Israel and the West Bank: A view from the outside

The work of 12 international photographers goes on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

By
June 6, 2015 20:25
Gilles Peress – contact sheet, Palestinian Jerusalem, 2013.

Gilles Peress – contact sheet, Palestinian Jerusalem, 2013.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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‘This Place,” the name given to a much anticipated new exhibition of photography at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, already appears to have become something of an event.

What began as a project in 2007 has spawned an archival website, individual monographs by all 12 of the participating photographers and round-table discussions in which the artists talk about their work and time spent in Israel and the West Bank.

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After its Tel Aviv stop-off the exhibition will travel to Florida and New York.

The project was initiated by Frédéric Brenner, a French photographer best known for documenting Jewish life throughout the world, and was curated by Charlotte Cotton, an independent curator and writer from England. Nili Goren, the Tel Aviv Museum’s curator of photography, also played a significant role in curating the show in Tel Aviv.

At the press conference, hosted by Brenner, Suzanne Landau – the museum’s director and chief curator – Goren and eight of the photographers, Brenner was forthcoming about how “This Place” came to fruition.

“In 2008 I invited a group of photographers to come here for an exploratory mission which lasted for about two-and-a-half weeks.

The idea was to expose them to a broad spectrum of narratives which would assist them in starting their own research. The working hypothesis was to re-contextualize Israel as place and metaphor, and if possible, to look beyond the political narrative,” he said.

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The photographers came on board gradually and were involved in what Brenner refers to as an incubator – a kind of informal think tank – where they were given the opportunity to meet and go on field trips with respected Israeli figures from a variety of disciplines, among them philosophers, academics, architects and archaeologists.

No restrictions were placed on the photographers, although it was agreed upon that Gaza would be too risky for the photographers to enter.

Both Brenner and the photographers were aware of the difficulties and pitfalls in embarking on such a large and time-consuming project. Many were aware of the cultural boycott and expressed reservations about participating, yet eventually decided to join and engage in the project, spending weeks and sometimes months at a time, in various parts of the land.

“We did not want to be instrumentalized, or used for political gain. We were aware of our position as outsiders, yet the notion that we could also move seamlessly between the communities (both Israeli and Palestinian) resulted in a kind of internal conflict,” remarked the American photographer, Fazal Sheikh.

Elaborating further on their approach German photographer Thomas Struth had this to say: “We are more picture makers than photo- journalists. We had this stage where many things are happening – you see the scars, but also the beauty. As an artist you have to create your own reasoning of why and what you will do.”

Artistic concerns aside, traveling from Israel into the West Bank and back again to pursue their projects was not always a straightforward affair. The photographers were aided by assistants in research, translation and negotiating any difficulties that might materialize at border controls and checkpoints with Israeli and Palestinian security forces.

Brenner said their contribution was key to the success of the project and also acknowledged the help of photographer, lecturer and political activist Miki Kratsman.

Over the course of a five-year period, between the years 2009 to 2014, the photographers produced a large amount of work, much of which is not on view in the exhibition.

The individual projects are allocated separate spaces and reflect different approaches and practices. “This Place” might have been conceived as a group project, but each photographer worked independently and created a distinct body of work informed by their choice of subject matter and theme.

On display are several striking portraits of Israelis by Frédéric Brenner and some of the results of English photographer Nick Waplington’s foray into settler life in the Judean Hills.

The French photographer Gilles Peress captures some of the friction and energy of Silwan, a neighborhood in east Jerusalem contested by both Arab and Jew, in a series of contact sheets presented in grid-like formation. Peress is a regular visitor to volatile regions. In an attempt to “map” an area he will often observe and revisit a place countless times, in pursuit of patterns and structures of movement.

A more participatory approach was employed by American photographer Wendy Ewald who held workshops with community groups, schools, military academies and shopkeepers in Israel and the West Bank, providing them with cameras to document their lives as they saw fit.

She then selected approximately 500 of the photographs, which are presented in an installation in postcard-size format and categorized by city, creating in effect a kind of fly-on-the-wall look at contemporary life in Israel and the West Bank.

The work of Ewald and Rosalind Fox-Solomon primarily focused on the general public, although the project is as much about the land as its people.

Much of the photography in the exhibition is made up of landscapes and cityscapes, portraying the rugged beauty of the desert terrain, seen particularly in the work of Stephen Shore, and bringing the dissonance created by man-made structures such as the “security wall” into sharp focus.

Josef Koudelka, the highly regarded Czech photographer, took shots of the wall and its immediate surroundings. Koudelka grew up behind the Iron Curtain, fleeing Prague in 1970, essentially because of the Soviet invasion two years earlier. Photographing the wall proved to be a challenging experience for him.

Koudelka’s work is displayed in a glass cabinet, in a book format that opens accordion- style. One framed photograph from the series is also on show. The majority of photographs in the book are powerful, panoramic views of the wall, but the impact is lessened because viewers do not have the opportunity to see them in a larger format.

Thomas Struth, Martin Kollar, Jungjin Lee and Jeff Wall also exhibit strong landscape photography, depictions of industrial sites and religious interiors.

“This Place” is an excellent exhibition whose raison d’etre is not to provide an overview of Israel and the West Bank, but can be seen as an attempt to shed some light on the complexity of the land and its people.

As a traveling exhibit on view in its land of origin it will likely be subjected to careful scrutiny by the Israeli public. For now, “This Place” is at home.

“This Place” runs at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art until September 5. For more info visit www.tamuseum.org.il.

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