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Young Palestinian journalist racks up international photography awards

A female photojournalist in the Gaza Strip hopes her international awards will encourage other women in the besieged enclave to follow their ambitions.
Fatima Shbair/Getty Images

A Palestinian photojournalist from the Gaza Strip recently won two European awards for her pictures that depict life under siege and conflict in the coastal enclave. 

“In the Gaza Strip, there are five women currently working in the field of photojournalism. They have enormous capabilities that enable them to outperform many women both in Europe and around the world,” 24-year-old Fatima al-Zahra Shbair told Al-Monitor.

On Sept. 29, Shbair received the German Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award from by the International Women's Media Foundation, becoming the youngest journalist to win the prize since its creation in 2015.

The award recognizes female photographers who put themselves at risk to convey the news through photographs.

In late August, Shbair won the French Rémi Ochlik Award, which honors young photographers from around the world, for the best conflict photography of the year.

The two European awards were not Shbair's first. She won the National Geographic Abu Dhabi Award in 2017 as well as other local Palestinian honors.

Speaking about the Anja Niedringhaus Award, Shbair told Al-Monitor, “I was nominated for this award by the photo editors at Getty, which I have been working with since 2019. I won the award for 13 pictures titled ‘11 days of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’ The pictures document the killing and destruction caused by the last Israeli war against the Gaza Strip in May.”

Shbair sought to show the repercussions of the recent war by taking pictures of children holding candles as planes buzzed over their heads. She also took pictures of a girl bidding farewell to her father in a mortuary and others of families displaced by the destruction of their homes.

She was awarded the Rémi Ochlik Award for another collection of 37 photos documenting the recent war in the Gaza Strip.

“The photo collection was nominated for the Rémi Ochlik Award by the photo editors at Getty. It included all the scenes of destruction and displacement during the last Israeli war and monitored the Palestinian tragedies in detail as a result of the bombing massacres committed by the Israeli occupation,” Shbair said.

“Winning the French and German awards is a success for Palestinian women among world journalists,” she said.

Shbair ventured into photojournalism in 2013 when she was still a high school student and did not even have a camera. She worked hard and read about the most famous photographers in the world, how to frame shots and other photography skills.

She said she faced many difficulties. “One of the major challenges I faced was the criticism from society, which downplays my efforts and work," she explained. "I would walk long distances to reach remote and border areas to closely document the lives and suffering of the population.”

Shbair said she managed to overcome these difficulties thanks to her mother’s support and encouragement.

By 2017, she was majoring in business management and still did not have a camera of her own, but then her mother got her her first camera. “I was over the moon. My mom was the one who supported me and encouraged me the most to venture into the world of photography. I immediately took my camera into the field and took pictures of refugees at al-Shati refugee camp, in the west of Gaza, to convey their suffering to the world via social media,” Shbair said.

That year, Shbair won the Moments Award from National Geographic Abu Dhabi in the documentary photo category.

“The National Geographic Abu Dhabi award was in honor of a series of photos depicting a Henna Night, which I documented with my camera to shed light on the most important customs and traditions observed on the night preceding the wedding day,” she explained.

The award launched her photojournalism career in 2019, when she started working as a contributor for Getty. Her photos are published by The New York Times and the Middle East Eye Network, among others.

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