A woman walks alone past bombed-out windowless buildings in Gaza, black high heels on gray rubble. This image of life during conflict was one of several captured by a young Palestinian photojournalist in May.
The striking set of images has earned Fatima Shbair the 2021 Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award, bestowed by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).
At 24, Shbair is the youngest journalist to be awarded the honor, which was named for a German Associated Press photographer who was killed in 2014 while on assignment in Afghanistan.
Shbair’s photos center on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in May 2021. More than 200 people, including dozens of children, died during the 11 days of fighting. The United Nations said at the time that the Israeli airstrikes might constitute a war crime, and it also condemned tactics used by Hamas.
Shbair, who lives in Gaza City, said that when the airstrikes began, she picked up her camera and continued doing her job: documenting daily life.
“As photojournalists, it’s our job to focus on the little details that might not be apparent for anyone outside the city,” she told VOA.
Shbair documented everything she saw, including scenes of mourning and commutes across the city, in her poignant photo essay “11 Days of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
“Everything happening there deserved to be documented. It doesn’t matter how dangerous it is,” she told VOA.
Judges praise work
The body of work, shot under tough conditions, caught the attention of the IWMF judges.
Members of the judging committee “were really impressed with how she captured these incredibly beautiful images among the wreckage of an ongoing bombardment that she was also living through herself,” Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the IWMF, told VOA.
“The fact that she was part of this conflict and really trying to survive as a civilian, in addition to trying to survive as a photojournalist, was pretty telling,” Muñoz said.
Shbair studied journalism in college but taught herself photography while documenting what she calls “different” daily life in Gaza in 2019. By 2020, she was working as a freelancer and selling images to international agencies such as Getty Images.
But the conflict this May presented new challenges.
“I left my home and my family for 11 days. I went directly into the field, moving from one office to another,” she said. “I just stayed there in the streets, running toward what was happening. It was not easy, but in some way, I did it.”
The IWMF’s annual award recognizes photography that inspires viewers or helps them better understand the world. Each awardee is given $20,000 and has her work showcased.
Honorable mentions this year were given to Kiana Hayeri, an Iranian Canadian photojournalist based in Afghanistan since 2013, and Adriana Zehbrauskas, a Brazilian documentary photojournalist who covers immigration and the drug trade across borders with Mexico.
On Thursday, one day after she was named an awardee, Hayeri posted a humble thank you on Instagram, alongside a photo of an older Afghan woman taken in April.
“As I’m posting this, I’m sitting at my gate, waiting to catch one last plane to go back to #Kabul with a chest filled with contrasting feelings,” Hayeri wrote.
The award’s namesake, Niedringhaus, also extensively covered events in Afghanistan. She was the recipient of a separate IWMF Courage in Journalism Award in 2005, the same year her team won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the war in Iraq.
“(Niedringhaus) is among us with her images,” 2021 awardee Shbair said. “Despite all difficulties, I hope that we will be efficient in continuing her journey to always highlight the truth.”