BEIRUT: An elderly man sits cross-legged on a mat in his home in Lebanon's Bourj Chemali refugee camp. In his hand is a certificate from the Palestinian police force. On his shirt pocket is pinned a medal from the British Army, which he once served. Abu Faisal Hayel Atteh Khalef was born in 1928 in the village of Al-Zuq al-Tahtani. When he was 20, there were 137 houses there. Now, nearly 60 years after the creation of the state of Israel and what Palestinians call the nakba, the catastrophe, Al-Zuq al-Tahtani lies in ruins, the crumbling walls of its houses dwarfed by an overgrowth of wildflowers. Its residents fled and to this day they have never been permitted to return.
A portrait of Abu Faisal hanging alongside a landscape of his native village makes up just one of the many pairs of photographs that fill Alan Gignoux's exhibition at Masrah al-Madina, entitled "Homeland Lost." The show is part of a long-term project - done in collaboration with the British Council and the A. M. Al-Qattan Foundation - that will eventually result in a book to be published on the 60th anniversary of the nakba next year.
In the meantime, "Homeland Lost" is on tour. It opened at the Bethlehem Peace Center and traveled to the Al-Mamal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem and the Dar al-Anda Art Gallery in Amman before arriving in Beirut. After February 14, it is moving on to the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo and the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum in Egypt's second-largest city. From there, it will decamp to Belfast and will finally end up in London.
"I started in 2004," says Gignoux, 41. "What I really wanted to do was a humanistic project, you know, putting people and places together."
The premise of "Homeland Lost" is to pair up portraits of Palestinians with pictures of the places they (or their parents or grandparents) left behind in 1948. Gignoux decided to build his project around the 1948 generation because that generation is still alive but aging fast. In practical terms, to take the 1967 refugees into account would have yielded a project too huge and too difficult to manage.
"I really wanted to deal with not just the Palestinians living in refugee camps but also middle-class and upper-class Palestinians, who, after all, are also refugees. Okay, they're not living in a camp but they can't go home," Gignoux says.
He set out to find Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, whether they were living in refugee camps or not. Syria wouldn't give him permission to photograph, so he crossed it off the list.
After taking portraits in Lebanon (where his subjects were willing) and Jordan (where they weren't), he headed to "Historical Palestine" to find the places where their houses once stood or their villages once lay. While there, he photographed Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, along with the internally displaced living in Israel itself. For this last category, Gignoux captured both person and place in a single shot, instead of through juxtaposed pictures.
"Human emotion is about home, about roots, about belonging," he says. "The internally displaced were critical and had to be included. They can only live in certain parts of Israel. They can't live everywhere. They can't rent an apartment in Tel Aviv, let's say."
Gignoux's work gave him unusual insight not only into the Palestinian experience but also into the Israeli condition. Though he was born in Miami, Gignoux tends to call London home. Before he lived in Lebanon, he spent five or six years in South Africa.
The pecking order among Israelis, he says, is a replica of the hierarchy among whites in South Africa during the last throes of apartheid.
His favorite story is that of an Azeri Jew from Baku who kept the faded fist of the Black Power movement hanging on a poster in his cafe. He had been part of the Israeli Black Panther Party, he told Gignoux, which nearly sparked an Israeli civil war in the 1970s, when Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews had had it with being treated as second-class citizens. (For this and other reasons, Gignoux's thinks a secular one-state solution is the only way everyone is going to get their rights.)
Gignoux ended up in the Middle East accidentally, having landed in Beirut for a layover between Tehran and London. He fell in love with the place and stayed for nearly two years. Clearly, though, he has a penchant for capturing the human dimension of political conflicts. In addition to his work on South Africa in transition he has completed a project on the Saharawi people in the Western Sahara and has upcoming ideas for photographing Cuban ex-pats in Miami and Serbs in Kosovo. The subject of Palestine, however, could continue to occupy him for some time.
Working with an assistant who helped him record the personal narrative of each subject, Gignoux spent about two hours setting up and shooting each portrait for "Homeland Lost." His images were all taken with black-and-white film and a Hasselblad camera, the quality of which means that when the exhibition hits London, Gignoux will be able to create massive prints of his pictures.
Gignoux talked to his subjects at length so he could situate them somehow in the present tense - where they live, where they work. But evident in each image is a link to the past and the root cause of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, whether it's a woman wearing an old wedding dress adorned in traditional Palestinian embroidery or numerous people holding their keys and land deeds.
In terms of composition, Gignoux's images are pristine. His portrait of Sana Bkheit, a young woman who lives in Gaza City and raced the 800-meter-event in the 2004 Athens Olympics, shows her stretching two strong arms up to the sky in a V for victory. The accompanying landscape documenting what has become of the village of Kawkaba where her mother was born shows the land razed and converted into agricultural fields for Israel. Still the posts holding up the rows and rows of young plants mimic Bkheit's pose exactly, as if she were someone haunting the place.
Aesthetics aside, Gignoux says he didn't try to put a positive spin on the catastrophe.
"There's just so much tragedy, especially in Lebanon but across the whole region. When I went to the camps, this one lady said to me: 'I sometimes wonder if I live in a zoo and am an exotic animal.' There's just so many journalists and correspondents coming through. Not at all in an egotistic way, she said: 'I think I've been interviewed by every major publication on the planet, and I'm still living in this goddamn camp.'
"I know I'm not going to change anything," Gignoux continues. "I don't think George W. Bush is going to take one look at these pictures and think: 'Oh my god, look what we've done.' But what you can do is bring awareness. That's the thing. You have to remember that in a place like England, say, there are people who don't even realize there are Palestinian refugees."
Alan Gignoux's "Homeland Lost" is on view at Masrah al-Madina through February 14. For more information, please call +961 1 753 010