As Israel celebrates its 66th Independence Day, two projects, both shepherded by French photographers, evocatively capture many of the multitude of ways to look at the land and its residents.
The more prominent of the two is This Place, a global project that includes books, a traveling exhibit and live events. It was created by photographer Frédéric Brenner, who worked with 11 acclaimed colleagues to look at the complexity of Israel and the West Bank.
Brenner, a French Jew, is known for a previous 25-year-odyssey of a project, Diaspora, documenting Jewish life around the world. He embarked on This Place back in 2006, gathering $4 million in funds from well-known American foundations and choosing photographers from the world over, initially with the help of Jeff Rosenheim, the curator in charge of the photo department at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Those involved with This Place have compared it to the Mission Heliographique (1851), which featured French photographers carefully studying France and its architectural patrimony, and the Farm Security Administration’s photographic survey of America during the Great Depression (1930s).
Each photographer spent approximately six months in residence in Israel, pursuing his or her artistic interests and experiencing Israel. That included meals and sessions with a wide range of local experts and thinkers, from philosopher Moshe Halbertal to Clinton Bailey, an expert in Bedouin culture.
“I thought of the most influential photographers who are really authors, artists who are photographers to ask questions,” said Brenner. “The idea was to bring some of the great ‘poets’ of our time, so that maybe we can be bold enough to question what really happens here.”
Each artist was provided with a “fixer,” a local Hebrew-speaking photography student from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and nearly all of the artists stayed at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a cultural and conference center in Jerusalem.
The project stretched over four years (2009 to 2012), and it was, said Brenner, a massive project for which he acted as director, fundraiser and all-around organizer.
He laughed when recalling that he initially thought about inviting closer to 30 or 50 photographers, given the complicated logistics of the project. In fact, the organizational aspects were so complex that it took until 2009 for Brenner to begin his own project, “An Archeology of Fear and Desire,” which became the flagship book and the first published (MACK) in the series.
Brenner’s photographs range from portraits to group shots, but home in on the complex dichotomies of Israel most often delineated in its people. And so, there are Palestinians and Israelis, religious settlers and secular Israelis, immigrants and old-timers, including his own daughter, now a soldier, said Brenner.
“There are many layers, many readings,” said Brenner. “The book is about longing, belonging and exclusion.”
Now the project is completed, and besides the 12 books featuring the photographers’ work, there will be a traveling exhibition of the more than 500 images, launched in Prague’s DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in October 2014. The exhibition will then travel to Israel (Tel Aviv Museum of Art) and the United States, completing its run in June 2015.
Offering a more individual lens, Axel Saxe, who is also a French photographer, and not Jewish, first visited Israel in 2005. His book, “Israelis” (Steimatzky) shows his understanding of the land, gathered from regular trips made to Israel for more than eight years.
His thoughts about Israel, however, began well before then, when Saxe, now 53, first heard about the country as a boy after the 1967 Six Day War.
“I always felt something very strong about the country, and I knew I wanted to do something, but slowly,” said Saxe. “I had to clean my photographic filter, metaphorically.”
He remembers feeling somewhat disjointed during his first trip to Israel. The country’s natural light was too strong, and he thought he would never be able to photograph anything given its intensity.
But familiarity bred comfort, and Saxe acclimated to Israel’s light, eventually falling in love with it, particularly in the early mornings and in the late afternoons.
What he looked for were places at risk of disappearing from the Israeli horizon, particularly the shikunim neighborhoods of massive apartment blocks that were usually built quickly and cheaply to accommodate incoming immigrants and lower-income families.
“It’s the old places,” he said, “like the bus station in Beersheba, where I spent one week. It’s an amazing place.”
The Israelis are softened by thousands of buses/
Like wild she-wolves they prey on time/
Speaking loudly to muffle the greed/
Listening to their loved ones by the roadside/
– from the book “Israelis,” with poetry by Serge Ouaknine
The poetry in the book, written in English and Hebrew by Ouaknine, came after the two met in the southern town of Mizpe Ramon, at Chez Eugene, a boutique hotel owned by a fellow French speaker.
What Ouaknine wrote echoed what Saxe saw in the country, he said, whether it was about immigrants, army service, or bus stations.
Saxe, a press photographer who has worked in Lebanon and Jordan, ended up coming to Israel about four times each year after 2005, for about three weeks each time.
“It’s my job,” he said. “When you’re a photographer, you spend a long time where people don’t think about spending time. You want to find strong images in that place, so I would spend morning until evening working and speaking to people.”
Now that “Israelis” has been published, Saxe will be returning to Israel again to work on his next book, about army reservists.
He expects it will take about five years to complete, but doesn’t mind the length of time.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It keeps me coming back.”