I can't really think of the moment I started being interested with maps. It was partly incidental, because my background is in Arts and Visual Anthropology and I'm very much preoccupied with issues relating to the urban space in Jerusalem. I grew up there and the place shaped my way of thinking and doing. So I think mapping was a tool that connected art, activism and the particular geography I'm working in, and it allowed me to think about how to connect peoples' stories and places in an interesting way.
I think it was as a continuation of what I did in the gallery. One of the things that started to bother me the most was the separation. But it's not only the top-down separation, it's also the separation that comes from below. It's the fact that you feel that even if you have an encounter, there are so many things in the way, and the fact that we are not equal is depriving us of the ability to actually do something good together. I was looking for a way to have a different kind of encounter or use a different kind of language, a way to bypass some of the barriers. For me photography, video, sound, all kinds of art practices, were a good way to avoid getting stuck on the stagnant politics and start to think about how we could communicate in different ways. I was starting to think about doing all kinds of projects with youth in East and West Jerusalem. And I started thinking about also using the internet, to upload material, exposing it to both sides as a first encounter, without having to meet. This is how I started to think about maps, as a way to place things geographically and create virtual relations between various representations that people make in the city. I was working in an art and media centre in Jerusalem,and we started by working with groups of kids, placing their videos on a map.
So I started working on this educational programme, which included ten workshops that aimed at introducing maps, and mapping in a more experiential way. It was more about experiencing a map, rather than learning the scientific side. We were thinking about ways to draw maps, walking in the streets and drawing the maps. We developed this game with colour sensors in which you use your body movements to navigate through Google Earth, which is screened on the wall. It was turning the kids into satellites, hovering above the globe, experiencing this power in an imaginative and playful way.
And then I got to know Jeffrey Warren from the Public Lab , and started to learn about the methods they develop for 'do-it-yourself' aerial photography. It really fascinated me and I wanted to get to learn more about what they do, so I invited him to come to Jerusalem and we did some workshops together. Since then I have been developing my work around these techniques and methods with the support of the Public Lab and the open source community.
It started with a long e-mail correspondence with Jeffrey about what we could do, and that is how it developed. I wasn't very technologically oriented and I didn’t really feel very comfortable in that environment. But through my conversations with him I understood that he could be interested in the same things that I'm interested in. We started thinking about holding an educational workshop and thought about all kinds of outcomes and map formats that we could create out of it.
I made connections with people in Jerusalem and we started to work with a group of Palestinian activists in the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem, as well as another group of residents in Ein Karen, West Jerusalem, who struggle against municipal plans to privatise, commercialise and rebuild large areas in Ein Karem (which was also a Palestinian village pre-1948). Ein Karem is one of these places where the Palestinian village was preserved almost entirely. Although their rhetoric is very different, practically what the Jewish residents are fighting for is the preservation of the Palestinian landscape and architecture. So these were very diverse and disconnected communities that we started working with.
I think the best way to answer this is from a biographical perspective, because I was never a science and technology girl, and here I am spending most of my time on producing high quality aerial photography for environmental and urban investigation and advocacy. So the question is how did that happen? Since the first workshops we did with Jeff Warren, over the past two years I got to know Public Lab's open source community. From them I learned the tools and methods for collaborative map making. And I think that it's not only that I got to know about the tools, I also got to know their way of working together and the ways by which they expand their peer community . That really blew my mind, in terms of what you can do as an activist when you connect to online infrastructures for sharing, collaborating and learning.
It's not only about working with this local NGO and creating this or that project with your local networks and perspectives. It's about putting yourself, your work and the issues you look at in a global perspective. It means learning from other activists and community organisers in other parts of the world, their methods, their experiences. You are exposed to the issues they deal with in their localities from a very nuanced perspective – it's something you won't find in the news. You find similarities and differences with what you do and you create a new perspective on your own experience, in relation to other things that happen in the world. It's creating a larger community, building a wider context for your own work. I found a lot of support from practitioners on the mailing lists, and in the long run I have also found that my work is contributing to the community, in bringing a different perspective on the use of the Public Lab's methods and tools. Today I feel these past two-and-a-half years been a life changing experience.
