ETHS: Matthew Cassel, photo journalist
Photo journalist and foreign correspondent
Interview November 17, 2010
Matthew Cassel, photo journalist and foreign correspondent.
“I went to the West Bank, to Palestine, for the first time in 2003. I went with a delegation to see what was going on in 2003, and that lasted a few weeks. I came back to the States, continued my studies at Columbia College, and then a year later I went and lived in the West Bank for a year from 2004 to 2005, and then again in 2006. I moved to Lebanon after I lived in Palestine for a year and a half.”
Some people I’m interviewing here are doing exactly what they were doing in high school, but the next level. Some people are doing things that are totally different. You seem like a person, just having known you in high school and following you now, who’s gone through a certain transformation, I’ll say.
That was September 11th, just so you know. That was the period in which I became politicized, you can say.
In 2001, when September 11th happened, I was in Iowa. I’m from Chicago and Evanston, and Iowa’s a different place, the first place I heard a white person use the word “nigger” really. But 2001 happened, and 9/11, and I noticed how everyone around me in my classes, or in town, became very closed. We all put up the American flag to show our patriotism. We all stood behind our government. People were frightened to ask questions or think differently, whereas I naturally felt questions arising in my head. “Why would anyone” – and I was quite naïve then – “why would anyone want to wage such an attack against this freedom-loving, democratic country in which I grew up?”
That event really triggered a process in my head of asking a lot of questions about what was going on, inside the country and around the world. One thing led to another, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and I became – you know, without even knowing why at first – I became opposed to these wars because I don’t feel like war is a justifiable solution to things like this. I began to learn a lot more about the world, about the Middle East, and Palestine.
When I went through my first check point into the occupied West Bank in Jerusalem, I was so naïve. I really didn’t understand who were the Israelis, who were the Palestinians, what was happening there exactly, what the check point was even. All I remember was seeing the guns, the soldiers, the barbed wire, the fencing, and the people, the lines of people queued up to pass through the check points. I began to see everything around me in snapshots, like the pictures of the different injustices and wars that I mentioned earlier. It was all a bit strange. A bit surreal. I couldn’t help associate what I was standing in with the images from Vietnam, from even World War II, from the civil rights movement.
As I passed through that check point – my friend grabbed me and pulled me through it – I looked back and noticed one major difference at that moment from the pictures I remember growing up. During World War II, Jews had the Star of David painted onto the sleeve of their coat jackets or whatever it was, and here the Star of David was again present, except it wasn’t on the people waiting in the lines with the same kind of expressions on their faces. Instead, the Star of David was hanging on a flag above the check point. The roles were completely reversed. In that moment, my entire world flipped upside down, and I realized that a lot of things I had grown up thinking weren’t true, or that things weren’t the way I thought they were. And that began a process of really digging deeper and really going after information to correct whatever image I had in my head of the world and Middle East.
I returned to Chicago, and did some events. That was when I was pretty active opposing the war in Iraq. I started to talk to people in my own community, my own family, my college, being Columbia College in Chicago, about what was happening, and I realized I didn’t know enough to really talk about it from a position of someone who can discuss what they’ve seen and what they’ve experienced. I decided I needed to go back and spend more time. Which I did a year later.
I spent a year there. I picked up a lot of the language, I learned a lot of the culture, and I witnessed and experienced a portion of what Palestinians living under occupation have to deal with on a daily basis. That enabled me then to write about it, to take pictures of the situation, and bring that stuff back to the States, to show my friends, my family, my community, so they could have a better idea of what was happening.
I love when I first go to a place, because everything’s so new. You take pictures of things you wouldn’t take pictures of necessarily if you’ve become settled. I wasn’t really taking them with any objective in mind. But I was taking photographs. I like taking photographs. I’ve always done that, since I was a kid even. I did that in high school. When I brought the pictures back and developed them – we still shot film, at that time. (Laughs.) Man, old – when I brought the pictures back and showed them to people, I realized that they were really interested in the pictures and the things that I saw.
They began to ask a lot of questions, and I was like, “That’s great,” you know? That’s exactly what pictures did to me, and that’s exactly what I think pictures should do. They should trigger questions and thinking and discussions. And because of the response from people who saw my work, especially a lot of friends and classmates, I felt like I wanted to continue it further. And that’s what I did.
Wherever I go, whatever I learn, whatever I see, I bring my camera with me. Part of that is not only for others to see what I’m seeing and get a different perspective, but also it’s pretty interesting for me to go back to my pictures. They are a record of the things I’ve seen and the places I’ve been. Even as I’m writing this book, it’s nice to go back to photographs that I took that I haven’t seen in a while to be like, “Wow, I saw that,” you know? Or “That was my friend” or “I felt that way.” It recalls those feelings I had in my head at that time when I took the photograph. I think the two – me learning about the world, and me taking pictures of it as I do that – the two go hand in hand.
Evanston is an interesting place. It’s special, you know? We grow up in a community that’s extremely diverse in terms of class, religion, race and what not. I never really grew up thinking, “Oh, this is a black person, or this is a Jew, a Christian, Muslim” whatever, or “this guy’s rich and this one’s poor.” A lot of my friends from Evanston and from ETHS are the same way. We’re all pretty open minded, willing to accept or tolerate or listen to others’ points of view.
It was a great education system. I think there were a few teachers in particular – Mr. Mitchell, famous English teacher at ETHS – I don’t know if he’s still there or not – but people like him, that really taught me a lot, shaped me and gave us motivation – my class, and other students – to pursue our dreams and be brave and speak out and write about and do whatever it is that we believe in.
I had it pretty good throughout high school, and I really didn’t care much about my studies or academia. I did well on my SATs and ACTs, and I had a relatively average GPA. I had my second half of the day free second semester senior year, I remember.
If there’s one thing I do recall, it’s that I did a lot of quote, unquote “bad things” in Evanston. Stuff that my friends, that people around me were not doing to the extent that I was, and who were being put into the alternative school, or getting suspended, or getting expelled. And I noticed that. I noticed that a lot of my friends who were doing that were from a working class background, especially black backgrounds in Chicago. And that was something that bothered me. I had meetings set up with the administration, and they were trying their best to keep me in that track to see that I would graduate high school and go onto college. And I didn’t feel that such a system was in place for – or that the system tried that hard for – my, to put it bluntly, my black friends who were from a bit more of the working class background. Before I was even politicized, I noticed that process was happening. I was surprised that I was kept in school, and others weren’t. (Reserved laugh.)
If you would have told me ten years ago that I would be, you know, speaking Arabic and living in the Middle East for an extended period of time, I would have been like, “Get the hell out of here.” (Laughs.) It’s been an organic experience that high school and other events prepared me for. Where will I be? I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing. I’m not doing it because I necessarily love journalism or writing. I’m doing it because I feel like there’s a void, and there’s a gap in the coverage on the reporting on this region, on the Middle East, that people outside aren’t able then to understand it. I’m trying just to put another viewpoint out there, the one that I see, as other journalists are putting their viewpoint out there.
I’m going to continue taking pictures and continue writing, especially as I understand more about the politics, more about the culture, more about the language and all that. I’m sure I’ll be doing something associated with the region ten years from now. Hopefully still taking pictures and writing, if it all goes well.
Jack M Silverstein is a freelance writer covering music, sports, and community in Chicago. His first book, “Our President,” is available at Amazon.com. Say hey at twitter/readjack, facebook/readjack, and find more of his work at ReadJack.com.
Check out Matt’s remarkable photography at justimage.org.