Photojournalist Mohammed Zaanoun Reflects on Gaza’s Scars and Beauty
Can you tell us about yourself?
My name is Mohammed Zaanoun. I am the fourth of 12 siblings. Most of us work in the media world. I was only 19 when I became a news photographer, which had been my parents’ dream. I’ve won several photography awards, but the most prestigious was the “Palestinian Hero of Photography” award, which I received in Sharjaa in 2012. It always surprises me seeing the positive reaction people have to my photos.
Still, this job has risks. While covering one of my beats in 2006, I was seriously injured by a missile in my chest and abdomen. It also left scars on my face, and I still need surgery.
Tell us about growing up in Gaza.
I grew up in a poor family, considered small in comparison to other families in Gaza. My dad came down with a severe respiratory illness and ever since then, I have had huge responsibilities. At the age of 10, at the end of my school day, I would paint and decorate homes to make a little cash. I would drop my school bag at home and run with an empty stomach—no food or drink—to finish my work. I made $33 per week and gave it directly to my father. When I was a kid, my heart ached when I saw other children playing in the streets. I guess I just lost that part of my childhood.
When I was a kid, my heart ached when I saw other children playing in the streets. I lost that part of childhood.
I struggled in high school, where I found the classes to be complicated and confusing. It was the first time I read books. I failed philosophy class the first time I took it, and had to retake it and pass in order to go on to college. But I got there and found my niche in the design and media department.
How did you get interested in photography?
A friend, who is a successful, well-known photojournalist, gave me a little old camera. That was when I began pursuing my dream. I did everything I could to learn. I shadowed experienced photographers, joined hands-on workshops and took part in every opportunity to educate myself. Soon, with a lot of research, I figured out my own personality as an artist and became the photojournalist I wanted to be.
What are your professional goals and dreams?
My professional goals are out-sized considering the conditions we have in Gaza. I hope to launch an academy for photography and be one of the leaders of my field, teaching a new generation to set them up for a brighter future. Working in different parts of the Arab world (like Syria, Jordan and Egypt), I saw how people there were using more advanced technology than we have here in Gaza.
Do you have a favorite photo?
My favorite photo is one I took of a girl jumping rope, and behind her is a building destroyed by war. It expresses strength and power. After death, there is life. It shows the real Gaza—where people find life amid destruction.
I like to capture daily life in Gaza. In my photography, I try to show how a simple community is able to overcome obstacles to cope and even thrive, despite all the suffering. I love to show different sides of Gaza, both its beauty and its sadness. I love to show all the details, streets, children and homes.
Is there something you wish to photograph but have not been able to?
It’s difficult to photograph sentimental items buried under the rubble and destruction of wars. I find that people who let me photograph these items are reminded of the past—whether it’s old photos or toys salvaged from under debris. This affected me so deeply that I needed a psychologist. It was a very sensitive subject and I should have thought through all aspects of it. This is why, whenever I begin a project, I try to learn the context of the situation first. Before being photographers we have to be humans.
A photograph is nothing if it compromises humanity. It should fulfill international criteria of photography in conflict zones, and it should be accepted by the communities being represented.
What is unique about photos of Gaza?
Photography in Gaza has been always different. Here, daily struggles are constant and life never stops. Everything is interlinked and complicated. But in Gaza I see the beauty of nature, especially on the farms. We also have the bravest fishermen, and the images of simplicity that they convey. You can capture these feelings from different angles to create a masterpiece.
Where do you draw inspiration?
Each day, I dedicate two hours for self-improvement and reflection. I take take notes in my journal. Every morning I have a cup of coffee and take a moment to stop and meditate on the Gaza port.
I find stories everywhere. Just driving through refugee camps, I’ll stop the car and take pictures.
Refugee camps, the markets, daily life and fishermen; small details like a rainbow after the rain, a sunrise, or kids playing on the beach at sunset. I follow the colors, the clouds, and all the reflections. I’ll sometimes spend a night in a certain place to capture the photos that require a little more attention.
What message do you want to share with your photos?
I don’t manipulate my images and try to make them as real as possible. I send out the message that Gaza needs love, peace and stability. Children need to go to school without fear. But still, here there is beauty and mercy. Gaza is a huge portrait containing scenes of life inside an open air-prison. Inside there are cries and laughter. There is liberty to express one’s feelings, but not the liberty that you or others may know.