other youth in Gaza, Mahmoud longs to exhibit his work outside of Gaza, but to date has been denied by Israel a permit to leave.
“I’ve lost many chances. Once I was invited to the West Bank for an exhibit there, and I wasn’t allowed to go,” he says. “I had another chance to put on a photo exhibit in Nahr Al-Bared Camp in Lebanon, and again I wasn’t allowed to leave. I even was denied the chance to visit Tunisia when I won a prize there.”
Still, he will continue his work.
“My message to youth is: Do not wait for others to notice you. Do what it takes to put yourself out there and force your way into the minds of people.”