Kristen Gresh

With my Sephardic husband and family, as well as with my dear Palestinian and Israeli friends, I have spent the last five months and counting mourning the loss of tens of thousands of innocent lives. Since the horrific Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023, followed by the Israeli military’s devastating siege on Gaza, I have been struggling to find ways to navigate this dark, tragic, polarizing, and turbulent time. As a photography curator, I am tasked with identifying works to acquire for the MFA’s permanent collection from a global perspective. Since I began working at the Museum in 2012, I have sought to represent multiple histories of photography, ranging in style from fine art to photojournalism. Before working here, I was a curator in both Cairo and Paris, and I traveled extensively in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria. One of my focuses at the MFA has been acquiring works from and of the Middle East that provide insight into major political and social issues in a part of the world where the history of photography has been misrepresented and often misunderstood. I believe photographs in the MFA’s collection can bear witness to the complexities of the Middle East in ways that many news photographs cannot.

When French photographer Luc Delahaye (b. 1962) became disillusioned working as a conflict photojournalist in the 1980s and ’90s, he turned to staged photography that relates to world events and social issues. He gradually shifted away from conventional reporting toward more personal work, which combines art, history, and information through constructed narratives, to distance himself from the media sensationalism of the early 2000s. Delahaye redefined himself as an artist—making works that often refer to 19th-century history paintings—and blurring the lines between reporting, photojournalism, and art.

Reminiscent of Renaissance Madonna and Child paintings, Taxi (2016) depicts a Palestinian woman holding her child on her lap in a shared taxi, a common mode of transportation in the Middle East. For some, the artist’s model represents the Virgin Mary; for others she is a symbol of resistance. Emphasizing the closeness of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, Delahaye has pointed out that Jesus’s mother is mentioned more in the Qurʾan than in the New Testament. His evocation of Christian symbolism in Taxi is a way of seeing Palestine as a shared territory. Even Delahaye’s staged scene from everyday life bears markers of the enduring Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

A woman with a head covering holds a writhing child in the back seat of a taxi cab as sunlight streams in through the window.
Luc Delahaye, Taxi, 2016. Chromogenic print. Museum purchase with funds donated by Richard and Lucille Spagnuolo. © Luc Delahaye - Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/Brussels.

Delahaye created the seven-foot-wide Taxi after the 2014 Gaza War as part of the series Sūmud et autres histoires (Sūmud and other tales), about the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine. In Arabic, “sūmud” means “steadfast perseverance”; in Delahaye’s words, “The sūmud is, at the core of the Palestinian national consciousness, a resistance strategy to the occupation as well as a concrete philosophy. It is an attitude. It relates to suffering, but not as an end: freedom and justice are its horizon.” By emphasizing symbols of enduring resistance and shared humanity, Taxi seeks to raise awareness about geopolitical conflict in a way that sets it apart from news photography.

In 2013 I created the exhibition “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World.” The show, which opened at the MFA before traveling throughout North America for six years, included works made between the 1990s and 2012 by twelve prominent photographers. With a focus on the people, landscapes, and cultures of a region in flux, the images paint a diverse picture of the Middle East, demonstrating that it cannot be defined in a singular territorial, religious, or ethnic way. Reflecting on the power of politics and the legacy of war, the featured artists tackled the very notion of representation in images that explore the complexities of identity, documentary, and traditional Western notions of “the Orient.” Today, I am struck by the polarization and preconceived notions our society holds in regard to the Middle East. “She Who Tells a Story” was an invitation not only to discover new photography, but to shift perspectives and open a cultural dialogue, beginning with art.

The photographs I selected for the exhibition bring artistic imagination to a new form of documenting contemporary experience. With themes of city life, occupation, protest, and revolt, they record a world where war, politics, and daily life coexist. From untold stories of Middle Eastern landscapes to those of urban anonymity, the works challenge the mass media and, more specifically, present-day visual representations of the region.

The MFA acquired more than twenty works from “She Who Tells a Story,” including three by Jordanian American photographer Tanya Habjouqa (b. 1975).

Three women with head coverings walk in a gym with their arms raised above their shoulders and hand resting on the top of their heads.
Tanya Habjouqa, Untitled, from the series Women of Gaza, 2009. Pigment print. Museum purchase with general funds and the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography.

Working in Palestine and Jordan, Habjouqa is a member of NOOR Images, an international photography collective. Her work in “She Who Tells a Story” focuses on women in Gaza who, like all residents of the blockaded territory, have limited freedoms. Following the dissolution of a long-term ceasefire and subsequent 22-day Israeli ground invasion in December 2008 and January 2009, Habjouqa spent two months documenting Gazan women and families. Her photographs celebrate modest pleasures such as a picnic on a Gaza City beach next to the Mediterranean Sea (which Palestinians can only go six nautical miles into before reaching Israeli-imposed restrictions). Whether capturing three women exercising or a university student sitting on a bench with a small teddy bear clipped to her backpack, Habjouqa connects intimately with her subjects. With photography as her tool, she gently portrays the brighter sides of Gazans’ difficult lives under perpetual siege as a form of activism.

Wearing a full face covering, a woman sits on a shaded bench in a sunny courtyard and holds a backpack.
Tanya Habjouqa, Untitled, from the series Women of Gaza, 2009. Pigment print. Museum purchase with general funds and the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography.

When Habjouqa’s photographs of Gazans hung on the walls at the MFA in 2013, they were meant to challenge our viewpoints, beckoning us to confront our own preconceptions and explore new cultural landscapes. Today, these images have new layers of meaning; they have become a permanent record of the preciousness of individual Palestinian lives in Gaza. They also remind us of the importance of the sanctity of life—a sacred aspect of Judaism—and of the urgency to recognize our shared humanity.

A group of people sit in plastic chairs behind a beat-up yellow car on a beach with a bright, overcast sky above and the ocean in the distance.
Tanya Habjouqa, Untitled, from the series Women of Gaza, 2009. Pigment print. Museum purchase with general funds and the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund for Photography.
Kristen Gresh is the Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs.