Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Faces speak louder than words

Noor Yacoubi | 02-10-2019

The mass media show only one side of Gaza: destruction, injuries and death. However, one photographer, Motaz Azayza, has decided to give the world a different view of life in Gaza by showing the details of ordinary people's lives.

Motaz, 20, is studying English translation at Al-Azhar University. But his obsession is photography, a love affair that started in 2014 when he was in 11th grade and he borrowed a cousin's camera. As he explored how to use it, he fell in love. Motaz soon wanted to buy his own camera, but at first his family refused.

“Cameras are expensive in Gaza and they didn’t yet believe in my abilities, although many others did," he recalls.  (A “decent” camera costs $1,000-$2,000 in Gaza—one to three months’ salary for someone with a good job, if employed at all.)

Motaz was able to buy a smartphone and soon began posting photographs on his Facebook account. He didn’t have a large number of followers, but his uncle, who lives in the United States, was one of his first supporters. He sent in a camera so Motaz could develop his skills.

“I don’t consider myself to be talented; my photography is a passion that I have worked hard on. Talent is something you’re born with," Motaz muses.

At first, Motaz took photos of everything he saw and liked, including nature scenes. But then, he began on facial expressions.

"You can know what a person has experienced by looking the face and especially the eyes. There’s no need to talk,” he explains. “That's why I decided to work as a portrait photographer.”

Through his portraits, Motaz shows the world the suffering, pride and hopes of his people—all etched clearly on their faces.

Although largely self-taught, Motaz was inspired by Ayesh Haron, another portrait photographer in Gaza. He frequently accompanied Ayesh on his shoots to gain experience.

"He also helped me stand on my own and be a self-learner. He refused to teach me many times to encourage me to work hard and develop my skills by learning on the job," Motaz says, smiling. "And then we became close friends."

The secret behind the power of Motaz's photographs is his obsession with the tiniest and most exact details. He is particularly attracted to colors and lines.

"Scars represent suffering and war. Dirty reflect represent hard work. Eyes reveal sadness or happiness,” he explains. By studying faces, he notes, you can read past secrets and present realities.

"I great satisfaction in taking a portrait that documents the details and reality of lived experience,” he says. 

Motaz takes photos of children working in the streets, young girls crying and old men laughing. He approaches random people on the streets and chats with them before he photographs their faces, making sure they like the shots before he leaves them. Being an extrovert helps; Motaz loves to interact with new people and tries to give his subjects a break from their sadness or fatigue. Sometimes he follows people to a place where he can sit with them and convince them to let him take their photograph, but many people still refuse. Some think that publishing their photos will be perceived as a bid for sympathy; others refuse because they don't want their secrets to be exposed.

His favorite couple

Motaz spends nearly an hour perfecting each photograph, using Photoshop to enhance the background or change the lighting without altering facial features. Then he publishes the photos on Instagram, where has more than 2,000 followers.

“Whether they’re friends or just people who believe in my abilities, my fans are the reason I am doing my best to develop my skills,” Motaz says.

Each photograph Motaz takes leaves its impact on him. When I asked him to name a photo he took and never forgot, he takes a deep breath. He tells me about a couple in their 70s who had kind and loving spirits.

"They had a kind of beauty. You don’t often find two elderly partners who still show their love in front of people and aren’t shy about hugging each other in front of a camera,” he says. “That rarely happens in Gaza.”

Another subject he remembers is Jane Calder, an Australian woman. “She has been volunteering with the Red Crescent Society for more than 30 years to help the Palestinian people. I have about four photographs of her on my account.”

Since he started taking photographs, Motaz has participated in several competitions, including a local exhibition organized by the Ministry for Women’s Affairs. And although he hasn’t won any prizes yet, he dreams of one day participating in an international exhibit and eventually publishing his photographs widely.

Posted: October 1, 2019

Mentor: Kate Casa

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