Public Lab's practitioners are working on different issues around the world, and they also come from different backgrounds and bring different expertise. Although I don't come from the scientific, technological world, they see me as equal contributor in their community. It is still a great learning experience - not only of how I can learn stuff from them, but how I can contribute and bring my own perspective. How it is relevant for developing technology and developing human connections. This for me is still one of the most empowering, inspiring ways of doing stuff and creating change in a very deep way - not only political change, but changes in the way we understand relationships between ourselves, and our relations with the environment we live in.
Yes. It was very immediate and intuitive at the same time. A friend of mine Shai Efrati, who is actually a cartographer, thought I'd be interested so he mentioned Jeffrey and his work to me and then I looked at the website and was really excited about it. I don't think I realised what they were actually doing when I was browsing the site. It looked really exciting because they used balloons and kites and they created these amazing visual representations of places. It fascinated me but I don’t think I really went deep into what they were doing. I always need to experience things in order to understand them . It was exciting to see it and I decided that it was so relevant to what I was looking for - the connections between photography, its interpretative potential and mapping. It brought together photography and mapping in such a beautiful way that it didn’t really interest me to understand the details, I just wanted him to come here and to do it with us and then to see how to continue from there.
And that is what we did... The first time we did it, it was obvious to me why it was both political and personally exciting. It was first a great experience of building something, creating an instrument, a tool with your own hands, with very simple objects we had found and recycling and things like that. And then succeeding to create these photographs from the sky and stitching them together , distorting them and manipulating the image in such a way that would create what is considered to be an objective image... You suddenly realise how it works, and how aerial images are manipulated. The hands-on experience of it, and the fact that you're actually doing it manually, is something I think is very powerful.
No. I learnt that through the process - all these methods of censorship that we don't really see and don't really realise are there. The fact that Google is showing only low-resolution images of Israel is something that I realised by learning the process of creating high resolution photography. And I did not mean to do anything illegal, that really didn’t interest me. I have the privilege of not thinking about it because I'm not afraid of the authorities, using my common sense I know I am not doing anything illegal. I'm taking photographs and I'm taking these photographs from the air, and I'm not looking to put anyone in danger or anything like that, it's not my aim.
I wasn't thinking about whether it's legal or not legal. The first time I thought about it was when I was about to put at risk other people, Palestinian people that I worked with in Silwan. They are in a much more fragile situation than I am. And, especially because we're doing aerial photography in their village and this is a highly militarised area, there is a high chance that authorities would notice some activity that would look a bit strange or even just pass through and say “what's going on here?”, that they could see cameras and stop us. Or that when they realise what we're doing they might go and search houses, thinking that we are collecting all kinds of state secrets by mapping the army activity in the area or something like that. I realised that very late actually, but early enough to talk to the people that I was working with and tell them that I'm not willing to take responsibility for this risk , especially because we were about to do this workshop with children and I wanted to be sure they are all aware of all the risks associated with this activity. I was willing to support their decision if they decided to do it, but I was not willing to decide to take this risk for them. And they said “let's do it”. They were all for it, and we did it.
Of course nothing happened, but the funny thing is that in places like that, that are very much controlled, where there is poverty, no public or educational infrastructures, and kids are on the streets all the time, you always see kites in the sky. So it was funny because we were really afraid of the kites or the balloon attracting attention, but actually when we went there we saw lots of them in the sky. It was a big relief. And it was a lot of fun - the minute we took out the kite, and our kite was so big and red, other kids from the neighbourhood joined the kids that we were working with. And these kids have been flying kites since they were three, or something like that, so flying a kite is in their body. It's like riding a bicycle. I didn't do it when I was a kid so I'm not very good at it, not very good at all, although I am getting better... But they were just amazing - there was hardly any wind and that was the highest aerial photography that I have done with residents anywhere until today because they were just going crazy about it. “Just let it go, let it go, let it go” and knowing that they control this relation between themselves and the wind and the string. It’s amazing to see.
