Israel will forever hold a special place in my mind and heart. As a former Baptist missionary kid, the importance of Israel as a “holy land” was inculcated in me from a very early age. I’ll never forget the tchotchkes my grandfather and grandmother brought us from a trip they took there in, if memory serves me right, the 1970s or ’80s.
They brought back some typical tourist baubles — leather camels filled with sand; Bibles with covers made of olive wood. These things held prominent shelf space in the apartment I grew up in with my family in the former Portuguese colony of Macao.
Many years later, after I had stopped going to church and mostly “lost my religion,” a new place in my mind and heart was created. In the infancy of my photojournalism days, when I aspired to be a conflict photographer, I spent a couple of months spread out over two years working in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
The time I spent clutching a camera and dodging tear gas and rubber bullets opened my eyes to the complicated, often controversial, nature of the country. In short, it gave me a much more robust and complete understanding of a country that always looms large in the news.
In addition to witnessing hardships in the Palestinian territories, I was introduced to the complexity of life inside Israel’s borders. From the super-guarded streets of Mea Shearim, to the Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall, the country is so much more than what can be effectively shown through the mediation of news images and stories. Of course it is. All countries are.
I remember one Saturday walking the streets of Jerusalem and seeing a taxi driver stopped in the middle of Jaffa Street wielding a tire iron, fending off an Orthodox Jewish man who was trying to get him to observe the Sabbath and not drive. Other strolls introduced me to Coptics, Ethiopian Christians, American Christians carrying crosses and more.
Israeli photographer Daniel Rolider’s work on the community of Eritrean asylum seekers living in a community in the Hadar neighborhood is a rich addition to the portrayal of the complexity that exists between Israel’s borders.
Rolider recently reached out to me with his project, “In Hadar Going Nowhere.” Here’s what he had to say about it:
“In the Hadar neighborhood of Haifa, in old houses that are now only remnants of a golden age that has long passed, lives a community of Eritrean asylum seekers. Between 500 and 700 Eritreans live in Hadar, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Haifa, out of approximately 21,000 living throughout Israel. They live under the radar with limited access to health-care and welfare services, in an endless limbo. On the one hand, Israel cannot deport them due to international laws that grant protection to individuals who meet the consensus definition of a “refugee.” On the other hand, the government has not been approving asylum applications for Eritreans. By combining documentary photography with written dialogue from men and women, single and married, from the Hadar community of Eritrean asylum seekers, this project aims to shed light on the harsh reality that they have been forced into, as well as the reality they created for themselves.”
Most asylum seekers in Israel crossed the Egyptian border between 2007 and 2012 and arrived in the “Promised Land” after fleeing a dictatorial regime that denies its citizens human rights. They escaped poverty, hunger and indefinite enlistment in the Eritrean army where they were subjected to inhumane conditions, including hard physical labor and sexual exploitation. The reasons Eritreans chose to escape to Israel vary; some thought that they would be welcomed with open arms in light of the history of persecution among the Jewish people, or because of their deep religious connection, while others were abducted by Bedouin smugglers and forced to cross the border. Today, to survive, they are forced to work long hours in exchange for meager wages, without a concrete chance to leave the country or even get a driver’s license.
Through interviews and photographs of the Hadar neighborhood, Eritrean asylum seekers told their stories. Even years after leaving their homeland in East Africa, many Eritreans were afraid to openly expose themselves and their stories. While they fear the reaction of their family and community, their main concern is the physical and economic harm that the Eritrean government might impose on their loved ones who were left behind. According to sources in the Hadar community, their government continues to track its citizens’ activities abroad to ensure they are not damaging its international image or empowering its opponents. To ensure their safety and form a collaborative platform for self-expression, the photos were printed and given to those photographed. While some chose to write their thoughts, feelings, and messages on the pictures, others decided to paint on their faces — and hide their identities.”
One of the most interesting, if not vital, conversations taking place in the world of photography, and photojournalism is the question of representation. At present, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus. On the one hand, there is an assertion that outsiders have no business telling the stories of a people and place that is not native to them. And on the other hand is a more old-school thought that all stories are open to anyone to tell. These are important discussions to have, whether all agree on the solution or not. Just thinking about the subject, hopefully, will make for more thoughtful work.
Rolider’s work here is an interesting way to approach storytelling. By collaborating with the people he photographs and giving them the opportunity to speak for themselves and to decide whether they want to be seen in a traditional sense, he has given them back some of the agency that is often taken away, inadvertently or not. The conversation will continue. It must, because everyone has a voice, everyone has agency. None of those things necessarily need to be taken away.
You can see more of Rolider’s work on his website, here.