Beirut photo exhibit closed over work of Israeli artist

World Press Photo decides to close showcase after presence of prizewinning work by Israeli photojournalist sparks local protests.

leaving beirut 298 (photo credit: Michael J. Totten)
leaving beirut 298
(photo credit: Michael J. Totten)
An exhibit in Beirut closed down earlier than planned on Friday following controversy over the presence of an Israeli photographer’s work.
The Amsterdam-based World Press Photo organization said it would not agree to remove individual photos and decided instead to close the entire show.
The exhibit, which showcased prizewinning photos from the 2011 World Press Photo contest, opened on May 12 and was scheduled to run until June 1. In a press release, World Press Photo said it decided to close the exhibit early after “the presence of prizewinning work by an Israeli photojournalist in the exhibition had sparked protests locally, and the Beirut exhibition organizers felt they could no longer guarantee the safety of the visitors or the exhibit itself, if the pictures remained on display.”
Amit Sha’al’s photos depicted street scenes of present day Israel, juxtaposed with black and white images of the same sites from decades earlier, which Sha’al held in the foreground of the photos. The collection won third prize in the Arts and Entertainment category.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Sha’al said he first heard that the exhibit was closed when he received a call over the weekend from an Associated Press reporter looking for his reaction to the news.
He said that he found the news “disappointing because they mixed politics in a place it didn’t need to be.” Protesters “turned me into a symbol of something that I didn’t ask to symbolize,” Sha’al said.
He added that this was the first time his art was singled out because he is Israeli, and that he didn’t expect there to be a controversy over the presence of his work. Sha’al noted that the photos had been on display in Beirut for a week without causing comment, which led him to believe that the controversy had been started deliberately for political ends.
World Press Photo managing director Michiel Munneke said on Sunday that “the integrity of our exhibition was at stake.
Removing any prizewinning photos would come down to censorship, which for us is not acceptable. In this instance, closing the exhibition was the only way we could remain true to our principle of promoting freedom of information. We regret that we had no other choice and we hope that we will be able to bring our exhibition back to Lebanon soon again.”
The World Press Photo contest is widely considered the world’s most prestigious photography contest.
In April 2010, controversy erupted at the “Recontres de l’Image” French-Egyptian film festival when judges resigned after realizing that “Kimat Normali” (“Almost Normal”), the work of Israeli filmmaker Keren Ben-Rafael, would be one of the films screened.
The film festival, organized by the cultural attaché of the French Embassy in Cairo together with the National Center for Egyptian cinema, went ahead as planned, in spite of the judges walkout.
In 2008, “The Band’s Visit,” an Israeli film about an Egyptian police orchestra marooned in a remote Israeli development town, was boycotted by the Cairo and Abu Dhabi film festivals.