Well, the interesting part is that it's not only what we can't see, but also the fact that we can't see what we can't see. It's not just something that is missing. You know, we think we see it all, but actually we don't. The military censorship in Israel aims to censor all aerial photography made by Israeli companies. They just delete things, pixelate or clone areas using PhotoShop so it might look like you see a physical reality, but it's actually a doubly fake representation. First it is a representation so it must hide something, second it hides the fact that it hides.
It's incredible when you think of how we approach aerial photography as a very scientific representation. We approach it as “this is what it is” and we don’t really question what this image is. In Israel censorship is a very interesting mechanism. Aerial photography is obviously being censored by the military. The thing is that the companies that produce aerial photographs need to get the information from the Army in order to know what to censor. But the military censorship will not give them the layers of data that expose all this information because it's secret information. So it's a very decentralised system in a way, and some of these people are doing it independently. So there are a lot of discrepancies and you can find places that are censored in one photograph in one year, and in the next year they are not censored. It makes us question the whole credibility of the need for censorship and how this authoritative mechanism works. There are a lot of questions like “Oh, why would you do aerial photography in Israel? You're going to put your country at risk”. But in fact it's a lot more arbitrary than we think. The whole system is man-made and full of holes. It’s just like what I said before about the bureaucratic system.
When you realise how the censorship is working in aerial photography and you expose the fact that these are manipulated images, we challenge our perception of aerial photography or satellite imagery as objective and of scientific value, and remind ourselves that this is a manipulated image. The thing is that we already know that photography and photographs are manipulations. We don’t examine the credibility of a photograph by looking at its content, at the image. When we look at photos we ask ourselves who did it, why, when it was taken and how it was created, thinking about the metadata of the photograph. It’s something that we hardly do when we look at aerial photography.
So we begin this process of critical thinking about photography and the way we use photographs; how we can manipulate perception by using photographs, how we build our own identities using photographs, how we can assert all kinds of claims and bring evidence and bring counter-evidence using photographs, even by using the same photographs and interpreting them differently. We do that very well but it seems like that critical thinking ends at a certain point. And when we look at aerial photography it disappears in many ways. We don't have the skills and experience to develop this critical thinking - with photography we do, because we're all photographers, we're all being photographed and we’re using photography in every aspect of our lives. So the question is how can these new tools for independently creating aerial photography to change our perception?
I think it is bound to create some kind of change in our ability to develop critical thinking when we look at these authoritative representations that are shown to us and that are so convincing. We distinguish between the sky and the earth, but there is no separation. And the fact that there is that separation is a signal of authority. The sky is basically an unobstructed state power, and the ability of residents to inspect, monitor and use this resource also changes the well established metaphor of “bottom up, top down”. The state hovers above us while we are here in the bottom – we are questioning these established separations and power relations.
You know, there's a very much accepted dichotomy between the view from above our heads, one of control and power, and the view from the street, which is a chaotic one with lots of limits and barriers. But when you are able to use this technology, and collaboratively and openly take photographs from above while you are on the ground, you change the meaning of this power to observe from the sky. It is no longer the all-encompassing view that seeks to control things and grasp them in their entirety, an abstraction. Using these technologies this view can become a social practice that allows people to organise and work on shared concerns, to learn new skills and engage with technology, creating all kinds of different collaborations between different people with different expertise. I think this is the most important change these kind of practices would bring... are already bringing.
