Border police engulfed by flames in Silwan_311.
(photo credit: Reuters)
An attempt to create a traveling photographic exhibition of Israel has yielded
predicable results; an orgy of clichés. Perhaps this is not surprising given the
traditional mix of idealism, Jewish donors, fear of politicization, Israeli
intellectuals as guides and requests that the project move beyond black and
The project, called “Israel: Portrait of a Work in
Progress,” was the brainchild of Frederic Brenner. A French photographer, he is
best known for his book Diaspora: Homelands in Exile which was billed as “the
most extensive visual record of Jewish life ever recorded.” He decided
that he wanted to bring world renowned photographers to Israel in order to
present a more diverse image of the country.
“[I was] very sad to see how
Israel was being portrayed...We were in a binary paradigm – for and
against, victim and perpetrator. There was such a lack of complexity in
describing this place,” he said.
According to The New York Times
participants were supposed to “spend six months exploring the country’s deep and
many fault lines to create a body of work that might reframe the conversation
about Israel.” To fund the project Brenner raised $3.5 million from Jewish
donors in the US and Europe. Donors included the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination
Fund, which aims (according to the website) to support projects that deal with
“Jewish life,” foster tolerance and an “open an exchange of ideas that goes
beyond politics and stereotypes to a place of rich complexity and understanding
that is essential to shaping the future of Israel.”
were afraid of being “instrumentalized” so it was important that no money came
from an Israeli government source. Nevertheless the project received support
from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Mishkenot Sha’ananim.
SO THE artists
came and, according to reports, Mr. Brenner decided that it would be important
to hook them up with local Israeli “experts” who would operate as handlers and
help them understand Israeli culture. Brenner choose people like philosophy
researcher Moshe Halbertal, Beduin expert Clinton Bailey and Gilat Aloni of
Bezalel. The project is scheduled to be finished in 2012, after which a
travelling exhibition will display the work. Individual photographers taking
part in the project will also publish their work separately.
reports indicate the outcome of all this work is 100 percent predictable.
Suffice it to say, it will primarily be about Palestinians, Beduin, separation
barriers, Palestinian Beduin, east Jerusalem Palestinians, the desert and Jenin.
So much for the project about “Israel” that was not about “victims and
perpetrators” and was supposed to be “complex.”
Fazal Sheikh, a
46-year-old photographer from New York City who has exhibited at the Tate
Gallery, has produced work that deals with “displaced and marginalized
communities around the world.” Apparently Sheikh felt his name might make his
work in Israel problematic and he didn’t want to be viewed as an “apologist... I
wanted to know who was backing the project and be sure we would be getting
In the end he choose to photograph Beduin in the
Negev, in order to illustrate the idea of “erasure.” Similarly, his project will
focus on Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, probably to show how Israel has
“erased” their villages.
Josef Koudelka, a Czech photographer, will
explore the separation barrier. He began his work in the Jerusalem area. He
describes the fence as a “crime against the landscape, in the most holy
landscape for humanity.” Born in Czechoslovakia and having witnessed the Soviet
invasion of 1968, he has said that his experiences under Soviet suppression
“inform his view of the conflict in the region.”
Even though the project
was supposed to be about “Israel,” Rosalind Solomon decided to focus her work on
Jenin. Supposedly she ended up being “a few minutes away” when famed
Israeli-Arab director Juliano Mer Khamis was gunned down in April, 2011 in front
of the Jenin theater his mother had founded.
Gilles Peress, a French
photographer, is photographing in Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in east Jerusalem
that has been a flashpoint for violence between Jews who moved there and the
Nick Waplington, an English photographer who was born in
Aden in the former British colony of Yemen, is reported to be shooting photos of
settlers in the West Bank. He has done some work in Gush Etzion, but his webpage
shows a giant photo of an Arab village and another of “the West Bank Separation
Wall with Water Heaters.”
The group also includes Martin Kollar of
Slovakia, Stephen Shore, a famous American photographer who seems to be focusing
on archeological themes, Thomas Struth from Germany, who claimed he partly
wanted to come to terms with his father’s Nazi past, and Jeff Wall, who is
taking photos of the Ramon crater. Jungjin Lee, a Korean photographer, has been
photographing diverse vistas, from the Golan Heights to the Negev and West Bank
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a project like this,
just as there is nothing wrong with the themes the photographers choose to focus
on. Where the project fails is in its claim to go beyond stereotypes. Is this
because the artists cannot think in an original way? Is it because the Israeli
experts chosen to Sherpa the artists around choose to only talk about Beduin and
separation barriers? Is it because any project handsomely paid for by
well-meaning Jewish donors and hosted at the Bezalel Academy inevitably
gravitates towards Silwan, the “barrier” and Beduin? Is it because the organizer
of the project said, “I did not bring people here to see the land of milk and
honey. I brought them here to see the land that devours its inhabitants?”
will never know, but we do know that this project has already failed.
writer has a PhD from Hebrew University and is a fellow at the Jerusalem
Institute for Market Studies.