Out of focus - Have the Palestinians become invisible?

Israeli photography has turned its lens away from the realities of life in the Palestinian territories.

By MICHAL LEVERTOV
July 1, 2017 07:37
Miki Kratsman

Miki Kratsman’s photo ‘Abu Dis 2003’ shows a Palestinian woman walking along the separation barrier in east Jerusalem. (photo credit: COURTESY MIKI KRATSMAN)

When veteran photographer David Rubinger died in March at the age of 92, few of his many obituaries in Israel or abroad skipped mentioning the renowned documentarist’s most famous photo: a group of IDF paratroopers at the Western Wall minutes after its capture by the Israeli army on the third day of the Six Day War.

The photo depicted a handsome, blond soldier surrounded by his fellow combatants pensively raising his eyes to the ultimate symbol of the past and future Jewish claim to the Land of Israel.

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This image became, perhaps, the icon of the country’s sweeping victory in ’67, and its cultural status has only gathered more weight throughout the years. It has been cited in Israeli art; revisited in interviews and restaged in photoshoots with its protagonists; and it was even used, despite Rubinger’s disapproval, in commercial and political advertising.

Social media’s viral references to this photo, either by memes or tweets, are prevalent alongside references to other similarly triumphal images from the Six Day War.

The image’s prominent presence in current-day Israeli aesthetics stands in stark contrast to the invisibility of Israel’s enduring military control over the Palestinians.

Five decades after the victory with which Rubinger’s photo is so deeply identified in our collective memory, marginalization and even omission of any portrayal of the day-to-day realities of Israeli control over the Palestinians in the territories captured in 1967 has become the norm.

“The Israeli media has lost any interest whatsoever in reporting about the Palestinian side,” says photojournalist Ziv Koren, a staff photographer for the Yisrael Hayom daily and a regular contributor to international publications such as Time, Stern and LeFigaro.

Koren attributes the declining Israeli interest to the construction of the West Bank security barrier after the second intifada, which he says effectively detached the majority of the Israeli public from the happenings behind it. For photojournalists like himself, it also raised additional obstacles, he adds.

“Covering Palestinian areas became more dangerous,” he elaborates, pointing to Israel’s strict prohibition of Israeli citizens’ entry into the Gaza Strip. “The sad result,” he remarks, is that “we have lost both our interest and empathy.”

Koren, a 25-year media veteran who covered both intifadas, says that in recent years it has become much harder to convince editors to publish reportage on the daily life of ordinary Palestinians. When it comes to coverage of Palestinian issues, he says, the trend, for the most part, is “to supply [the Israeli public] with the minimum required.”

Miki Kratsman, one of Israel’s most prominent photographers, and undoubtedly among the most persistent documenters of the realities of Palestinian life, tells The Jerusalem Report he gave up on trying to reach out to mainstream Israeli audiences. Photojournalists who cover Palestinian affairs (for instance protests or demonstrations), he explains, can no longer expect their work to enter the Israeli news cycle. “I’m disillusioned,” he says.

Kratsman has exhibited his work in top museums and galleries in Israel and abroad. He has also served as head of the photography department for two consecutive terms at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Israel’s top art school, and has won major prizes such as the 2011 EMET Prize.

Yet, even with such a pedigree within the Israeli art scene’s establishment, he sees no path to make Palestinian-related imagery part of the national discourse. At the academy too, he says, his students are “very, very careful” with political topics. But, he remarks, “delegitimizing political art is a global trend.”

His own photographic work, he says, now is aimed “mostly for the archive ‒ for researchers who will try to explore what has been going on here.”

Kratsman, who is also the chairman of the controversial Breaking the Silence group, finds a direct link between Israeli imagery of the Six Day War and the country’s growing visual marginalization of the Palestinian presence.

In particular, Kratsman notes the phenomenon of ’67 victory albums. These albums, published in Israel after the war, presented photographs glorifying the IDF and its generals; hailed Israel’s civilians for supporting the war effort; and ridiculed the country’s adversaries. “The albums practically gift-wrapped the war’s images,” he says, “turning them into something much greater than mere photographs.”

Eight years old at the time, Kratsman still remembers the book the family had at their home in Buenos Aires (they made aliya later in 1971): A Spanish edition of one of those numerous coffee-table books published in Israel to memorialize Israel’s surprising victory. He also remembers small souvenirs the family received from Israeli friends or relatives around that time ‒ key rings with portraits of Moshe Dayan, the former IDF chief of staff who was appointed defense minister shortly before the war and whose round face and black eyepatch became synonymous with Israel’s military triumph.

Ten years ago, on the Six Day War’s 40th anniversary, the Petah Tikva Museum of Art put on an exhibition about the victory albums, titled “Six Days Plus Forty Years,” which detailed the scope and impact of the albums and other photography-based artifacts such as the Dayan key rings.

