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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 January 2007, 10:57 GMT
Fresh lenses trained on ME conflict
By Saeed Taji Farouky
Abu-Ghosh, Israel

Detail of photo by Side-by-Side participant Nitzan Kraus

Seven young Israelis and seven young Palestinians have gathered in a monastery in the hills above Jerusalem to begin a six-month photographic dialogue.

Side-by-Side, a joint project between UK-based charity PhotoVoice and the Palestinian-Israeli charity Parents' Circle/Families Forum, aims to give children their own voice.

It may be a bizarre idea - having fun learning photography in the midst of such violence - but the participants, all of whom have lost family members to the conflict, believe it has serious potential.

Mohammad, a 13-year-old Palestinian from Hebron, describes why he joined the project: "Israelis can see we're not terrorists, and we can see they're not all soldiers on checkpoints."

PhotoVoice, founded in 1999, runs photography projects around the globe to give those who are usually the subject of photojournalism the chance to represent themselves.

The joint Israeli-Palestinian charity is a support group for bereaved families which promotes non-violence and reconciliation.


Photographic facilitator Keren Manor
There are lots of walls, but you can see with time how students get closer
Keren Manor
Side-by-Side was initially due to begin in the summer of 2006, but was delayed because of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Even after the summer's ceasefire, politics and violence threatened to scupper the project.

The revised start date, 4 January, was threatened when violent clashes in Ramallah that afternoon forced the closure of many West Bank checkpoints.

And meetings continue to be complicated because permission from the military must be sought for each Palestinian student to travel into Israel, and permission is often only granted at the last minute.

Most of the students have never before been involved with photography.

Noam, a 14-year-old Israeli student from Herzliya, feels he can finally play an important role in representing himself and his country.

Like all the children involved, he is keenly aware of how his life is represented by the news media.

"It's really important for us to do it so the rest of the country, or the world, can see that we're just kids and we're not involved in all this political war," he said.

New thinking

Detail of photo by Side-by-Side participant Fadi Mareh

It is not just the children who came to learn.

"I want to learn, [and] I want to teach," said Sami Said, the project's Palestinian photographic facilitator.

His goal for the project is clear: "To give these children the tools to use the camera to express themselves. To have a new way of thinking. To have a new way of communicating.

Workshops on themes such as daily life could prove uneasy viewing for children on both sides, but the people running the workshops are not shying away from the sensitive topics that will undoubtedly arise.

"I think we all sit together and smile together, but inside each one of us has a lot of things that he doesn't want to say," explains Limor Melzer, the project's co-coordinator.

"I can understand that, but I think that we don't have to say everything, we can just try to do it from the side, with this camera."

Cautious optimism

Over the next six months, the children will all gather for three more joint workshops, as well as meeting in smaller groups along the way.

Sami Said demonstrates use of a pocket camera
Students hope the course's message will ripple through society
"It won't change the situation," admits co-ordinator Aisha Ashour from Nablus, "but at least it can send a message and attract some kind of attention to the situation they live in."

Photographic facilitator Keren Manor acknowledges, in these early days, there are "lots of walls between the students, but you can see with time how they get closer".

The children themselves certainly have high hopes for the project.

"I hope this project can connect our lives with the world," wrote Sameh, 16, in his personal statement.

"We can all see each other's photos to learn about the real lives of the other side, not only what we see on TV," wrote 14-year-old Nitzan.

"It's the start, it's not the end," Lior Melzer says of the first workshop.

"You take a small stone and throw it in the water and there are ripples. This is what we do."

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