Photographer Ryuichi Hirokawa’s best shot

Photographer Ryuichi Hirokawa's best shot

Photographer Ryuichi Hirokawa's best shot

Interview by Melissa Denes, The Guardian – 30 Apr 2009

I took this in 2002, at Al-Ram checkpoint on the West Bank. All the checkpoints had been closed by Israeli troops and these women were demonstrating to have them opened, so that food and medical supplies could come through. An hour before, a group of men had been demonstrating, but the soldiers pulled out their batons so the women – who were both Palestinian and Israeli – moved to the front.

On the left is a line of Israeli soldiers; that man at the front, with his hands in his pockets, is a policeman. I was drawn to the young woman standing second from the right, who is holding up her hand in a V-sign. She held that for a long time, at least 30 minutes – until the soldiers began to throw tear gas canisters.

You can see the press at the back. I don’t like to work from such a position of safety. I’ve been taking photographs in Israel and the West Bank since 1967. This one became symbolic for me, and last year I included it in my film Nakba (Catastrophe), which features hundreds of photographs and interviews with Palestinians displaced after 1948.

As a student in Japan, I was very idealistic. I read the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and decided to work on an Israeli kibbutz. One day, I found some bullets in a field nearby and asked where they might have come from. No one knew – then a young Jewish man showed me an old map that had the Palestinian name for the place where we were working.

I began photographing the ruins of Palestinian villages and exhibited them in Jerusalem in 1969, in a show called Security. There was an angry response: people wanted to know whose security I was referring to. But one entry in the visitors’ book, written by a Jewish student, said: “In Israel we only ever hear one side; these pictures show us the other side.” I have been to Palestine 30 to 40 times now, most recently to Gaza in January. This is what I keep trying to show.

• Ryuichi Hirokawa’s work is at the Barbican, London EC1, until 8 May, as part of the Palestine Film festival:

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