I think my work with information is two-sided. On the one hand, it's about producing independent information - geographic information. On the other hand it's about creating new ways to imagine the geography, to visualise the geography and the social space in new ways that were not previously available to people. And this new ability to create images from above our neighbourhood, of the area where we live, is an amazing opportunity to develop a bird's eye imagination connecting people and places.Hagit and Jeff Warren's DIY aerial photography of a protest in Sheikh Jarrah
So I think for me, the connection between information and activism is partly about collecting independent information. But it's not only about the information itself, but the process and how we create different kind of collaborations that were not happening before for different reasons. And I think that in the Palestinian-Israeli situation, in which people are so separated and there's so many obstacles along the way, the ideas and practices of open-source technology provide an amazing infrastructure for directly and indirectly learning about each other, sharing information and knowledge, and even collaborating and working together.
Right from the beginning when the state of Israel was established, mapping has been a really powerful tool in basically erasing Palestinian presence and identity from the land. And it still is. Although there are other narratives and counter-mapping, the dominant, everyday way of understanding the space is through institutional, state-based mapping. I don't think that at the moment, collaborative grass-roots mapping will change this. It's not an alternative. It's not something that tries to substitute, but it tries to create another arena.
So in East Jerusalem, in Palestinian neighbourhoods, there are hardly any Palestinian street names. And in the most contested areas, like Silwan and the Old City, there are Jewish names that are being asserted by settlers that take over property and live there. And there is a fight over how we name and how we signify space. The power and the resources that the state of Israel has been investing in creating and normalising this situation, in which the Palestinian presence and identity is erased from the land, did not help to erase it. It created generations and generations of refugees and displaced people living abroad and inside Israel - their home village is here and they might be living half an hour drive from it - not being able to return to it.
And so, like Bedouin communities in the south of Israel, and other communities not recognised by states, Palestinians in East Jerusalem that want to build and grow in their areas are not getting the opportunity to do so. It's as if the state of Israel is afraid that if it gives permits or recognises a village, it will be a precedent for the return of millions of Palestinian refugees into the Israeli space. But these are two separate issues. Without getting into the issue of the return of Palestinian refugees, which is important and can be transformative in itself, the Palestinians and the Bedouins are already here, they have the right to live in dignity in their own space, and there is no reason to deny them that. By mapping with inhabitants issues that concern them, we use the maps as tools to assert these civil and political claims. So it's not only about visualising the hardcore geographic information, it's also about learning the different narratives that construct the Palestinian-Israeli space and inventing tools for imagining a shared life in this place.
There are several dimensions to this mapping work in our local context. Firstly it is about mapping the erased past, secondly it is mapping the present by engaging with burning issues for its inhabitants, and thirdly it's about thinking how we can imagine this geography in the future. It can be a tool for imagining how a scenario such as return of Palestinian refugee can look in the future, and in practice. Planners use map scenarios to plan a change in a space and by visualising this kind of future, they practically bring it closer to reality.
That's very accurate, and indeed an ambitious practice... I stand behind this description of prototyping the geographical imaginary only because it is not “me” that is doing this, but a whole movement that seeks to create change in this direction. I think it generally has more to do more in general with the political potential of open-source technology and the collaborative, social practices it entails and encourages. It reshapes our perception of space and our relations with each other.
On a personal note, as an Israeli living in Jerusalem for most of my life one of the most disturbing issues is that of separation. So developing ways to collaboratively create information and produce visualisations of the geography through storytelling is for me a tool for connecting. The most important way to think about it is to bypass the “no encounter” situation between people. Then it's about sharing knowledge and defying dominant narratives that come from our education and control the way we think, the way we perceive others and the way we understand the spaces we live in - where we can go, where we can't go, where we should be afraid, and where we should feel comfortable.
Local-scale aerial photography is obviously not substituting other forms of aerial photography and satellite photography, but it's creating the ability for producing small data in a world of big data, and seeing how this small data can effect and create change on specific issues.
I think one of the biggest challenges is that information and documentation is never neutral. So how do you work with its politics? I think the greatest challenge is entering into a process not only a process of learning, but also of un-learning. And working together with people I think is the basis of everything, because the strongest barrier is separation. When politicians make us think in a certain way and make us act in a certain way, that kind of perpetuates that conflict.
