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Photographing Israel and the West Bank

“This place” is a large format photobook (32.00 x 30.00 cm) with work by twelve contemporary photographers, taken between 2009 and 2012.

 

Frédéric Brenner The Aslan Levi Family © Frédéric Brenner, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

Sean Sheehan

 

Frédéric Brenner, who succeeded in getting the project up and running, states his intention in the book’s introduction: to provide a ‘visual counterargument to prevailing, often polarized, representations’ of Israel and the West Bank.

It is not obvious to what extent the twelve photographers shared this idealistic aspiration. The situation is such a starkly polarized one, per se, that one struggles to think what a counterargument could consist of.

The photographers, none of whom are Israeli or Palestinian nationals, were not constrained by any brief that might influence their work. Some of them were understandably wary of being granted such license. Would they really be free to choose what to photograph? One of the twelve, Wendy Ewald, worked collaboratively by giving cameras to groups of people to take their own pictures.

Not surprisingly, deep divisions come to the fore: a Palestinian crowd waiting to receive their relatives outside a prison in Jamila; settlers in East Jerusalem with a surveillance monitor in their living room for exterior cameras.

Landscapes by Czech photographer Josef Koudelka reiterate the deep divisions of disputed land. He speaks of the wall being built by Israel in the West Bank as ‘a crime against the landscape’ and his monochrome shots bear this out with startling immediacy. His pictures show such fractured topographies as to suggest a place of ontological incompleteness.

35. Route 60, Beit Jala, Bethlehem area. Specially designed concrete slabs were incorporated into the Wall along major transport routes such as Road 60 to prevent potential attacks. (Route 60-see Lexicon)

In one of his more forbidding shots, looking across to Al ‘Eizariya (Bethany) in East Jerusalem from behind rolls of barbed wire, part of the defensive barrier  is shown close up, revealing each  razor-sharp spike of the wire.

In another of Koudelka’s photographs, hostility writes itself into the landscape in the form of nine-metre-high concrete slabs winding around Shu’fat refugee camp in northeastern Jerusalem like an uncoiling snake. The armoured vehicles, barbed wire and concrete walls exist alongside a human landscape and many of the contributors focus on people.

Thomas Struth photographs a Jewish family on the steps of their home and the brothers of a Bedouin tribe inside a tent in Negev. Frédéric Brenner, under the title of an “Archeology of fear and desire”, includes pictures of individuals, couples, families and groups that together make up the fragmented society of Israel and the West Bank.

In the foreground of Stephen Shore’s photograph of a large crater in the Negev desert we see a solitary abandoned vehicle.

Shore, Stephen, Large Crater, Negev Desert, 2009

At a glance, it is hardly noticeable because its light colour blends in with the wide expanse of sandy rubble that dwarfs it. The pictorial clouding encapsulates the difficulty of providing a “visual counterargument to prevailing, often polarized, representations” of Israel and the West Bank.

Contested territory is traversed by a radical antagonism that makes the task close to impossible and the only common ground that does exist is summed up by the graffiti that Josef Koudelka noticed on a wall: “One wall, two prisons”.

“This place” is published by Haje Cantz.

(Photos supplied by the publisher)

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