With the extra time I've had in Jerusalem, I was able to organize a shoot that fulfilled many wishes, both mine and some children's. Since my first trip, I've wanted to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, but access is extremely limited for non-Muslims. On most days, a public pathway from the Western Wall is open for just a few short hours, and my priorities are usually elsewhere. After all, I'm not here to be a tourist.
The excuse to visit came from a series of powerful drawings made by both girls and boys in Gaza. Again and again, when asked what they hoped for in the future, the children drew themselves at the Dome of the Rock, although they usually referred to it as Al-Aqsa. Never having been there due to heavy security restrictions and the ongoing blockade, it's easy to understand their confusion. Although the dome is an iconic shrine that dominates the skyline of the Old City, it is not the mosque. Even still, it's a potent symbol, and one that the children cling to.
I felt it appropriate to take a toy from Gaza and photograph it at the site. A plastic little boy served as a totem for the children that wished they could visit. With kind support from Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Head of the PLO Department of Culture and Information, and Jerusalem Governor Adnan Husseini, I was able to organize a photo shoot. Although, it didn't quite go as planned.
Access to the Al-Asqa compound is controlled by the Waqf Ministry of Jordan, and well, they didn't get a fax that was supposed to have been sent. This won't come as a shock to anyone that's spent any time in the Middle East. It's just how things go sometimes.
I waited around the Lion's Gate entrance to the compound for an hour while things attempted to sort themselves out, but in the end, one bureaucrat kept me from entering, despite best efforts from those above him. No fax. No entry. The man lives by a code.
Coming to terms with this, I figured out that I had just enough time to get myself and my giant backpack of photo equipment to the public entrance before it closed. This was the one chance to get the shot I had in mind. The skies were perfect. The ground was still wet in places from heavy rains the day before. And it was the only day that I had free.
By the time I hiked the narrow streets and navigated the x-rays and security to the Western Wall, then the Al-Aqsa compound, I had less than a hour to quickly explore the site and choose a spot to work. Thankfully, it came together beautifully.
Without media liaisons hovering over me, I was able to work freely and quickly. Although without someone there to explain what I was doing, I managed to piss off a couple of people who misunderstood my intentions. This is, after all, one of the holiest sites in the Muslim faith, and I'm some random Western dude photographing a toy. Their reactions were reasonable.
With time up and tempers tested, I grabbed a few snapshots and a little bit of footage on the way out to satisfy my tourist impulses. The shot I envisioned was completed, and I'm extremely happy with it. Again, you'll just have to settle for my account of taking the photo until I'm ready to reveal it.
Because Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock are such loaded symbols, I'm a little concerned about the political implications of creating an image that includes either. It was suggested that I create a similar image at the Western Wall to balance things out, but I've completely rejected this idea for a couple of reasons. Primarily, not a single Israeli child has included an image of the wall in their drawings. And it makes sense. To Israeli children now, it's not a symbol of freedom or conflict; it's a symbol of faith.
Prior to the Six-Day War in 1967, it would have been a very different story. For nineteen years before the Israeli capture of the Old City, Jews were forbidden from visiting and praying at the Western Wall. To Israeli children then, the site would of had a very similar symbolic meaning as the mosque has now to children in Gaza.