Mustafa Hassona’s image of a bare-chested Palestinian protester travelled the internet like wildfire. As he scoops a prize in this year’s Sony World Photography Awards, the photojournalist shares the story of its creation
- TextGemma Padley
In one hand he holds the Palestinian flag and in the other, a slingshot. He wears an expression of determination as smoke billows in the background. Aed Abu Amro was just 20 years old when photojournalist Mustafa Hassona captured this powerful image of him during a violent protest in Gaza on 22 October 2018.
Shortly after its creation, the image went viral. Many likened it to Eugène Delacroix’s famous 1830 painting, Liberty Leading the People, noting similarities between the central characters’ poses and the rousing mood of both images. Others praised Hassona’s image for what they saw as a kind of David versus Goliath symbolism. But the image, one of many Hassona has taken during continuing protests in the Gaza Strip area that borders Israel, proved to be controversial too. Some said that the image glorified violence; others demanded an end to the romanticising of such an image. “Behind its palpable kinetic energy and visual dynamism lies one of the most desperate human rights situations in the world,” writes Another Man contributor Louis Staples in his thought-provoking piece about the photograph for The Independent. “There is nothing beautiful or poetic about the oppression of Palestinians.”
And Hassona, who is himself from the Gaza Strip, should know. As a photographer with Anadolu Agency he regularly visits the area to cover the weekly protests and has experienced the violence firsthand on many occasions. “Gazan people go to the border area to protest against the Israeli siege,” he explains in an email to Another Man. “Dozens of people go weekly and they protest in many ways. Some burn tyres and some hold the Palestinian flag. Others throw stones. The guy in the photo was standing in front of me so I snapped the picture. I didn’t speak to him.”
Palestinian protesters have been gathering along the Gaza-Israel buffer zone since 30 March 2018. They stage regular demonstrations to demand the right to return to Palestine and are calling for an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which was imposed by Israel in 2007. Israeli forces answer with tear gas and live fire. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed and 21,000 injured since the rallies began. On the day Hassona took this image, 32 Palestinians were wounded, Gaza’s health ministry reported.
The image is from the freelance photographer’s series, Palestinian Right of Return Protests, which has been awarded a prize in this year’s Sony World Photography Awards. It has been called ‘iconic’ – Hassona believes an image can become iconic as a result of “the simplicity and power inside the photograph” – but in truth, all of his images feel urgent and real; you’re right there with him amid the chaos.
Hassona believes that this particular image has gained so much attention “because it describes the message that Palestinians want to deliver to the world. It gathers many years of suffering in one photograph.” He passionately refutes claims that the image glorifies violence. “I don’t understand how an image of someone who believes in his rights and asks for those rights could be described like that. From my point of view the image is a description of a nation that has suffered for decades.” If there is a link to Delacroix’s famous painting it is “the belief in freedom”, he says, adding that he wanted to portray the strength and steadfastness of the Palestinian people as they continue their fight for freedom. “Palestinians fight and suffer because they love their land and will never give up the dream of making it free one day.”
In an article published by Anadolu Agency, Abu Amro is quoted as saying that the viral comparisons between Hassona’s image and Delacroix’s masterpiece inspired him to continue taking part in the protests. His sheer determination and belief in his cause, so evident in Hassona’s picture, are confirmed by something else he told the agency: “Even if I become a target for Israeli bullets, this flag will remain in my hand.”
Like the protagonist in his picture, Hassona also remains committed to the Palestinian cause. “I am so proud to be a photographer who has covered three devastating wars on Gaza and to keep covering all the events that are happening here. I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, but Gaza always helps me to stand up again.” He too dreams of a liberated Palestine. “My dream of national liberty makes me want to continue such work,” he tells Another Man. “I would like to go abroad one day to tell people more about the story of my nation [and] for others to know that our suffering is real and not only in pictures that could be forgotten one day.”
The 2019 Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition is at Somerset House from 18 April until 6 May, 2019.