The exhibition’s curator, Dr. Rona Sela of Tel Aviv University, noted in the exhibition’s catalogue that most of the victory albums were published by private publishers for commercial purposes. This demonstrates the extent to which institutional strategies were adopted by the Israeli private sphere in the country’s first decades, she wrote.

In another essay, about Rubinger’s and other iconic images, Sela stressed that the albums indicated “the way in which Israeli society internalized the nationalistic themes and myths, accepting them as an absolute truth.”

With regard to Rubinger’s photo, Sela told The Report via email that the photo “reflected the euphoria and power intoxication in which Israeli society was immersed.” The camera’s angle, she added, captured the soldiers’ presence as “greater than life, proud, strong, robust and powerful.”

That imaging “continued the pre-state’s tradition of propaganda photography that had built the image of ‘The New Jew’: the good-looking, rough ‘Sabra’ who vigorously takes matter into his own hands.”

In addition to reflecting the momentary reality, she concluded, the photo “helped to construct consciousness and imbed belligerent and destructive nationalist motives into the Israeli existence.”

RUBINGER SHOT his powerful portrayal of the paratroopers as he was lying on the ground, from an angle that gave the scene an epic feel though the reason for his choice was prosaic: the open area in front of the wall was so small that in order to include both the soldiers and the wall in his frame Rubinger had no alternative but to recline.

The question of angle, let alone of one’s point of view, is, naturally, a pivotal topic in photography. Koren stresses that his point of view as an Israeli does not affect his work, which he describes as “objective.”

As a professional photographer, he emphasizes, he’s free of any agenda. If anything, he says, as an Israeli photographer who wishes to document the Palestinian side, he is at a disadvantage because his access to the Palestinian territories is limited.

Maintaining an objective point of view while being party to one side of a national conflict, he stresses, “goes both ways, and the emotional challenge of covering the terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv during the second intifada, “at least a dozen of them within walking distance from my home,” was no small obstacle.

Even when he joins IDF troops during their operations, he says, his journalistic and artistic independence remains intact.

Unlike the US ground forces in Iraq, who conditioned the presence of American photographers in the battles in a legally binding commitment not to publish imagery of American casualties, he says, “The IDF doesn’t give any instructions on how or what to film; censorship applies merely to security-related issues. I, therefore, photograph what I see, and it isn’t always compatible with the army’s PR perspective.”

Photographer Oren Ziv, on the other hand, says he doesn’t believe photography can be objective.

A member of Activestills, a collective of Israeli, Palestinian and international photographers, Ziv defines his work as “activist photography,” which means his photography aims not merely to reflect reality, “but also to generate change.”

One of the main challenges of photoactivism, Ziv says, “is to visualize policy.” This is achieved, he says, by continuous and consistent documentation of different communities, their day-to-day struggles and recurring events, such as home demolitions or land takeovers and the weekly demonstrations against them.

Like Koren, Ziv believes that the “separation policy created two parallel realities” – one for Israelis and another for Palestinians; a policy, he says, that began with the Oslo Accords and its division of the West Bank into three grades of Israeli and Palestinian administrative responsibility.

But, unlike Koren, Ziv is not sure that safety considerations are a major factor in the Israeli media’s inclination to disengage from the West Bank.

During the second intifada, he says, things were much more tense and dangerous than today, but the Israeli press nevertheless had a huge presence in the field. Budget and manpower cuts that have engulfed Israeli and international media in recent years, he suggests, may have contributed to this withdrawal process, as well.

Israeli society’s lack of attentiveness to the people under its military control is far from solely the result of the degree of exposure to relevant imagery, however.

When he and his colleagues established Activestills, Ziv says, “We thought that if we brought the views from the West Bank to the Israeli public, it would expose people to a picture they have previously preferred not to see or at least convince some of them to show an interest.”

Ziv and his Activestills colleagues have gained respect and recognition, winning, for instance, numerous prizes in the acclaimed “Local Testimony” exhibition, an annual event devoted to documentary and press photos from Israel and the Palestinian territories that runs concurrently with the “World Press Photo” exhibit.

But, Ziv admits, none of this generated real interest in the topic itself.

“Today, with the development of social networks and other sources of information, it is clear that the problem is not a lack of information but that people don’t want to see it, don’t care about it or in some cases are even happy with what they see,” he says.

In any event, a significant outcome of the Israeli media’s absence from the West Bank and Gaza is that, today, its main source of imagery from the territories is Palestinian activists who document Palestinian protests; Palestinian photojournalists who work for foreign news agencies; and members of the public who document their own lives.

Ironically, when Israeli media does eventually refer to the Palestinians, it uses imagery that provides its audience with a Palestinian point of view.

