At the age of 19, Eman Mohammed became the only female photojournalist based in Gaza, breaking longstanding cultural taboos around the role of women in society. Three weeks into her career, the Gaza War began. Now 26, Mohammed continues to document harrowing and intimate stories of war and its aftermath in Gaza and beyond. Here, Mohammed tells the TED Blog her extraordinary story of battling professional bias and sexual harassment from male colleagues — while simultaneously documenting the battle raging around her.
How did you end up on the battlefield as a photographer? What was your inspiration?
My inspiration is my mother. My father’s Jordanian with Palestinian roots, and my mother is a Palestinian — Gazan. When they separated when I was 3, my mom went back to Gaza and raised me there. In those years, I saw how the community mistreated her because she was divorced and raising her kids alone, an unknown thing. In that culture, if you get divorced, mothers aren’t supposed to raise their kids. You leave the kids with their dad. It’s a punishment. And if you don’t, you can’t remarry, by law. My mom didn’t want to remarry because she didn’t want to give away her kids.
It’s always the woman’s fault?
Always. Even when the husband is clearly in the wrong, divorced women are despised — or neglected, or the black sheep in the community — one way or another. You have zero chance of remarrying if you keep the kids. This is because, in a lot of cases, women don’t work. They can’t afford to survive. They can’t afford to raise kids alone. Nowadays, people are questioning this custom.
My mother struggled, but we still managed to travel. If she couldn’t afford much, she went to the poorest countries on Earth, and she dragged us all over the place with her, which was really fun. We visited cities in Romania, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia. Travel changes everything. When you get exposed to different cultures and places, you just gain a lot of information and a way of thinking that schools don’t teach you. It was life-changing: we got to learn English, we got to learn about a lot of things that normal people in Gaza would not care about.
Meanwhile, my mother sent me to a church school, because it was one of the top schools in the city, then I went to the Islamic University of Gaza, which is owned and operated by Hamas. Both of them were extreme, in a way. It gave me a wider perspective on things.
You started doing photojournalism as a teen. Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I didn’t know that there were a million fields of journalism to choose from. At university, we don’t have photography as a subject. It doesn’t exist. I knew from the start that it would be hard to get a job in journalism in Gaza. I took internships, starting with radio stations, then newspapers, news channels on TV. Eventually I was trained by a local agency — it was a secular agency, but my boss was Islamic Jihad. He offered me a staff position — amazing considering I was 19, and still in my second year of university — as an editor in English and Arabic, and a producer. I made a condition that I would carry a camera with me, so that I could take photos. But I didn’t say that out loud: as a woman, you can’t say “I want to be a photojournalist” without being heavily criticized for it and in most cases forbidden.
Why would you be allowed an internship but not be allowed to be a photojournalist?
It’s OK to be a reporter as a woman, working in an office. TV reporters are OK, too, because they are only in the field for the final part of the report. As long as you spend most of your time inside the office, it’s fine. But to go into the field full-time with men as your colleagues is different — and you can’t be a photographer and work in the office. As a field photographer, you’d be the only woman with a lot of men. Just the idea was fascinating in a very negative way for me. Why? I didn’t get it, even though I’d lived all my life in Gaza. I know how conservative people can be, and how they mix tradition with religion. Religion has nothing to do with these very conservative, extremist traditions they have.
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