Hanna Safieh (b. 1910 in Jerusalem) was one of the first prominent Palestinian photographers. His pioneering work could be considered some of the best documentation of life in Palestine from the British Mandate and up to the Israeli occupation. His exquisite black and white photographs serve as an ethnographic study of Palestine, particularly in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.
Hanna Safieh was born in 1910, during the Ottoman rule of Palestine. As a teenager, he had a strong passion for documenting events through his lens. At the time, photography was mostly an activity restricted to foreigners at holy sites.
The first school for teaching photography was established in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem by an Armenian priest, Yessai Garabedian, around 1860. A talented student, Garabed Krikorian, opened a private studio in 1885 in Jerusalem, the first studio in Palestine. Khalil Raad, one of Krikorian’s students, was the first Arab photographer to open his own studio in the 1890s.
Another center for training photographers in Palestine was provided by the American Colony, which had a photo department (founded by the Swedish photographer Lewis Larsson in 1898). Hanna Safieh received his professional training there; he worked with the esteemed Swedish photographer G. Eric Matson before he opened his own studio.
The department at the American Colony mostly hired Palestinian photographers. This proved to be advantageous: Residents understood their land and surroundings much more than nonnatives, which meant that they were able to photograph details that went beyond tourism.
Safieh was one of the few photographers whose work extend beyond commercial and landscape work. He became known for capturing portraits of individuals, landscapes, religious ceremonies, folkloric traditions, and political events. Over time, his work started to serve more as photojournalism and ethnography.
In the 1930s, Safieh took a photograph that caught the attention of the British Parliament. The photo was of a group of Palestinian women who were demonstrating near the New Gate of Jerusalem against the British troops who, in turn, were trying to stop them. As a result of this photo, the Parliament ordered an investigation into the incident. Eventually, Safieh got hired by the British government as a Public Information Officer and further developed his career.
Photographs of Historic Importance
That Safieh lived through different political regimes controlling Jerusalem has made his photography particularly interesting. He personally experienced life in Palestine under the Ottoman rule, British Mandate, Jordanian rule, and the Israeli occupation. His images thus constitute valuable documentation of both historical events and everyday life in Palestine.
Of particular significance was Safieh’s documentation of the aftermath of the Deir Yasin massacre of 1948. He photographed the victims one day after the massacre, before the bodies were removed.
Safieh’s lens documented the killing of Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini during the battle of al-Qastal. He photographed both the battle site as well as the Palestinian leader’s funeral. Moreover, he photographed the demolition of houses in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, as well as in the Musrara neighborhood close to Damascus Gate.
Acknowledging his historically significant work, Safieh was often commissioned by the Jordanian government to photograph life and events in Palestine. He was employed after the 1950s as an underwater photographer as part of an archaeological expedition, in which he looked for the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah (of the Book of Genesis) in the Dead Sea.
In addition to these duties, Safieh was the go-to person for covering delegations and leaders attending important meetings in Jerusalem. Among the visits he covered was the 1964 meeting of Pope Paul VI, King Hussein, and the Greek Orthodox patriarch. He photographed Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes after the 1967 War and arson damage to al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969.
After the 1967 War, the Israeli army stormed into Safeih’s studio on al-Zahra Street in East Jerusalem and confiscated his collection of work. About 4,500 negatives, including all his work from pre-1948, was stolen in this way. Luckily, some of his photos had already been published in well-known magazines. The theft of his life’s work by the army affected Safieh’s health and morale so profoundly that he stopped taking photographs shortly thereafter.
Hanna Safieh’s photographs were published in various important platforms, including the National Geographic, the Readers Digest, the London News, and the Associated Press. There have also been several exhibitions of his work, including the exhibit, “Looking for Palestine: Historical Images by Hanna Safieh,” which was displayed (in 2004) at the Oresman Gallery of Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Hanna Safieh’s son, Raffi, published 95 of his father’s photographs in the book A Man and His Camera. Raffi has also maintained his father’s archives, which are displayed at al-Zahra Street in Jerusalem. Had it not been for the photographs of Hanna Safieh and a few others like him, many of the details about Palestinian life in West Jerusalem and other ethnically cleansed parts of Palestine would not be available to us.
Fraser, Genevieve Cora. “Historical Palestinian Photographs by Hanna Safieh.” Scoop. September 22, 2004.
Hourani, Hani. “On Historicizing the First and Second Generations of Palestinian Photographers.” [In Arabic.] Diffa Thalitha. January 11, 2021.
Library of Congress. “Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection.” Text prepared by Verna Curtis and Arden Alexander. Last modified April 2010.
Nassar, Issam. “A Jerusalem Photographer: The Life and Work of Hanna Safieh.” Jerusalem Quarterly (Winter 2007): 24–28.
Nassar, Issam. Photographing Jerusalem: The Image of the City in the Nineteenth-Century Photography. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs, 1997.
Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA). “Safieh, Hanna (1910–1979).” Accessed May 30, 2021.
Safieh, Hanna, and Raffi Safieh. A Man and His Camera: Photographs of Palestine, 1927–1967. N.p.: Raffi Safieh, 1999.
Sela, Rona. “‘Imprisoned Photographs’: The Looted Archive of Photo Rissas (Rassas)—Ibrahim and Chalil (Khalil) Rissas.” Intermediality: History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 32 (Autumn 2018).
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