“PERHAPS IT is for the best,” Ziv remarks, “that today the visual representation of Palestinian reality is being produced by Palestinians themselves rather than by Israelis.

“Perhaps the attempt by Israeli photography to represent the occupation was from the outset doomed to failure. Because if you don’t perceive [the occupation] as a wrong, if you don’t notice its daily acts of obstruction and violence, then there is no chance that you will be able to produce a representation of it,” he says.

Such a failure, he adds, consists of representations of Palestinians as either terrorists or victims “but never as sovereign political personalities, individuals and communities demanding the right to decide over their own lives.”

Probably the most conspicuous penetration of such imaging into the Israeli discourse was the Hebron video from March 2016 of IDF soldier Elor Azaria fatally shooting a severely wounded Palestinian man who was shot 10 minutes earlier as he attempted to stab a soldier. B’Tselem volunteer Imad Abu Shamsiyeh’s video exposed the act and generated intense political turmoil in Israel that still has not subsided.

In addition to capturing the events from the Palestinian perspective, these images, broadcast in Israeli media, are a rare chance for Israelis to see the camera directed back at them, this time by Palestinian photographers.

Moreover, as the head of B’Tselem’s camera project, Rimma Issa, pointed out recently at an event at the Tel Aviv Cinémathèque marking the project’s 10th anniversary, the surroundings in which the project’s volunteers are filming is their domestic environment ‒ their villages, fields, neighborhoods, streets, or even in the privacy of their houses or apartments.

It’s that very sense of politics entangled enduringly with privacy that marks, according to Israel Museum photography curator Noam Gal, the 1967 photography of celebrated Israel Prize laureate Micha Bar-Am.

Gal, who curated Bar-Am’s new exhibition at the museum, writes in an essay about the exhibition that Bar-Am told him history is not made “in rigid frames of round years, between one arbitrary date and another.” Thus, Gal writes, the continuity that Bar-Am’s oeuvre indicates “that 1967, that complicated year, is still with us, all of us, all the time.”

The Israel Museum’s decision to commemorate the Six Day War anniversary with a photographic contemplation that focuses inward, into the Israeli experience, reflects a wider trend in Israeli art.

Contrary to the 1970s when leading Israeli artists initiated big projects that directly tackled different perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contemporary Israeli art rarely confronts this topic, says artist Avi Ifergan.

But when artists, today, do eventually touch this sensitive subject, “they tend to lean their works on photography,” says Ifergan.

Photographed images can serve as a filtering strategy to protect political art from the pitfall of superficiality, he explains. And photography also may shield the artists from the overwhelming, thus sometimes paralyzing, power of that real-life subject.

A prominent example is the work of the painter David Reeb, who bases a big share of his work on images from photographs taken in the West Bank.

Ifergan – now the director and curator of the Bar-David Museum in Kibbutz Baram, a few years ago based a series of his own works on photojournalistic imagery from the heart of the conflict. He used a technique of burning glass with air pressure to depict images of “targeted killings” – the IDF’s attempts to kill Palestinian terrorists with drones.

Ifergan says the photographic aspect of the work, as well as the neutral, colorless characteristics of the glass, were essential for him to approach such intensive content.

Two recent exhibitions at the museum also have dealt with the evasive presence of Palestinians under Israeli control in the West Bank in Israeli discourse, introducing two very different perspectives.

One, from last summer, displayed works by Arab Israeli Ashraf Fawakhry, under the title “Limon Kavush” ‒ a Hebrew pun on the word “pickle,” which also translates as “occupied.” The works included printed collages of cultural and historical iconography taken from both Israeli and Palestinian collective narratives.

The other, titled “Nofim Tzruvim” (“Etched Landscapes”), from January this year, presented oil-on-wood landscape paintings based on smartphone photography. The artist, Tal Orot HaCohen, photographed the surroundings of her childhood home in the settlement of Otniel in the South Hebron Hills, a community that has seen deadly terrorist attacks. Her landscapes consist of high skies over broad, sandy lands that extend deep into the horizon void of any human presence.

For Orot HaCohen, these paintings explore, as she noted in a text she wrote for the exhibition, the encounter between the safe feeling provided by the walls of her parents’ house and the “forbidden vastness” outside the settlement.

In reality, Otniel’s neighboring Palestinian villages are located just a few hundred meters away, though the geographical setting of the settlement has, from the outset, been intended to create a territorial barrier between Palestinian communities in the area and dissect their lands.

Orot HaCohen’s portrayal of man-empty vastness, therefore, also deliberately alludes to the invisible absence that the pictures hold. They offer a political and artistic commentary on a classic photographical theme: the ability to look without seeing.

A theme that perhaps, in a nutshell, encapsulates the ingrained Israeli mainstream perception of the Palestinian story.


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