A Photographer Captures Joy in Gaza

From days at the beach to party preparations, Tanya Habjouqa offers a different look into life during conflict.

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Two furniture makers take a break next to the barrier that separates the West Bank from Israel. Habjouqa says she saw them repeatedly and slowly built up a relationship before she started photographing them.


The subjects in Tanya Habjouqa’s photos laugh and play on Gaza beaches. They have fun. They smile. They also live with the realities of a closed border and a government run by Hamas.

"One cannot just live on misery and drama," Habjouqa says. "You need comedy, happiness."

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High school students take a field trip off the Gazan coast. "A ten-minute boat ride," says Habjouqa, "is the epitome of freedom."

Habjouqa—who was born in Jordan, raised in Texas, and is married to a Palestinian with an Israeli passport—has been working in the area for years. She’s done her share of hard-news photography, but since 2009, she’s also been taking photos for her "Occupied Pleasures" series. A book of them will be published in December. Habjouqa says she doesn't want to trivialize her subjects’ difficulties by showing them in carefree moods, but those moods are real too.

"The humor, the sadness, the suffering, fear," she says. "It is one giant cocktail here. Fluctuating in seconds."

National Geographic photo editor Sherry Brukbacher spoke with Habjouqa about her work.

How has the political and religious situation changed since you started your project, and how has it affected your access and the acceptance of you as both a woman and a photographer?

With the Israeli economic siege and blockade of Gaza, it hinders every aspect of daily life. Simultaneously, over the years Hamas has been able to operate their own fiefdom and restrict many aspects of life on the Palestinian population in Gaza.

I have noticed that police on the street felt entitled to question dress, even mine as a foreigner, which shocked me, as that is something that never happens in Palestine.

As to me as a photographer, I have not felt a restriction photographing in Palestinian society, be it in Gaza, West Bank, or East Jerusalem. In Gaza for this project, I was heavily pregnant. The minute people would see me hobbling on a beach with my camera gear, they would invite me to sit down and talk, and often insisted on carrying my equipment. And more doors would open when they would discover my husband was Palestinian.

What is your approach to photographing this project? Do you carry your camera everywhere, hoping to find situations, or is it more deliberate?

I have found covering hard news in Palestine sometimes easier, as some feel a political obligation to talk to you about the suffering. But I was looking for something more intimate.

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A young woman shops for a wedding dress in Gaza. Habjouqa says many women "hope to find a husband who is based outside or will find work that will take them away from the confines of Gaza." This woman will move with her husband to Libya.

While you drive in West Bank, where the vast majority of my work is, you pass the same checkpoints. You wait. You watch the symphony. Usually it is a boring one of frustrated, beeping cars, but sometimes the interactions and little moments of resistance are hilarious.

For a lot of the youths in my photos, Facebook served a great role of access. They may be uncertain about me and ask if I had Facebook. It was almost as if they were online shopping me, in some cases. After a week, I would often hear back an invitation to come meet.

What's different about a place where people "live" the conflict—where it's part of their lives, maybe even their entire lives? And how does your own experience growing up in the region affect this project?

For me, I am from a minority group in Jordan, Circassian, and half Texan to boot. I had a Jordanian grandfather who was a leader in the community and a Texan grandfather who was a deputy sheriff. So I was always aware of the multiple narrations of identity and place.

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A young girl plays on the beach in the party dress she wore the night before at a wedding, at the Deir El Balah refugee camp in Gaza.

On top of this, I had covered journalistically the occupied Palestinian territories, in addition to spending a vast amount of time working in Iraq and Darfur. I thought I knew Palestine. But I could not be prepared for what it would mean to make this place my home, which only happened because I married a Palestinian.  Me, who has always had a U.S. passport and lived with a certain certainty. Now I live in fear constantly that my residency visa will not be renewed.

I once woke up in the middle of the night ranting to my husband, who works in politics and human rights, over my fear of an upcoming ministry of interior meeting for my visa. He grunted back to sleep and said, "Tanya, never bring the Israelis into our bed again." So it is living with the ability to compartmentalize. To disassociate from the present.

What has the reaction to the work been so far?

When the work was first published, I was flooded by emails from Palestinians in diaspora who would sometimes simply write, "Thank you." Or occasionally expand and say, "Thank you for showing us as we are, for allowing us to recognize ourselves."

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Khalid Zir and his five daughters take in the ruins of their home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.

One woman told me about the work, "It is a reminder that the moment of happiness for us is a win outside of all the defeating moments. It’s a reminder it is OK to smile … that happiness is OK, not that you giving up but winning. Maintain your humanity." I utilize a lot of humor, sarcasm; I think my scenes are quiet.

And what I am working on now, a long-term assignment from UNHCR on Syrian refugees in Jordan. It is not allowing for a lot of humor at the moment. Now I am banging my head how to tackle this story, and where do you go after the image of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee washed ashore in toddler sleep position on a Turkish beach. Maybe my attempt to utilize humor in my photography is a wishful approach in my work, as right now, living in a place where friends and family are being displaced or directly affected by the unfolding violence. It’s too close to home.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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