Tanya Habjouqa’s ‘Occupied Pleasures’ finds joy, absurdity in Palestinian life

Jordan-born photographer Tanya Habjouqa primarily focuses on depicting issues of human rights and gender in the Middle East. While Habjouqa’s work spans much of the region, she is currently based in East Jerusalem, and her most recent project, a photobook titled “Occupied Pleasures,”  documents the everyday lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the last seven years. The book was released this past October and has been met with critical acclaim. “Occupied Pleasures” was named one of the best photobooks of the year by TIME magazine and the Smithsonian. 

In her introduction to the photobook, Laleh Khalili, an Iranian-American professor of Middle East politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, offers her own assessments of what the project aims to accomplish.

“What this work does is to challenge the notion that Palestinians are first and foremost victims,” she writes. “It brings together the indisputable condition of their lives — occupation, violence, surveillance — and shows us that even within the confines of a normalized atrocity, the spirit effervesces. It is an insistence on living amidst war.”

As part of her U.S. book tour, Habjouqa came to Tufts on Dec. 6 to give a talk to students and faculty about what went into making “Occupied Pleasures” a reality. Habjouqa admitted to having political motivations for her work, and these motivations, in part, are reflected in the style of her book. “Occupied Pleasures” sees Habjouqa working to strike a balance between the journalistic and editorial natures of her works. The photographer has an explicit purpose in capturing Palestinian pleasure instead of suffering. She explained that with the work, she sought to challenge the current status quo of the Western media’s narrow coverage of the conflict.

Her actual photographs, however, treat this serious subject with an unexpected quality: humor. Through this lens, Habjouqa depicts her subjects as capable of finding the bright side or the absurdity in things despite the challenges and fears they encounter. Habjouqa also works to advance a dialogue with her viewers as she often presents photos without words. This trend carries over to the book itself — Habjouqa uses language minimally throughout it. In fact, the only words are poems and proverbs, which serves to further immerse the viewer in her work.

All of this comes together in a photo titled simply “West Bank: Portrait of a young man.” The immediate foreground depicts a young man sitting in his car with a sheep, whose name is Morsi, at the exact moment he takes a puff from his cigarette. The background shows a part of the wall near the infamous Qalandia checkpoint, which separates Jerusalem and the West Bank. The particular section of the wall shown prominently features the word “free” in graffiti. The brilliance here lies in the framing of this man’s world in such proximity to the checkpoint. Despite the apparent contradiction, the power of this photo conveys his ability to still find humor and enjoyment amidst the bleakness of life. Indeed, the surprising juxtaposition brings a smile, rather than evoking glumness, in the viewer. In short, the image itself is a complete realization of Habjouqa’s principles.

The process behind this photo is indicative of what Habjouqa called “collaborative portraiture.” She explained during her lecture at Tufts that she took the photo knowing full well that her subject was almost posing for her. The point of this hyper-narration is not only to satisfy Habjouqa’s agenda but also to move the debate beyond the violence of this conflict by instead focusing on the durability of the human spirit. As French writer Nathalie Handal writes in the foreword to “Occupied Pleasures,” “These photographs are heartbeats.”

“Occupied Pleasures” is available now for $50 on Amazon and Habjouqa’s publisher’s website, FotoEvidence.