In order to collaborate you really have to take a step back before you bring your own knowledge, your own thinking on how things should be done, how things should be presented. What is true and what is wrong. It's a very abstract way of thinking, but it's very important. It's like a little reminder that I take with me every time I meet people and I sit with them and we try to plan what we're going to do with the images. How we're going to use them, why we're doing it. If you take this little reminder and you put it on your tongue before you say something, this is the only way to open things up, and let things happen in the right way, not only for me but also for the person I'm working with. And more than that, being quiet, not taking the lead, helps to reveal other ways of understanding the same situation, things that she or he is not really talking about. But you can get that by letting things happen instead of pushing things forward in what seems to you the right direction.
Both with the collaborative map making work and my previous work in the archive, it is mainly a concern about building hope without really being able to create change. Especially because I am coming from a more privileged part of the area, my civil rights are normally respected, so I take fewer risks. If I collaborate with others who are more vulnerable, there is a good chance that what we do will create hopes of real change. Often it doesn't really happen. So there's also a very difficult balance to keep between raising hopes and creating relationships.
Doing aerial photography is using natural resources, and it's interesting to see how using natural resources stresses the inequality between people in a conflict zone, and challenges it. Because when I want to take a balloon or a kite, fly it, and take photographs, I don't have to think twice about it. I just do it. But when Palestinians do it in East Jerusalem they have to take a lot of considerations into account, including the fact that the authorities might think it is suspicious, might arrest people, or search in their houses.
Obviously, we're not collecting any secrets - we are documenting and visualising the environment we live in, and this should be free for anyone who wants to do so. The geography is ours. We can fly a kite and we can take photographs, and it's really not about spying on army bases in the area or anything like that. It's about civil issues mostly, what I am looking at. What's really interesting firstly is the fact that Palestinians want to take those risks, I think that our common sense tells us that we are entitled to use tools that allow us to reappropriate the aerial perspective. Also I feel like there's a certain sense of sharing rights - if we do it together, it's more reasonable for them to do it. And I kind of share the privileges I have by collaborating, and doing it, and making it happen. Making it possible.
I think the core element is creating tools that are easy to use, cheap, affordable and fun. A lot of cutting and pasting and work that allows different kind of audiences and participants to take part. I think it's really, really important that it's very accessible in so many different ways. Because even if you don't really create straightforward political change, you're creating a certain change in perception through developing new skills, concepts and attitudes.
Before, you needed to use planes or very expensive cameras, but now you can take everyday materials - the old digital camera you have at home and a plastic bottle, cut it into half, create a small wing out of the other half, hang the camera in the air and take amazing photographs. Then using a web-based application (which you don't even have to buy or install on your computer) you can create an amazing map out of your images that has geographic information embedded and it's a professional result that you can use in many different ways. That part is really amazing. People get a lot out of this process of creating tools through processes of reuse, recycle and hacking on consumer technology.
First I should emphasise that this way of using the Internet – for sharing knowledge, giving feedback, learning from other people through mailing lists, posts and websites – is not an accessible way of working for everyone. The people I'm working with, both Israelis and Palestinians, are not communicating very much through these kind of tools. They might be interested in the technology and the results it brings, but they're not necessarily interested in the whole process around it. Even though that's the most important part,and it is very easy to understand that if the whole process of sharing and collaborating was not there, they would not have had the opportunity to learn about these tools. That tension is something that I'm trying to figure out how to work with - the question of how to implement in a local context the ideas and practices that make open source technology.But I also got to think that as you do it you plant the seeds for it to grow and have a life without you.
We also need to distinguish between open technology and open data, especially when implementing open-source technology in work with disadvantaged, excluded communities. For example, although the people I worked with in Silwan were really interested in using open tech for creating their own independent aerial photography, it wasn't clear whether it was safe for them to publish the images on the web. The political sensitivities did not allow them to create open data out of it, because of exposing illegal building and all kinds of stuff like that. So they used open technology and got to know the whole process around it, but they didn't have to open source or even publish their geo-spatial information.
