Gaza. What are the first thoughts that spring to mind when you hear the name? After 70 years of conflict, the word seems synonymous with fighting and bloodshed. It’s perhaps fair to presume, therefore, that two words you didn’t think of were ‘wonder women’.
But for Romanian photographer Ovidiu Tataru, Gaza is full of them. So much so, that his latest exhibition portrays women from the region draped in superhero cloaks. For him, these women possess the qualities of heroines.
“I was, and still am, amazed by these women,” says Ovidiu, a Romanian photographer based in Paris, who spent nine months in Gaza working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) as a human resources administrator during and after the 2014 war (Operation Protective Edge). He quickly became inspired by the Gazan women’s unshakeable resilience and so decided to capture their strength through the lens.
For Ovidiu, this was one of the reasons it was so important to show a different side of Gaza. In contrast to the suffering and tremendous sadness that we often see in the news, Ovidiu felt compelled to highlight the women’s strength and determination. “Aside from frequent wars, the challenges that women face in Gaza start with basic needs… cooking, doing the laundry, studying or working,” says Ovidiu. “The lack of electricity is a real issue. During the period I was there, electricity ran for only a few hours a day. The water from the tap is almost undrinkable.”
“It is a deliberate effort to capture why these women are heroes. Photographers have to find ways that elude the stereotypes… we have to stop searching for the shocking scoop when documenting harsh contexts,” he says. “The project has meaning because ordinary life in Gaza is heroic. I wanted to give a voice to all the women in Gaza, genuine heroes living in a very difficult context. I also wanted to get rid of stereotypical images of Gazan reality, such as destroyed buildings, poor people… and to take photos of women laughing.”
The Wonder Women of Gaza exhibition, which was first presented in Paris this year, came to Dubai’s Al Serkal Avenue in Al Quoz in November in collaboration with MSF, which works with many of the women featured in Ovidiu’s project. Nema Bukhousa, 34, an MSF nurse whose portrait is included in the exhibition, was present to talk to guests about her thoughts on the project and life in Gaza. She says, “When Ovidiu suggested the project we were motivated and positive about taking part. We know that by staying positive, it shows strength. We have a strong belief in God and this gives us hope. Ovidiu saw our resilience through the war… He saw that despite the situation, women were happy to be able to work and to be helping, and he wanted to capture that resilience.”
However, as we often see from the media, the reality in Gaza is a harsh one. In last year’s war, Nema lost her brother when their home was bombed, and she now lives with 17 others, mostly family members, in a small three-bedroom house. She and her eldest brother are the only breadwinners. “It was really important for me to convey this message of resilience through my visit here to Dubai, and to talk to different people about our situation,” says Nema as we talk in the MSF office in Dubai. “Going back, I don’t know if there will be war or peace. I’m not able to look ahead, because there is little hope on the horizon,” she says. “Every three years there is a war and so we live day by day. I’m here visiting Dubai, a peaceful land, and when I go back, all I hope for is peace. That is all the women there want– to live in peace, and to rebuild their lives.”
Ovidiu’s exhibition showcases 17 portraits of women in Gaza along with insightful quotes from the women themselves, which give a glimpse of their daily lives and personalities. All the portraits are taken in front of the same grey stone wall, and for Ovidiu this was an important juxtaposition: the women’s expressions of positivity and resilience against the harsh realities of the blockade and segregation.
“The wall has a functional role and carries a message. It decontextualises and individualises. I didn’t want to show the same image of Gaza as seen until now,” explains Ovidiu. “But the wall also represents the prison where these people live. It is the reason why Gaza is what it is today. The wall penetrates brutally in all aspects of Gazan life.”
Gaza, which has been very much cut off from the rest of the world since the 2007 blockade imposed by the Israelis and Egypt, is still trying to rebuild itself after the devastation of the 2014 war, where in just 49 days well over 2,000 Gazans, the majority of whom were innocent civilians, were killed and much of the country’s housing and infrastructure was destroyed. Due to the blockade, construction materials for rebuilding are not getting in. Since the 2014 war, 100,000 people have been left homeless and, according to the World Bank, Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world.
“Life is very hard for women in Gaza,” says Mohamed Bali, executive director of MSF UAE. “They have a lack of electricity, a lack of water, but they still have to get their kids ready for school, they still have to prepare food. So sometimes they have to get up at three in the morning because that’s when the electricity is back, and do whatever they have to do. Activities that people take for granted in other countries are a different story inside Gaza.”
Ovidiu has enjoyed a positive response to his exhibition. It touches people on a human level, believes MSF’s Bali, who was instrumental in bringing Nema to Dubai from the war-torn region - by no means an easy feat due to border-crossing issues through the occupied territories.
Now Ovidiu hopes to take the Wonderwomen of Gaza exhibition to Berlin and Romania in order to raise awareness about the situation across Europe. He says, “I hope that changing the way we see Gaza can change the way things are happening there, but maybe I am a dreamer. Since I finished the project I have been haunted by the fear that these ladies will die in the next war. But I hope the project will bring positive change in the lives of the women… Despite all odds, there is hope for a better life.”
To view the full exhibition online visit http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/wonderwomen-gaza