A Girl and Her Dove

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©Alexandra Avakian/Contact Press Images. This image is from the documentary film The War Photographers which accompanies the photography exhibit WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY.

By Alexandra Avakian

Fatimah and I met in the summer of 1994 while I was living in Gaza (Sept 1993-Dec 1995) and she was 15 years old.

She was one of seven siblings all sleeping in one room of a typical slapdash refugee house with a roof of unattached corrugated iron. It was in Shati Camp, about a mile from where I was living. Shati, (also known as Beach Camp) was at that time the most overpopulated spot on earth, with a staggering 100,000 people to a square kilometer.

When Fatimah took me upstairs to photograph her with her doves, I was struck by the symbolism the scene revealed, at a time where there was a peace agreement in place between Palestinians and Israelis (The Oslo Accords), but peace was already fraying. The swath of Shati Camp and its living conditions behind her, all the way down to the sea, provide Fatimah's context.

This photo was originally a "reject," meaning that the magazine I shot it for left it in a reject box without publishing it. However, as with many photos in my book, Windows of the Soul: My Journeys In The Muslim World (published by National Geographic Books), I held on to the photo because I believed in it, even though it was a "reject." Indeed when National Geographic magazine published my Gaza story in July 1996, "Fatimah and Her Dove" was the lead photo. The photo inspired many people and continues to be widely published and exhibited, including prominent presence in the original documentary film accompanying The Annenberg Space For Photography's version of the WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY photography exhibit.

Fatimah is everywhere and yet so hard to find: I wanted to learn how she was, hear the story of her life, photograph her again, and to give her my book in which she appears prominently. Some Gaza journalist friends had tried to look for her in the past and I asked them if they could look for her once again. None of them could find her, including the friend who initially introduced me to Fatimah.

After National Geographic Traveler sent me to photograph a story about Jerusalem for a 2012 issue, I took a few days in Gaza to try to find Fatimah.

Things are very different in Gaza now. There is basically one block that has relatively secure hotels. Where Gaza was run by the Israelis and then the Palestinian Authority, now it is under the control of Hamas.

Shati Camp had changed too, since 1994, but we searched for Fatimah methodically, alley by alley, stepping over open sewers and being swamped by delighted children. The locals helped us analyze the photo for clues, for landmarks.

Finally my driver, who was trained in security by the United Nations, told me I had to stop immediately. There was too much risk now of being snapped up by radical Salafists or others operating in Shati Camp. He said an arm could reach out in some alley and drag me into a room and nobody would ever find me. We left. But I will go back and find her next time, and soon.

WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath will show at the Annenberg Space for Photography through June 2, 2013. Learn more about Alexandra on her official website.

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