Photographing the Middle East in Peacetime
All photos by Jade Cantwell.

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Photographing the Middle East in Peacetime

Photographer Jade Cantwell traveled through Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt in the months before the Arab Spring. Several years later, her photos are reminders of the lives behind the news reports.
February 10, 2015, 12:00am

In 2010, Jade Cantwell spent several months traveling through Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt with a friend. In the months leading up to the Arab Spring they took Arabic lessons and tried to immerse themselves in local politics and culture as much as two white women could. It was a calm and peaceful trip for the Australian photographer, who documented the daily lives of the people she met.

After she returned home, the area erupted and has been volatile ever since. The photographs eventually became her series, Peace Times. With the new context that hindsight provides, her still and tranquil photos take on a new form. They are reminders of the people behind the news reports, and of a time before the area was not besieged with unrest and violence.

VICE: This series was shot throughout the Middle East in 2010 and has become about the calm in people's lives. Did you feel any tension when you were there?
Jade Cantwell: It's hard to say. It's hard to judge things in an environment so different from what you're used to. We definitely felt tensions in Egypt. We felt least safe there. They'd had a few incidents, there'd been attacks on foreigners. But there were other times, particularly in Syria, where we did feel really safe—or at least it seemed normal.

That's the feeling you get from the shots, as well as how comforting the mundane can be.
Yeah, it's about the everyday lives people lead there as a contrast to what we think the region is about. Everything we see is about turmoil: war, attacks, and violence—it's a very different image to what people were living. Obviously that picture is different now, but what was interesting was the quietness and beauty to the areas we went to. People were just trying to live their lives.

When you shot it, did you have a series in mind? Or did it take on meaning in the following the outbreak of violence?
It picked up meaning afterwards. When I shoot I'm just shooting what I like, the things I see, the areas I'm visiting, and trying to capture the feel of a place. It came together afterwards because the images from the next months and onwards have been so violent.

I thought about the fact we see a lot of photography out of that area, and there are a lot of photographers who are attracted to documenting a war torn place. They shoot these incredibly powerful images, but they're of violence and sadness. I think that can desensitize us, and it overlooks the day-to-day lives of people in the region.

Obviously a lot of young Western photographers are drawn to these areas, but when you're there are you aware of not falling into that trap of cultural tourism?
Oh definitely. I have a degree in communications so I think a lot about what I'm trying to say and the relationship I have with the subject. In some ways it takes the enjoyment out of of shooting. Sometimes I wonder if I overthink it. You don't want to make it seem exotic. Obviously it is to you, but I don't want to take something from someone.

Does that affect what you decide to shoot?
Yeah, it's like when you look at people taking pictures of homeless people in the street and they think it's really raw or edgy; there may not be a lot of consideration for what you're reducing that person's life to.

Exactly, it's not only in relation to shooting conflict zones.
It's something we see a lot with the saturation we have of images. There are lots of people picking up photography, shooting all the time, and trying to get their work out there. I think often people go for whatever they think is really high-impact, and that sometimes takes away from the photograph or makes it all feel very same-y.

Words by Wendy Syfret. Follow her on Twitter.