A major new exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art gives Israelis and Palestinians a look at where they live through the eyes of 12 acclaimed photographers, all of whom are outsiders to this region.
In a place that has arguably been overphotographed, the images give a fresh, artistic glimpse beyond the headlines and into the fault lines deeply etched into this land and the lives of the people inhabiting it. The images do not shy away from the divisiveness of Israeli and Palestinian societies, but at the same time they focus more on the shared humanity of all who call this place home.
“This Place” is the brainchild of the French-born photographer Frédéric Brenner, best known for his book “Diaspora,” the result of a 25-year journey through 40 different countries to create a visual record of the Jewish world in the late 20th century.
“I wanted to re-contextualize Israel as a place and a metaphor,” Brenner told The Times of Israel as he worked on final preparations for Thursday’s opening.
It was important for him to shift from the paradigm of duality (the lens through which so much of what happens here is perceived), and this could only have been done through what he refers to as a “parole poétique” — the language of artists.
A complex undertaking
It took Brenner two years, beginning in 2005, to develop a working hypothesis for the project. He consulted widely with academics, philosophers, journalists, religious leaders and social activists. He then started securing financial support for “This Place,” which ultimately came from 80 different individuals and foundations, among them Kodak, which offered photographic supplies.
Brenner was inspired by La Mission photographique de la DATAR, which commissioned 25 photographers to represent the French landscape of the 1980s, as well as by the 1935 US Government’s Farm Security Administration photography project. However, he wanted to make sure that his project was not involved with any national government or agency, and was therefore free of political and ideological pressures.
Brenner initially met with 30 photographers. By the end of the vetting process he brought on 11 whose work embodied the visual grammars and syntaxes necessary to tackle the project as he had envisioned it.
The artists (other than Brenner) who received commissions were Wendy Ewald, Martin Kollar, Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Gilles Peress, Fazal Sheikh, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Fox Solomon, Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall and Nick Waplington.
The photographers, from eight different national backgrounds — many of whom had not known or worked with one another before — signed on after joining one or more exploratory mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Brenner called these trips he organized “incubators.” He had the photographers interact with key Israelis and Palestinians and exposed them to as many narratives as possible.
“I confused them on a high level so that then they could each go off and do their thing — to make images to break images,” he said.
Members of the collective worked independently on their contributions to the project for varying lengths of time, primarily between 2008 and 2012. Some were initially reluctant to delve into the complexity of this place.
‘I see more by letting them see what they see’
“So much had been written and done. There were so many fixed positions that I was concerned that I couldn’t get beyond that and contribute something more,” said Wendy Ewald as she gave this reporter a preview of her section of the exhibition, which she has titled “This Is Where I Live.”
Ewald, based in upstate New York, is known for her participatory style of photography. For decades she has gone into communities and created work by teaching their members to become photographers themselves.
For “This Place,” Ewald started tentatively with a single project with students, teachers and families in Nazareth. She went on to spend six months over a two-and-a-half-year period working with such diverse groups as shopkeepers in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, Romani children in the Old City, elderly Palestinian women in East Jerusalem and high-tech workers in Tel Aviv. She also used digital cameras for the first time.
The exhibition’s curator, Charlotte Cotton, helped Ewald conceptualize the display of the participants’ photographs that Ewarld had selected for showing. The postcard-size prints are arranged within frames containing shelves, one frame for each community that Ewald worked with.
“It’s as though a hand had put the images on the shelves. You can relate to them as you would to family photos,” said Cotton.
Ewald said she came away from her work on “This Place” realizing that the situation here is even more complicated than she had ever thought. Having given her local collaborators the tools to take artful and revealing images, she was able to get to know Israeli and Palestinian societies better than she could have otherwise.
“I see more by letting them see what they see,” she said.
Is it possible to leave politics out of the frame?
“I wasn’t very keen to come here,” said Nick Waplington as he took a break from working with assistants on installing his portion of the exhibition, titled “Settlement.”
“I didn’t want to do this project, and Frédéric had to come to London to persuade me,” said Waplington, who has three Jewish grandparents but had never identified as Jewish or visited Israel.
He ended up working on “This Place,” as well as other Israel- and Palestinian Authority-inspired work (he is also a painter and sculptor) for five years. For two of them, he lived in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood on the border between the eastern and western parts of the city.
“Settlement” comprises portraits he took of 400 Jewish families living in the West Bank, 19 of which are displayed. He has also taken hundreds of photos of the West Bank landscape, some of them being shown alongside the family portraits.
The idea for photographing Jewish settlers came from his having observed his friend David Goldblatt, a Jewish South African photographer.
“He was anti-apartheid, yet he did a major project photographing this one particular Afrikaner community in the 1970s. His book, ‘In Boksburg,’ depicted the lives of a community apart from, but also within, the larger South African society. He wanted to get to know them as people,” Waplington said.
One of Brenner’s goals was to bring in “others” like Waplington to artfully interpret a society made up of many different groups, all viewing one another as “the other.”
Waplington perceived that for many Israelis, the settlers were “the other.” They stood apart from other Israelis in terms of politics and ideology, but were also different in terms of the fact that many of them had been immigrants from outside Israel and expressly moved to remote communities away from mainstream Israeli life.
‘The Jews are physically changing the landscape’
The photographer said that he was coming from a humanistic viewpoint in terms of his portraits of the families, creating a portrayal that is loving and positive. Similarly, he said he was driven to photograph the West Bank landscape so extensively (he says by now he knows just about every nook and cranny in the area) because of its beauty and photogenic qualities.
While Waplington may not have come with political intentions, as per Brenner’s brief, it is certainly possible to read politics into his stunning images. The settlers, often complaining that they are vilified in the Israeli media, are always looking for ways of humanizing their image in the eyes of their fellow citizens. And as Waplington’s photos of the landscape show, it is continually evolving because of the settlement enterprise.
“The Jews are physically changing the landscape,” the photographer said, as he pointed out a greenhouse in a photo of a rural settlement, and an Israeli flag banner draped on the outside of a single Jewish-occupied building smack dab in the center of the crowded Palestinian village of Silwan, outside Jerusalem’s Old City.
For Waplington, the biggest personal takeaway from “This Place” is the joy he has felt from being in and knowing well the West Bank landscape. The biggest political one has to do with what he thinks will really happen here.
“I came here believing in a two-state solution. Now I think it will never happen. It’s just an illusion for the West. The resolution is going to be a single state here,” he said.
Creating a conversation
Some of the other contributing photographers may not be as vocal about their political views, but they have all made strong individual statements through their commissions for “This Place.”
Cotton’s job was to create a conversation among all these statements, these twelve distinct voices, each startlingly different from the others.
“I want the first thing for visitors to be that they walk in and perceive a conversation, and not a hierarchy or argument,” the curator said.
‘This went beyond the standard commission, this became part of the artists’ lives and changed how they look at their practice’
Ten years after he first began conceiving of this complex project, Brenner (whose own contribution is titled “An Archeology of Fear and Desire”) spoke of how he has grown — emotionally, artistically and intellectually — through it. He also noted the transformation all the photographers underwent as they jointly created what he calls “a visual essay about the human condition.”
“This went beyond the standard commission,” said Cotton. “This became part of the artists’ lives and changed how they look at their practice.”
The change this exhibition can effect on Palestinians and Israelis — habitually seeing solely through their own lenses — could be that they come away from it having seen this place from an outsider’s perspective.
“This Place” premiered in October 2014 at the DOX Center for Art in Prague and will travel to the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, Florida and the Brooklyn Museum of Art after its run at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art through September 6, 2015.
Eleven of the 12 artists have produced books of their work for “This Place.”