Photographs as frustration

As is the way with all creative processes, while building the OPAC course we have gone through phases of frustration as well as elation. We have found it useful (although not easy) to try and sit back, observe our frustrations, name them and then think about them. Some have proven themselves to be just plain boring: the endlessly evolving forms and delays dictated by bureaucracy, for example. On the other hand some frustrations, while not being exactly good company, have proven themselves fascinating and almost worth going through for the thoughts they have provoked.

Today the Glasgow team want to introduce our most fascinating frustration so far: the process of searching for suitable photographs to use on the online course. As we talked about before we have been debating how much need we have for a bridge language and unanimously decided that the course would be better for a rich variety of images to go with new vocabulary and expressions. The pleasure of finding that photographs can be unexpected bridges  did not prepare us for the complexities of what came next.

We used free image sources such as Google Images and Pixabay, careful to search for images that were free for public use. In Gaza bandwidth and electricity are not always reliable because of the siege, and the Gaza team are very busy filming the videos for the lessons, so the Glasgow team gladly took on the photograph search. We needed to find photos of all sorts of different things: simple, everyday objects like “cup of coffee”, “cup of tea”, “cake”, “library”; words for family relationships, like “mother”; words for states of being (in line with the focus on expressing capabilities of emotion and affiliation such as “thirsty” or “hungry”. Simple, really, right?

Wrong. Cups of tea and coffee were all huge and milky, very unlike the dairy-free tea and coffee that are served in Palestine in tiny cups and glasses. Cakes were not at all like the trays of pastries and sweets found in the Middle East. We realised that we had to preface each search term with the word “Arabic” or “Palestinian” – that worked. But then when we searched for “Palestinian library” all we got were images of buildings devastated by bombs. We tried to find an image for a “Tall building in Gaza” and not one photograph showed an intact structure: they were mostly rubble. We searched for “Palestinian mother” and the images that came up were of women wearing hijabs and crying, surrounded by ruins. What was going on?

We know that these images reflect only a part of what it means to live in Palestine. The OPAC course aims to support students to learn about other aspects of Palestinian life and culture: both the everyday things such as the smells of food and market stalls, and emotionally charged things like resistance, hospitality, desire for justice. The frustration we were feeling was only a shadow of what it must feel like to live in Palestine and know that your country, language and identity are routinely filtered and misrepresented by all sorts of media messages, starting with visual ones.

This realisation motivated us to keep on with the image search, although it was getting more tricky as the thing we were seeking got more complex. What would you recognise as an image for “yes”? A thumbs-up? In some cultures that is a rude hand gesture. We settled on a green tick, and a red cross for “no”. “Thirsty” was a tricky one: most of the images that we found involved scantily clad people drinking from water bottles on beaches. That would not happen in Gaza. “Hungry” brought up a lot of people eating bacon or sausages: another cultural impossibility. We decided that for many such images the best solution would be to ask our colleagues in Gaza to take their own pictures or someone drinking thirstily or eating.

On one hand we felt guilty for adding yet more work to the busy schedule of the Gaza Team. But, talking the matter over, we realised that it could be the best solution not just for reasons connected to cultural appropriateness or the desire for the course to be truly rooted in Palestinian culture and daily life. This was a way for our Palestinian colleagues to counter the filtered, biased, narrow narrative of Palestinian identity presented by image search engines in Europe (and, we assume, many other parts of the world). They could add their counter-narrative: libraries surrounded by gardens, mothers walking on the beach with their children, people eating za’atar .

Nobody on this project wants to normalise siege and occupation: this is not about giving learners a happy picture of a Palestine where everything is just lovely. But, in times when major search engines seem to associate Palestine with images of conflict and suffering, we do want to create a course that introduces a new way of seeing and learning about Palestine and the Arabic language. Finding the right images has proved frustrating; but it is has also led us to interesting questions and even more interesting answers.

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