Terra Incognita: Un-original shooting

Photographer Fredric Brenner promised to portray Israel beyond the stereotypes in his latest project, but the artists have predictably created an orgy of clichés.

Border police engulfed by flames in Silwan_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
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 white stereotypes.
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.”
The photographers 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.
But early 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 complete freedom.”
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 local Arabs.
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 Beduin.
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?”
We will never know, but we do know that this project has already failed.

The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.