‘She stood in silence, remembering’: photographing Gaza under airstrikes

Raghad (4) stands amid the rubble of her home in Beit Hanoun, Gaza (Fatima Shbair)

Sarah Johnson

The Guardian  /  December 29, 2021

Fatima Shbair’s photo of a girl in her ruined home is an indelible image of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s resurgence in May.

For 11 days in May, Fatima Shbair hardly slept. When the most recent rounds of fighting in Gaza broke out between Israelis and Palestinians on 10 May, the 24-year-old freelance photographer said goodbye to her mother and left her home to document the stories of her neighbours in Gaza, as their lives were racked by terror.

The conflict featured waves of pre-dawn Israeli air raids and rocket fire from Gazan territory. Palestinians made up the vast majority of more than 250 people killed.

It took a particularly heavy toll on children. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 66 Palestinian children died, as well as two on the Israeli side. Countless more were kept awake all night by explosions; others had to evacuate the buildings they lived in before they were bombed.

During the day, Shbair photographed scenes of destruction and chaos. Then at night, she would stay up editing her photos and listening to the news on the radio, which dictated where she went the following day. Short naps and adrenaline kept her going.

“At first my mother was calling me every day asking about me, how things were going,” says Shbair. “I asked her not to call me because I was afraid every time she did. I was afraid about [my family]. I didn’t want to hear bad news.”

I feel a responsibility to make the voices of the people around me heard, and their images visible

Fatima Shbair

When Israel and Hamas announced a ceasefire on 21 May after 11 days of fighting, Shbair returned home but still ventured out to capture what was going on.

On 24 May, she went to Beit Hanoun, a town on the north-east edge of the Gaza Strip. She knew entire neighbourhoods there had been destroyed, but that many residents had managed to get out in time. Shbair wanted to photograph people as they returned to their homes.

“Every family was looking at what happened to their house with great sadness,” she remembers. Shbair came across a four-year-old girl, called Raghad, with her father. “She was so shy when I met her. Her dad helped me talk to her.”

Together they went to visit the family’s house. “Raghad was walking with me, carrying her teddy bear. We moved from room to room in a house that only had rubble and broken walls.”

They arrived in what used to be Raghad’s bedroom. “I asked her about the room she slept in,” she says. “She stood in complete silence as if she was remembering everything.”

It was then that Shbair took the award-winning photo of the young girl standing amid rubble in a room with gaping holes in the wall, and looking out at other buildings in a similar state. “This picture sums up the feelings of everyone in the neighbourhood who lost their homes,” she says.

Raghad and her family have since relocated to another area of Gaza and are renting a small house, says Shbair. “I went to see Raghad again. She looks like an angel.

“She doesn’t speak much and her eyes are filled with sadness. She still remembers everything and misses her old house and friends from the neighbourhood.”

Shbair, meanwhile, is on a break from studying journalism at Al-Azhar University in Gaza while she focuses on her photojournalism work. She taught herself photography, posting pictures on social media, where she gained an international following. In 2020, she began to receive assignments from international agencies, including Getty Images, to cover her home town.

Shbair says she faces many challenges as a female photojournalist. The worst, she says, are societal views that dictate women who go to dangerous areas and take photos must be “bad”.

“When you go to an event,” she says, “you find that everyone stares at you and starts making hurtful comments.”

She does not let it affect her too much, though. “Everything around me deserves to be documented,” she says. “I feel a responsibility to make the voices of the people around me heard, and their images visible.” Her portfolio of photos from the 11-day conflict won her this year’s Anja Neidringhaus Courage in Photojournalism award.

While the media spotlight has moved on from Gaza since May, Shbair remains and is determined to carry on sharing people’s stories of sadness and hope.

“I want people to know about real life here. There is an everyday war. We have a blockade, electricity cuts, no water.

“There are so many things people are suffering each day but they find a way to live,” she says. “They just continue.”

Sarah Johnson is a reporter focusing on human rights and global development