our last full day in leh coincided with al quds day, which falls on the last friday of ramadan. al quds day originated in iran in 1979, and its proponents hold demonstrations to show solidarity with the palestinians. naturally, a protest in favor of the palestinian people wouldn’t be complete without anti-israel and anti-america rhetoric and signs.
i came across the children first. they were sitting in neat lines behind a banner that read “we must all rise, destroy israel and replace it with the heroic palestinian nation.” some of them carried their signs with conviction while others looked like they were dutifully attending a school field trip. a few of the boys acted embarrassed when i raised the camera, so i decided to tease them: “if you’re going to carry the sign, be proud of what it says. don’t hide behind it.” a few of the girls sitting near me quietly called across, “yes, don’t hide, be proud.” it probably wasn’t the most politic thing i’ve ever done, but i was annoyed by my suspicion that at least 20 percent of the kids in the demonstration couldn’t have cared either way about the palestinians.
the adults – overwhelmingly men, of course – seemed committed to the cause, yelling along with the megaphones and raising their fists. a small number smiled for my camera as they passed, but the majority either ignored me or looked warily. (by contrast, when i photographed political marches in tirana, the demonstrators threw themselves in front of my lens with huge grins and thumbs up.) the women who watched from the sidewalks and balconies, on the other hand, regarded the whole thing in relative silence.
there was a significant police presence, so i felt no sense of danger, although i did get the sense that if i’d identified myself as american and jewish(ish), it wouldn’t have earned me any brownie points. there was something thrilling about the experience, although it wasn’t a fun thrill – more of a sense that this was real work in real time, and i had to move fast. in terms of the mechanism of photography itself, i used only two lenses – a 35mm and an 85mm – and there is something liberating about going old school and not worrying about how far to twist the zoom, but the accompanying challenge was to frame the shot with a fixed focal length. picking the right depth of field wasn’t always easy, either, and half the time everything was on manual. i’m not ready to go to aleppo yet, but it beat shooting conferences for usaid.