When American photojournalist Monique Jaques, then 26, first travelled to Gaza in 2012, she did so, like more or less every other reporter, to cover the conflict that was raging between the Israel Defence Forces and Hamas.
Based in the Middle East since 2009, Jaques had already covered the events of the Arab Spring in Libya and Egypt, but during her time in Gaza, she stumbled across a story that has kept her returning to the territory ever since: a tale of Palestinian girls and young women coming of age in the midst of conflict and adversity.
“I ended up meeting all of these girls and I realised that their story was so much bigger than the violence that was being shown in the media, and I felt that every image that was coming out of Gaza and Palestine was contributing to the violence and conflict,” the New Yorker, now 31, says from her home in Istanbul.
“But I think that the world needs to see something else. People need to empathise with these girls who, despite it all, are young women with hopes and dreams who have things that they seek from life that have nothing to do with this conflict they are born into.”
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Since her initial visit, Jaques has returned to Gaza at least 10 times, living with the families she documents and occupying an unusual position of trust that’s predicated on her status as an outsider.
“So many of the girls have told me that they feel they can tell me anything because I’m a foreigner,” Jaques explains, describing Gaza as a very tight-knit place where people worry about gossip, a daily situation that adds to the pressures imposed by recurring conflict and electricity shortages that currently leave Gaza powerless for 21 hours each day.
“A lot of the girls told me that I was the only person that they could trust completely, which is very humbling,” she says. “It feels a bit like being a therapist who checks in once in a while to hear their updates and stories. They tell me: ‘You’re the only person I have told this; I haven’t told anybody else.’”
Jaques has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to have her images printed in a book, Gaza Girls: Growing Up in the Gaza Strip, which will combine her photographs with the girls’ anonymous testimonies to highlight the unique challenges of daily life in the territory, as well as the girls’ ordinary moments of joy and happiness.
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“Returning to Gaza has made me feel very protective of the girls and their stories, and it’s one of the reasons why I want to do the book. It’s a very heavy place, but despite that, there are these moments of hope and laughter, and there are these girls who are funny and delightful and who stay buoyant despite the circumstances,” Jaques tells me.
“For me this is an important way to put a face on and to humanise the conflict, but it’s really hard, because I hear all these stories about girls who want to leave and cannot, when I can.”
For more, visit www.moniquejaques.com