In 2012, Turkish photojournalist Monique Jaques traveled to the Gaza Strip to document Operation Pillar of Defense—one of the countless battles between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas. What was intended to be an eight-day assignment turned into a five-year-long personal project, Gaza Girls: Growing Up in the Gaza Strip, which documents the lives of young women growing up and coming of age in the tumultuous region. Jaques was motivated by the girls' tenacity, determination, and passion in spite of the adversity they are forced to endure daily.
"Gaza is a troubled land, and growing up there isn't easy. It is a 45-square-mile district, isolated by towering concrete blast walls, reams of barbed wire, and foreign soldiers who patrol its perimeters," Jaques recalls in her artist statement of her time spent there. "After years of blockades and travel restrictions, the territory is isolated and shut off from the rest of the world. At night, the never-ending buzz of drones lull you into a light sleep under their watchful din. If you stand on the beach, you can see lights coming from Israel—a land that you will never be able to touch. Boundaries and surveillance define your existence."
The result is constant scrutiny and pressure. The Gaza Strip—roughly twice the size of Washington, DC, and home to more than 2 million people—is overcrowded and has been compared to living in an outdoor prison, according to Jaques. With everyone living so close together, and extended families together under one roof, there is little room for privacy. "Add conservative Islam and bored family members looking to gossip to the mix, and it creates tension and pressure for girls figuring out who they want to be," says Jaques.
For Jaques, this project was not just about finding young girls to photograph and moving on to her next subject—it was about forging bonds between the girls she met. "I worked slowly. I spoke with the girls and knew them well before we started photographing. Many of them I have known throughout the years, but I'm always meeting new people." Because she was not working to meet a deadline, she was really able to devote her time to make the project more personal. Her favorite part of the project is returning to Gaza to see how these young women have developed and how their lives have changed. "Last week, when I went back, one of the girls I photographed had a baby!"
Jaques hopes that Gaza Girls can expose an underreported side of a very complicated conflict and give people a better understanding of the region and a deeper sense of empathy. "At the end of the day, they're just girls like you and me," says Jaques. "They live inside a terribly complicated conflict but think and dream just like we do."
Through interacting and meeting the Gaza girls, Jaques saw more similarities between the girls she was photographing herself at a young age—from their interest in clothes and makeup to boys at school. "They have this desire to travel and explore and to be independent like I did at their age," Jaques says. "But while in the rest of the world we might get to discover those dreams and live them out, they can't."