Babak Salari says the inspiration for his latest series of photographs began almost three decades ago.
Then a refugee escaping the repressive regime that had taken over his native Iran, Salari managed to get to Pakistan. There, he was taken in by a Palestinian student, who sheltered and fed Salari as he gathered his wits and figured out what his next move would be. The Montreal-based photographer recalls that both the young men knew what it meant to be forced to leave their homeland: “Our shared experience of displacement, our sorrow at the loss of our cherished homes, meant we formed an instant connection.”
Since that time 27 years ago, Salari has emigrated to Canada where he now lives in Montreal, working extensively as a photographer. With two books under his belt (one in Cuba’s gay, lesbian and trans underworld and the other on the people of Afghanistan), Salari is now exhibiting a collection of images he culled during his trip to the Palestinian territories in 2004. “I always wanted to go to Palestine to experience intimately the life of Palestinians under the occupation of Israel. I wanted my photographs to bring awareness and solidarity to the Palestinian cause and help the peace process.”
His latest show, Off the Wall, focusses specifically on the wall built by Israeli forces to separate Palestinians and Israelis, and opens this Saturday (Oct 24) in Toronto.
Salari says he thought he knew the extent of difficulty in the region, but was not prepared for what he encountered on his trip. “I experienced a level of oppression in my own country but when I went to Palestine, after 22 years of living in the West, I was shocked by the strategies used by Israelis to colonize Palestinians. The checkpoints in particular. The level of Palestinian patience to the oppression and inhumanity of the Israeli forces. I witnessed the humiliation of the Palestinians in their own land. This was far from the picture we get from the outside world. I was most struck by the silence of much of the world about the suffering of Palestinians and the gradual genocide of an entire people.”
As impassioned as Salari is about politics, it was the personal, intimate stories he heard that moved him tremendously. “Aisha, an 85-year-old Palestinian woman told me the story of how as a young woman she owned a beautiful home in Ramat Gan, which today is an upscale Tel Aviv neighbourhood. Although she could not read, she was forced to sign a document to give up her house. She was promised another house in another area but lost it when she found herself in a rental house and was unable to pay the rent. She cried as she told me her story in her home, a leaky shack in a Tel Aviv suburb. Now the owner of the factory next door has declared that the ramshackle community she lives in is a security threat and she is being forced to leave.”
Using his photography has proven a potent weapon for Salari, a means to chronicling the troubles of the Palestinians he met and raising awareness. “Photography as a poetic medium has power but also limitations. The visual impact is profound; photography captures a decisive moment that will never happen again and allows the viewer time to contemplate it. There is a ritual — a conversation between the viewer and the photograph. But photography can not record the sound of a crying mother losing a child to war, or register the smell of rotting corpses.”
Salari insists that amid the hardship and sadness, he also found inspiration. “I was inspired by meeting a defenceless people who, after surviving 60 years of devastation of war and oppression by one of the world’s most sophisticated armies, are proud, resilient, patient and still hopeful to gain the rights to their own land. I was also impressed by the awareness of progressive Israeli citizens who struggle against their own government in solidarity with the Palestinians. They serve a crucial role in informing the international community.”
Babak Salari’s photography exhibit, Off the Wall, opens this Saturday, Oct 24, at 2pm at Toronto’s Arta Gallery, 55 Mill St. The exhibit will continue until Nov 6.