Earlier this month, Wissam Nassar posted a photograph on Instagram that he had taken at a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Through the barbed wire in the foreground of the image, you can see a young boy, no more than 4 or 5 years old, holding two jerry cans. Behind him, Palestinian children wait in line to fill their own brightly coloured containers with drinking water. In another of Nassar’s recent photographs, a father washes his daughter’s hair in a bath tub that sits among the ruins of a bombed-out building in Gaza City. It is a quiet, domestic scene, remarkable only because it shouldn’t be taking place where it is.
We are used to seeing images from Gaza that are defined by violence and brutality. But these photographs, along with many others by Nassar, are shocking precisely because of the absence of those things. This is just everyday life.
“The world is unaware of the ‘simple’ life of Palestinians, who face a daily struggle just to find water, electricity and sanitation,” Nassar says. “In the photograph of the father bathing his daughter, he is just trying to deal with reality. It is as if he is trying to breathe from under the rubble.”
Nassar was born in 1984 and raised in Gaza, where he still lives and works. His childhood, like that of everyone else who has grown up there, was scarred by the ongoing conflict. He remembers his school closing down for the day every time someone was killed. “This had a great influence on me,” he says, “especially when tyres were burnt on the streets, which were bursting with flames and smoke.”
He began taking photographs when he was 19, and went on to study journalism at the Islamic University of Gaza, which has now been partially destroyed by Israeli air strikes. He was taught by a Swedish lecturer called Dia, who once asked her students to write a story about the area. “My story was about a family living in a cemetery,” Nassar, 32, says. “It was shocking and worthy of attention.”
Nassar has never stopped documenting the lives of ordinary Palestinians, and has since had his photographs published in Time magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He covered the 2008, 2012 and 2014 conflicts in Gaza, and was present during the recent protests along the border, in which 168 Palestinians were killed. In 2015, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his harrowing image of a young Palestinian man mourning a relative killed during an Israeli military strike.
This is, inevitably, perilous work, and Nassar has been shot at, hit by shrapnel and attacked with tear gas. “Being a photographer in Gaza is like committing suicide because of the stress and the risks involved,” he says. “But therein lies the danger of press coverage.
“My mission is purely humanitarian,” he says. “And it is very important that I document the events that are taking place … I always say: ‘I fight with my camera in a professional way.’ It is my duty to reveal this plight of humanity to the entire world.”
The border protests that began at the end of March, in response to the blockade of the Gaza Strip and the relocation of the United States embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, were some of the “fiercest” that Nassar has witnessed. “Many people were injured and died in front of my eyes,” he says.
In one particularly striking photograph, a Palestinian boy with a bandaged leg hurls a stone at Israeli soldiers, using his spare hand to cradle a set of crutches. On the day it was taken, 58 Palestinians were killed. “These photographs show the struggle of the oppressed, the anguished and the besieged. Their sole demand is the simplest of rights,” Nassar says. “I consider these protests as part of the Palestinian struggle to ensure freedom and survival.”
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It is impossible to separate the conflict in Gaza from the lives of those who endure it. Most people there can’t leave and Nassar sees no end in sight to the conflict. “The gates at the border are only open to transport the dead into the country when they die abroad,” Nassar says.
But despite this, he is determined to document another side of Gaza. “People abroad think that Gaza is uninhabitable and that the people of Gaza are desperate,” he said in a recent interview with Time magazine. “However, it is a very beautiful place with hotels, coffee shops and resorts overlooking the beach.”
A mosque lit by a burnt orange sunset; local fishermen returning with their catch; two young lovers getting married on the beach – these are the images that remind us that war is only one part of Gaza’s story. “The photos that I take, which portray the people and their lives, are the most important ones,” he says.
Nassar then returns to the image of the girl in the bath tub, which he calls “the struggle for existence”. “This man’s house is in the centre of the city, which has been completely destroyed,” he says. “And yet there is a message here of strength, of the will to survive, despite all the agony and pain.” He pauses, before adding: “You can sense life in the photograph.”