Peter Morgan is a photographer and journalist from Sydney, Australia. He has documented his experiences in conflict zones in the Middle East through his photography. Fellow TAFE student Erin Grant interviews Peter Morgan about the photos that mean the most to him, and the incredible stories behind them.
In 2016, you were doing human rights observation work in the West Bank, investigating and documenting abuse committed in the Bethlehem district of Palestine. You have a photo of it here, showing the conditions of the checkpoints along the border between Israel and occupied Palestinian territory.
The Israeli checkpoints are brutal dystopian places. They often look like cattle runs with biometric scanners, x-ray machines and bombproof boxes separating soldiers and civilians. I came to think of these places more as ‘meat grinders’ where occupied people go in one side and come out the other as cheap labour.
Each weekday at 3:30 am, men from the south of the West Bank commute through Checkpoint 300 to get to basic construction jobs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The start and stop management of the turnstile system at the entrance ramps creates hazardous crowd dynamics. People regularly get broken arms and are sometimes killed there. I saw several men pulled out of the heaving crowd unconscious. Workers would scale barriers or crawl under gates as being late for work holds economic consequences for families.
I would travel through the checkpoint and back several times in a morning and take statistics on demographics, speed and the general humanitarian status of the site. These statistics were passed on to the UN and an array of other organisations. I would also get to socially chat to Palestinians and a few Israeli soldiers. Sometimes, I convince a soldier to open a gate for women, children or the disabled, but many of them were hardliners. These soldiers weren’t happy about my taking photos either, but I got creative with my approach. I was chased off a few times but ended up with an accurate portrait of the place over three months.
Here you have a photo you took in 2015, while you were photographing Australian aid programs in the wake of the 2014 July and August Israel- Gaza conflict. You mentioned that you see it as “an unintended memorial of the stagnant political and economic situation in the besiegement of the Gaza strip”
This giant propeller stands as a monument by the Gaza City sea wall. Someone told me that it was off one of Yasser Arafat’s boats, but I can’t verify any backstory for it. Although the place had been devastated in the war, it’s the over a decade-old blockade, sanctions, and routine infrastructure destruction that causes the most lasting damage to Gazan society.
It is quite an extraordinarily resilient place with some of the kindest people I have ever met. I got to meet and speak to many people directly affected by the conflict. I remember one man telling me “we don’t want your [aid] money, we just want our stories to be told” and that has stuck with me.
The suffering in Gaza is a slow grind and, in terms of representation, quiet. I think the best way for westerners to represent it is, firstly, to work in collaboration with Gazans and other Palestinians, and secondly, to try to make [journalistic] work that educates but doesn’t pander to media cliches of the region.
You took a road trip in 2017 across Kurdish northern Iraq where you visited civilian victims of Turkish aerial bombing campaigns. You stopped to take this photograph of scaffolding resting on a wall against the backdrop of the Qandil mountains – a section of the Zagros mountain range which spans Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
I have always liked this photo because it reminds me of how transitory and impermanent human existence is in relationship to the surrounding ancient lands of the Levant and Iraq. You feel this particularly acutely in the mountainous, Kurdish autonomous regions of northern Iraq – Iraqi Kurdistan. The landscape here is ancient, the cradle of civilisation – empires have come and gone, but the mountains remain a constant – presiding over history like sentinels.
It is not difficult to see why the land is viewed with such importance by the Kurdish. It has been their sustenance and their sanctuary, “no friend but the mountains” so goes the old Kurdish proverb.
A day or two after this photo was taken, Turkish airstrikes on the nearby villages of Sidan and Kera Derin killed seven civilians. The Turkish military regularly bombs sites in northern Iraq from their bases inside Iraq itself. It is part of the ongoing armed conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (or PKK) who seek Kurdish autonomy inside Turkey.
A strategy of the Turkish military is to bomb civilian targets near areas with PKK bases to create ‘friction’ between the militants and locals. I visited the neighbouring villages of Dupre and Kashkawa, Muslim and old Assyrian Christian communities respectively. Aerial bombings have targeted the area over the years, and both have reached reciprocal arrangements to find sanctuary in the other’s village if theirs is under attack. It is a powerful symbol of unity inside the ethnic tinderbox that is Iraq.
You have said that since your visit to Palestine, you “had been interested in the politicisation of the landscapes in the Middle East, and how different factions have stamped their identities on it.” Last year you were in Beirut when you had the chance to take the following photograph, which reflects that.
[We] had heard about this old base called Mleeta in southern Lebanon which the Lebanese Shia militia/political group, Hezbollah, had turned into a memorial about their fight against the Israeli state. I wasn’t expecting a museum fun park vibe for families and western tourists.
Mleeta is a two-hour drive south of Beirut. During the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, it was used as an artillery and observation post by Hezbollah. Due to the time of year and inclement weather, the place was effectively deserted. Missiles and artillery pieces peered out of the fog like geopolitical dinosaurs. There were play equipment sets for kids made from artillery pieces and disarmed missiles. It even had a gift shop which sold shampoo and body wash alongside Hezbollah flags and t-shirts. It was a kitsch landscape made from a celebration of martyrdom, Israel as the existential enemy and western-style tourism attractions.
The site is set high in the mountains, so the weather rolled in quickly. I photographed between bursts of rain and hail. Just after I took this photo of the drones, lightning hit the building just behind my friend Hasan and I. It ended the shoot pretty quickly. Hasan told me he initially thought it had set off a bomb on the hillside. It sounded and felt that violent. I revisited the site a couple of weeks later. The sun was shining, and the sky was pure blue. The clouds, hail and lightning replaced by Israeli drones buzzing overhead observing us and fighter jets soaring towards Syria at high altitudes. History in that part of the world is not just something of the past.
Through your photography, you have captured stories many people would never otherwise see and hear. What is it that drives you to tell them?
I’ve always had an interest in conflict history and politics. When I was young, I would listen to the wartime experiences of my maternal grandfather, who was taken from Poland as a forced labourer by the Nazis. He instilled a valuing of storytelling in me, particularly for stories that sit outside of the standardised historical narratives. After September 11, I gradually developed an interest in the Middle East due to the shallow single-dimensional reporting on the region. I saw how much harm inaccurate representation could do domestically, so I set on a path of learning and eventually found my way there in various roles. I have always been interested in photography. It is a meditation and a vehicle for expressing my values. So it was a smooth transition from still life and street photography to more reportage photography, grounded in fine art education.
Featured Image: © 2016, Peter Morgan