It's less of a concern. As I said before, the people who I'm working with are not using the internet's possibilities. But it's definitely an ethical concern regarding how I use and distribute this information. The decision to expose any kind of information that we create is always a collaborative process. I never use information without having permission from the people I work with.
I don't really know where it will go. Jerusalem is so intense, in terms of the multiplicity and diversity of issues and concerns raised by its inhabitants, so it's a really interesting place to work. I meet more and more people who are getting this shining in their eyes when I describe the possibility of creating aerial photography independently, The motivations for doing it vary, but one thing that connects all the people I've worked with is the fascination with activism that incorporates playfulness, outdoor activity and the simple fun of flying a kite or a balloon. It might sound funny, but I see this shining in people's eyes as indication for an imagination we share in a very unmediated way. If to try and describe it, I think it is that suddenly in a very tangible way one can imagine a powerful inversion of power relations. Just by looking at these high quality aerial photographs made by kids and activists on the ground and their wonderfully awkward shapes.
I think it is significant because it's a totally different approach. If you think about being successful in any terms, on one hand, as I mentioned earlier, you're raising certain hopes that may not be met; on the other hand, you're questioning and challenging the bigger scheme of how things work. It doesn't mean that you have to be “big” to be successful, or significant. My work is taking it bit by bit, and I see how these practices are spreading around me and are glittering in the eyes of more and more people. That's what moves me forward.
So, I have this dream, or imagination, of kind of open sourcing Jerusalem. But that could mean so many things. Mainly, it is about open sourcing geographic and spatial information, the way it is produced, represented, used and distributed. And by collaboratively creating the images of the city, it's a hanging question, what kind of city we'll be making.
On a more concrete level, it means challenging censorship and control over access to high resolution aerial photography. You know, due to an agreement between Israel and the US government, Google only shows aerial photography with a resolution of two metres per pixel, and we create aerial photography that shows an average of five centimetres per pixel. So what's the legal status of this kind of work? And how can it affect the power of censorship, and why do we so naturally accept the fact that there is censorship, and that there should be censorship.
When we talk of creating aerial photography with Palestinians (and Israelis, but this is less of an issue) , some people might say that creating high resolution aerial photography is a security threat to Israel, because aerial and satellite images are usually censored by the Israeli Military Censorship. So before I answer this I stress that one needs to separate between satellite/aerial photography created commercially and institutionally and 'do-it-yourself', community-based aerial photography. The latter should not be understood as equal to, or as a substitute for the former. DIY aerial images and maps are small scale, for collecting and creating 'small data' for community needs, such as advocacy and storytelling in human-environmental investigations.Stitched and annotated map of Silwan
As for censorship in aerial photography, control over the production of geographic data is becoming more and more problematic. Google Maps presents very poor visibility of Israel's territories, but there are over 50 countries that have launched satellites into space and there is little Israel can do to hermetically control this information and stop it from falling into the wrong hands.
Also, as I mentioned before, the Israeli security apparatus which controls the information about censored places in Israel is not giving these layers of information to the commercial companies that produce aerial photographies, as this might result in a leak of information. Each company censors its own aerial photographs and as a result, you can find many discrepancies in censorship. Some places are censored by one company, while a different company might not censor the same places. The same company might censor this and that one year, and the next year the same places would be uncensored. Some places that shouldn't be censored like Israeli settlements in the west bank can be found censored. So while we think of censorship as a coherent, authoritative and hierarchical mechanism, in practice it is distributed, de-centralized and sometimes chaotic.
That is probably an inevitable outcome of the massive amount of information produced today, which is becoming more and more problematic to control as well as to process. So yes, there are different and multiple paths for getting geographic information which Israel prefers to keep as a secret. If communities are able to produce high quality aerial photography with resolution ranging from 3 centimetres-per-pixel, it can only benefit the relations between peoples and governments, as it is a wonderful tool for documenting and creating local knowledge, which is incredibly valuable for planning sustainable environments and societies.