© Kai Wiedenhöfer/Courtesy of Steidl
The thick, pitted concrete T-wall that has become synonymous with post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The barriers that define America’s border with Mexico—simple corrugated metal or high-tech fencing augmented by surveillance posts bristling with antennae. Northern Ireland’s walls topped with heavy fencing. The towering gray slabs that turn Israel’s twisting highways through Palestinian territory into deep aqueducts, open only to the sky. Despite their seeming singularity of purpose, in Kai Wiedenhöfer’s new book Confrontier, no two border walls are the same.
The project’s genesis began in 1989, when, as a student, Wiedenhöfer photographed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Born in Berlin in 1966, he had lived his whole life in the wall’s shadow and its sudden destruction made an indelible impression on the young photographer. Like many who watched the Cold War end, Wiedenhöfer thought that historic moment would close the door on an era of human history defined by walls. That optimism would be eroded by years spent working on-and-off in the Occupied Territories, starting in the late 1980s, a place where walls and barriers have come to define the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
His extensive work in Israel and Palestine would eventually lead him to publish the book The Wall in 2007. A photographic examination of the “Israeli Security Barriers” built in the Occupied Territories, The Wall is very much a precursor to Confrontier. Wiedenhöfer created those images between 2003 and 2006, then decided to expand the scope of the project and moved on to Northern Ireland in the summer of 2006. There he captured images of the “peace lines” that have been a feature of the region’s architecture since the “Troubles” began in 1969. Mostly consisting of metal walls and heavy-duty fencing, the peace lines separate Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in urban areas of Northern Ireland. Wiedenhöfer had worked in Belfast in the 1990s, but returned to find that, paradoxically, the structures seemed to have grown in size and proliferation since 1998’s Good Friday Agreement.
Photographing some of the world’s most contentious dividing lines was not without its difficulties. The border between North and South Korea was a challenge not only because of the logistics of accessing the most heavily guarded border in the world, but also because it is difficult to photograph a fence against the topography of the demilitarized zone. But of all the locales, Baghdad, Iraq, where he worked in 2012, proved to be the most problematic.
“When you drive through Baghdad on major streets or highways, every 300 meters or so there is a machine gun emplacement or a Humvee … there is a military presence you have nowhere else is the world,” Wiedenhöfer explains. “And as a foreigner, you are still a top target. Basically, you go somewhere and you don’t stay long—you can’t put up a tripod or wait for good light or anything.”
On first look, it is easy to get caught up in the utilitarian aspects of the walls in Confrontier and lose sight of the esthetics. Wiedenhöfer says that his priority was not to take “romantic pictures” but to effectively depict the physical barriers. Still, his use of panoramic photography is key to conveying the raw scale of these walls and the architectural totalitarianism with which they dominate a landscape and the human beings who populate it.
The psychological effect of the walls is part of what Confrontier attempts to illuminate, whether with wide panoramic shots, or by using angles and perspective to depict them in all their futility. The U.S.-Mexico border is a good example of both approaches; stretches of the barrier reaching into the distance evoke a sense of infinite impenetrability, the promised land visible through the fence slats but unattainable. Another angle in another location reveals a shabby-looking fence in the middle of the wilderness—nothing that a ladder and a little gumption couldn’t overcome. Wiedenhöfer believes the barrier’s true purpose is as a statement to the American people, not the Central and South American migrants it is meant to deter. “It’s for the government to wave a flag and say they are doing something about immigration. It’s a speed bump, nothing more.”
When it came to the editing and design of the book, which is published by Steidl, the photographer favored a hands-off approach with only two conditions: First, that the book be divided into chapters, and second, that the chapters not be location-specific. Wiedenhöfer wanted the images mixed up in order to encourage comparison. He and designer Dirk Fütterer eventually settled on Confrontier’s two-images-per-page format.
For Wiedenhöfer, every wall is ultimately a testament to failure, a monument to human beings’ inability to address their issues through dialogue. The resulting physical separation only exacerbates the communication gap that ultimately must be bridged if there is to be a lasting solution to any human conflict. “The more you don’t know your enemy, the more he becomes a bogeyman. When I was in Israel and the Occupied Territories in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Palestinians spoke really good Hebrew because 200,000 of them were working in Israel. The two peoples had an idea of each other and that has faded completely,” Wiedenhöfer says. “What does a child in Gaza know of Israel now? They know a Merkava [tank], an F-16 [fighter plane], they know a drone or maybe they have seen a soldier from afar.”
Confrontier is a sobering book. There is a sense of permanence in the man-made barriers, a fatalism that is implicit in their very design. It’s difficult to look at all those hundreds of miles of reinforced concrete, acres of high-tech fencing and endless spools of razor wire without thinking that they will be there forever. But then again, not so long ago we said that about the Berlin Wall.
Kai Wiedenhöfer Photo Gallery