When the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) unveiled ‘The Long Journey’ – a selection of photographs and films from an ongoing project to preserve, protect and digitize the Agency’s massive archives – the date, the setting and the materials themselves, drawn from more than 60 years’ worth of films and photographs, gave guests a stark and powerful reminder of the long and challenging history of Palestine refugees.
The exhibition, hosted by the Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, opened at the foundation’s Tile Factory, in the Old City of Jerusalem. A thorough restoration had preserved the historic character of the building, while complementing it with a modern exhibition space. This marriage of modern and historic provided a perfect setting in which to display pieces drawn from the UNRWA archive. There were digital projections of footage from old reels of film, and light-boxes collecting images of historic events. On every wall, large-scale prints gave new life to photographs capturing moments from each step in the journey of Palestine refugees, and from each place to where that journey has carried them across the region.
Opening the exhibition to guests, including former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad and American Consul General Michael Ratney, Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi noted that the archive recorded the development of photographic and recording technology. More importantly, he emphasized how that technology had been used. With each piece of work, UNRWA photographers and filmmakers bore witness to the individual struggles, challenges and triumphs that, together, form the history of Palestine refugees. The images that previous generations left behind, and that their successors continue to create today, record the importance and the uniqueness of each Palestine refugee – each man, woman and child that UNRWA seeks to support, assist and protect.
The project to protect and preserve the archives was made possible by support from the governments of France and Denmark, as well as the Palestinian private sector. The Gaza digitization project, in which a team of recent graduates scan negatives using state-of-the art equipment, was funded entirely by the Welfare Association through the Palestinian Museum Project. Given the date – on the eve of the thirty-fifth International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People – the Commissioner-General noted the important role that supporters from the around the world had played in supporting the Agency and the Palestine refugees. Despite increasing changes all over the world, they continued to provide invaluable support.
The evening’s keynote address was given by Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, who noted the important memory that the collection represented – fittingly, for an archive inscribed by UNESCO on the Memory of the World register. Displaying these images in Jerusalem, to an audience of Palestinians and foreigners, diplomats and businesspeople and individuals, she said, made undeniable the continuity of the Palestinian people – their heritage and history, their memory and their future, and their journey, on which UNRWA had been a steadfast companion.