The Power of the Image: Preserving UNRWA’s Past and Present for the Future

13 June 2024
The Power of the Image: Preserving UNRWA’s Past and Present for the Future

Jonathan FowlerBy Jonathan Fowler 


As the war in Gaza rages, causing unprecedented death and destruction, telling its story is a moral imperative. Preserving images from Gaza matters more than ever. Not just to document the spiraling humanitarian tragedy right now but also to preserve it for posterity.

UNRWA is committed to this goal as part of its longstanding effort to recount its work as the UN agency specifically dedicated to providing relief and public services for Palestine refugees. Since its creation by the UN General Assembly in 1949, UNRWA has built up a vast trove of still and moving images. It is considered so important that in 2009 it was named by UNESCO as a Memory of the World archive of outstanding value.

Few people in UNRWA have a better sense of this value than Gaza-based Amani,* who has followed the archive’s evolution from the inside since the turn of the century. She started as its Photo Librarian in 1999 at the age of 25, and has served as UNRWA’s Multimedia and Archiving Officer since 2023.

“This archive protects and preserves the heritage of Palestine refugees. It also documents UNRWA’s efforts to provide for refugees since the Nakba right up to today,” said Amani who, like the overwhelming majority of UNRWA’s 30,000 staff, is Palestinian.

“It really tells the story of the UNRWA response on the ground, the different aspects like education, primary healthcare, relief and social services, the microfinance programs, the women’s programs, and all other aspects.”

“In addition, it’s a powerful reminder and witness of this endless tragedy, all those decades, all the historical milestones, from 1948 to 1967 and beyond. It even seems that this tragedy will pass to the next generation,” she said.

The archive contains about half a million audiovisual materials, and its content charts the technological developments of nearly eight decades.

“We have negatives – black and white, and color. We also have slides. We have films. We have video cassettes, both VHS and Umatic. We have everything right up to the latest digital content,” said Amani, who has long been responsible for constantly keeping the archive up to date – experiencing firsthand the evolution of the role of an archivist.

Palestine refugees flee across the Allenby Bridge during the 1967 hostilities. About 400,000 Palestinians fled across the Jordan River to escape the Arab-Israeli conflict. © 1967 UNRWA Archive. Photographer Unknown.


“In the past, we used an old-fashioned camera with plastic roll film. We used to develop the film, make photo prints, and then I, as Photo Librarian, classified the photos according to subject and also according to the area. Then, I typed a caption for each photo, printed it out, and cut and pasted it onto the back of each photo. We’d send the printed photos in an envelope by mail to users. It was a long process – everything was manual,” she said.

Even though that work is now fully digital, the task remains enormous, given the ever-increasing flow of content made possible by technology – notably the ability for anyone to gather high-quality material using a smartphone. Amani is fed content by a network of UNRWA colleagues across the agency’s five fields of operation: Gaza, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

“We enrich it on a monthly basis. There is coordination between me and the other Public Information Officers in the five fields.” Amani asks her colleagues in the fields to select their best photos every month and to upload them to their office’s online photo galleries. She then enters the metadata so that users have each photo’s details and makes them available in the overall UNRWA archive.

The UNRWA archive contains 430,000 negatives, 65,000 slides, 75 films, and 730 video cassettes. Its enormous size makes choosing a favorite image difficult. But Amani rose to the occasion, picking image RL/Tyre/8.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Palestine refugee family in Tyre, Lebanon. © 1982 UNRWA photo by Myrtle Winter Chaumeny.
A Palestine refugee family in Tyre, Lebanon. © 1982 UNRWA photo by Myrtle Winter Chaumeny.

 

She explains the emotional story that it tells: “When you look at the photo, you see challenges in the eyes of the father, and you can feel how the mother is worried about their fate and the future of their daughter, while the daughter’s eyes are saying, ‘I don’t deserve to be a refugee.’ The family was uprooted from home and forced to flee to Lebanon.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Impressively, Amani has managed to keep doing this critical work despite the enormous challenges posed by the war – not only regular internet outages, but also personal stress and the struggle to survive. She epitomizes the courage and commitment displayed by UNRWA’s Gaza staff in the face of the war – at the time of writing, 193 of them have been killed, the highest death toll for UN personnel in the history of the world body.

In the wake of its Memory of the World listing, UNRWA worked with UNESCO, the Palestinian Authority’s diplomats, and the French National Audio-Visual Institute to digitize the archive in its entirety as part of efforts to preserve it.

“In 2013, UNRWA implemented a digitization project for all the material we had in our Gaza and Amman headquarters. We digitized everything,” said Amani.

 

In its first year, UNRWA opened 93 schools across the region with some 35,000 students. Some, as in this picture from a boys’ school in Jalazone refugee camp in the West Bank, were mere schools in the sand. By 1960, education had become the largest of its
In its first year, UNRWA opened 93 schools across the region with some 35,000 students. Some, as in this picture from a boys’ school in Jalazone refugee camp in the West Bank, were mere schools in the sand. By 1960, education had become the largest of its

 

All that remains to be digitized is a separate collection of materials from UNRWA’s Education Department in Amman. It contains around 1,000 video cassettes and other materials, including photos taken for educational purposes. Financial and staffing constraints have meant that digitizing that content has been delayed, and UNRWA has been seeking support to complete it as soon as possible.

Palestine refugee students are receiving school bags on their first day back to school through generous support from the EU. © 2019 UNRWA photo by Khalil Adwan.
Palestine refugee students are receiving school bags on their first day back to school through generous support from the EU. © 2019 UNRWA photo by Khalil Adwan.

 

Making the archive widely available is as essential for UNRWA as preserving it.

“The online archive is available to the public. At the end of the digitization project, UNRWA launched its online photo archive located at unrwa.photoshelter.com. It contains tens of thousands of historical and content photos as well as films. It was launched in September 2016. Since that time, anyone can go online to see what we have there. We started off with only about 2,000 photos, but now we have about 40,000,” said Amani.

Public availability is not just something that matters for its own sake – pictures also tell a story for a cause.

“The archive is an essential tool for communication and fundraising for UNRWA. People want to see more than they want to read,” said Amani, reflecting on how content consumer habits have changed over the years.

UNRWA’s digitized content is stored on dark disks and backed up in the cloud.

“So, everything we have in the archive is safe and secure and preserved for the next generation,” said Amani.

But what about UNRWA’s physical archive amid the war in Gaza? It was located at the agency’s offices in Gaza City, from which staff had to pull out at the start of the war in October. Over 170 UNRWA buildings have been damaged since then. The situation is highly uncertain.

“What is the reality today? The availability and condition of the materials? I don’t have the answer now,” said Amani. “It means a lot to me. What’s happening is beyond our worst fears and imagination, and that includes the fate of the archive.”

 

This item was first published in This Week in Palestine, Click here.