Mohammad Badarneh: Glimpses of happiness

Mohammad Badarneh: Glimpses of happiness
Exhibition: The Palestinian photographer pictures are moving and offer great insight into the subject material.
5 min read
08 April, 2015
The photographs offer insight into everyday life [al-Araby]
When Palestinian photographer Mohammad Badarneh (born 1978) captures an image, he moves us with an insight that could not be further from a journalist's perception. By following the hubbub of daily life with his camera, Badarneh presents us with artistic scenes: designed and produced to acknowledge every detail.

It is almost as though the images have been laid out according to precise artistic calculations. This is hardly surprising, for such focus on construction, a basic element of classical painting, has become a pillar of cinematography today.

The exhibition Unacknowledged Playtime opened on 30 March for Land Day, commemorated by Palestinians to remember the land they have lost, in the Arab Culture Centre in Haifa. The exhibition, which ran until 4 April, is the end product of a three-year project. It shows the stories captured by Badarneh's camera; the stars are the children, the "unacknowledged" voices of the Palestinian villages in the Negev, and the happiness which they still manage to create in spite of the destruction around them.

Every image engages its spectator on two fundamental levels: there is the first impression, when our initial, clear feelings are formed – positive or negative. Then comes the stage when we really contemplate the piece. A good image is one that grants you the opportunity to discover another, deeper dimension, and allows the piece before you to transcend its visual form.

In one photograph, the focus is of a smiling young girl is the focal point, standing amongst her teddy bears which are arranged on what seems to be a shelving unit. However, a few moments after the first impression has passed, the truth of the photo and its background starts to unfold before us. We realise these are not actually shelves, but a make-shift wall of a house, made from windows which do not keep out the cold or the wind. The house itself is a tin room, almost certainly in danger of being torn down.

Whether a photograph or a painting, an image tends to be separable into two main dimensions: the foreground, and the inner depth. The depth alludes to the background of the figures in the image, whilst the foreground expresses their present. This kind of classical analysis can easily be applied when it comes to this photograph.
     It is almost as though the images have been laid out according to precise artistic calculations.

The depth of the photograph gives an impression of life with very few material things - that is, of poverty. The house seems devoid of any of the features by which we would define the word, and the sparse interior, alongside the fragility of the walls, do not inspire any feelings of protection for a young child. This, then, is the "background" of the figure in the photograph. From this dark place emerges the young girl, who stands in the foreground, smilingly looking through the window of hope towards the light. Badarneh does not wish to paint his subjects in the shades of despair and misery: though poverty is her past, her future may well be abundant with hope.

What distinguishes this photograph is the contradiction between its components, emphasising the significance of structure. There is the dark background set against the light foreground; the bland colouring behind against the rainbow of colours in front; the clean and ordered toys against the dusty surrounding environment. In the visual arts, when sunlight shines in on the darkness it usually represents something positive, but can we really apply this here, to the rays of sun entering through the perforated tin walls of her house?

Finally, we have the contradiction of the young girl's smile with the issue in question: the ethnic cleansing of the Negev. All of these contradictions reinforce the structure of the image, making its emotional impact much more profound.

Our first impression of this photograph of children climbing a tree is positive: an endearing scene from everyday life. This is its point of departure and the main concept, yet the image exposes something much deeper than this. 

Firstly, this dry, gnarled tree certainly does not look like it would be nice to climb. Yet the children do so with little difficulty – some of them barefoot, sitting on its dry branches at perfect ease. These children are an organic element of their desert landscape; like sparrows, they adorn the trees, awarding them their special value. Even if nothing remained in this desert, they would not leave it, for the Negev needs its inhabitants. It is as though the image declares: "This is their land; they are its masters and this is their beautiful throne."

Again, we observe an evident contradiction in aspects of the photograph, strengthening its overall structure: the arid wasteland in the depths of the image, contrasted with the children's vitality and the green grass in the foreground; the dried-up, dead tree against the fresh bloom of childhood; and the blandness of the yellow and grey landscape against the colourful clothes of the children in the foreground.

However, unlike the negative dimension exposed in the previous photograph, this photograph does not bear the stamp of pessimism – in fact, quite the contrary. The increase in contradictory elements allows them to steer the overall direction of the image: that is, one that is positive and optimistic about the future.

This is a time in which the only media attention received by the Negev is focused on the violent clashes between its rightful owners and the occupying forces. Yet through his remarkable photographs of these village children, Badarneh confronts us with an image of simple happiness, bursting with life and energy. This is in spite of their being deprived of the most basic human rights, such as healthcare, education and residency, as well as the repeated ravaging of some of their home villages.

An image is, essentially, a moment in time, frozen before our eyes, and charged with telling us a story. What the photographs in Badarneh's exhibition communicate are messages of hope – against all odds.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.