12 Photographers, 12 Views of Israel and the West Bank, 12 Books

December 18, 2014

By Conor Risch

This place. It’s a phrase that, depending on one’s perspective, might be spoken in celebration, reverence, contempt, anger, frustration or exhaustion when referring to Israel and the West Bank. There are so many opinions about this place—such strong feelings, so much conflict, so much history, such conviction. This place.

When photographer Frédéric Brenner imagined bringing several photographers to Israel and the West Bank to create bodies of work there, he hoped to confound the existing political and religious narratives. He thought that artists (or “poets,” as he calls the photographers), rather than reporters, might find a way to go beyond what he calls the “dual perspective—for/against, victim/perpetrator,” that dominates popular perception of Israel and the West Bank. “Israel is a place where everybody instrumentalizes one another and is being instrumentalized,” Brenner said during an interview with PDN earlier this year. “I believed that only through poetic speech could people maybe touch something of the unbearable complexity of this place.”

After researching Israel and the West Bank for two years, Brenner began to organize and seek funding for the project in 2007, eventually securing the participation of 11 colleagues—Wendy Ewald, Martin Kollar, Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Gilles Peress, Fazal Sheikh, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Fox Solomon, Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall and Nick Waplington.

Jeff Rosenheim, currently the head of the photography department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, worked for two years as a consultant for the project. Then Charlotte Cotton, former head of the photography department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, stepped in and became the project’s curator. Dubbed “This Place,” the exhibition opened in October of this year at DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague, where it will show through March, 2015, before touring Tel Aviv Museum of Art in Israel, Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. MACK Books also published a catalogue of the work, and each photographer has published, or plans to publish, his or her own books as well.

Brenner, who lives in Paris, drew inspiration for the project from the Mission photographique de la DATAR, for which 28 photographers were commissioned to document the French landscape in the 1980s. The documentary photography commissioned by the United States Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information between 1935 and 1944 was also a reference point.

Initially Brenner brought the photographers to Israel on “an exploratory mission” to investigate “the largest possible spectrum of narratives,” he explains. The idea was “to get them totally confused, but on a very high level, and by doing so create a vacuum out of which they would start addressing their questions and define their own working hypothesis.”

“I was dubious about it,” Wendy Ewald recalls. “I felt Israel was a place that was so much written about that it would be very difficult to figure out a new way to look at it.” Ewald agreed to go on the exploratory mission “with the feeling I could always back out.”

Brenner organized “an informal think tank” of “writers, psychoanalysts, architects, social activists,” with whom the photographers were able to meet, Brenner explains. “For each of them, it was a transformative experience,” he says. “That was a very interesting trip,” Ewald recalls. “There was a lot of discussion and interesting tension, not between us, but in how we felt we would deal with actually doing the project, and what were the parameters and what were the politics. That’s something you don’t generally get to experience with other photographers; generally you are working on your own.”

There were no assignments or restrictions. All of the funding came from foundations and collectors, Brenner says. Eighty percent of that came from the United States, with 20 percent coming from Europe. “It would have been easy to get some money from institutions in Israel, but the obligations that would have been attached to it were too big,” Brenner explains.

Initially there were six photographers, excluding Brenner. Eventually the number grew to 12, with Brenner deciding late in the project to contribute his own book to the project. Matthew Brogan, who served as the project director for This Place, says of the 12 collaborators, “Everybody had the question: ‘What’s behind this, what’s the agenda?’”

Stephen Shore says that when he first learned of Brenner’s idea, he wasn’t “particularly interested in [the project] as a collective effort.” As the project evolved, however, he “found that the group aspect was very useful because it took away the pressure to do something definitive, which I’m not sure is possible anywhere, let alone Israel and the West Bank.”

“Whatever they thought their project was going to be at the beginning, it isn’t what their project turned out to be,” says Brogan. Ewald, whose work involves giving cameras to subjects and encouraging them to depict their own lives, began her This Place project at two schools and a girls’ military academy in Nazareth. As people began suggesting places she should go and work, her project expanded rapidly. Eventually she worked with 14 communities in Israel and the West Bank, including shopkeepers in Jerusalem, tech professionals in Tel Aviv, and a Palestinian gypsy community. “I became fascinated with the complexity and trying to map out all of the difference in the country,” she explains. It was the first time Ewald utilized digital cameras, which allowed her to work more quickly and with a wider range of people.

Martin Kollar worked in Tel Aviv and other coastal areas. He photographed military, scientific and mining facilities he researched and gained access to, as well as landscapes he came across by chance.

Josef Koudelka, whom Brenner says insisted on paying his own way for his exploratory trip because he anticipated declining Brenner’s invitation to participate, created a series of photographs of the barrier wall separating Israel and the West Bank. Jungjin Lee, who prints her images on special Korean mulberry paper to add layers of texture and materiality, made photographs in the desert regions in Israel’s south.

Gilles Peress, the last photographer to join the group, continued a long-term project photographing the Road of the Patriarchs, which runs from Hebron to Jerusalem, and Silwan, a Palestinian village in East Jerusalem. Fazal Sheikh also continued a long-term body of work that considers the reverberations of the creation of the state of Israel. For This Place, he created a new series, “Desert Bloom,” which depicts the desert from above, exploring the different ways conflict has shaped the landscape.

Shore used a variety of techniques and three different cameras to create a body of work that included landscapes, architectural photographs, portraits and views of everyday life. Shore also made photographs on archeological digs.

Rosalind Fox Solomon traveled the country mostly by bus, making black-and-white portraits of people she encountered along the way, and images of the landscape. Thomas Struth photographed landscapes, architecture, families and technology during six trips to Israel and the West Bank between 2009 and 2014.

Jeff Wall, who is known for staged, large-scale images, worked for several weeks in 2011 with Bedouin olive pickers on a farm, to recreate a scene of them sleeping outside at dawn. He’d observed them initially during his exploratory trip in 2010. Nick Waplington focused his work on more than 200 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, creating landscapes and portraits.

Brenner’s book, An Archeology of Fear and Desire, is comprised primarily of environmental portraits, and also landscapes. Brenner’s work reflects his “hypothesis” of Israel as a place of “radical otherness, a place where every single person is the other of somebody else.”

In considering the cumulative project, represented in 12 monographs, a traveling exhibition and a catalogue, Shore notes that the different interests and voices of the photographers “may get to some of the complexity and richness of the place.”

Brenner says he hopes the work “will disrupt the kind of polarized conversation [about Israel and Palestine] that exist,” and “create some space where there can be a different conversation with different perspectives.”

Brenner notes that the assembled project, with its wide range of photographic visions, is fragmentary and “dissonant,” aspects of the work that he hadn’t anticipated, but which turned out to be important.

“Will [viewers] dare to open themselves to dissonance?” he wonders. “Will people dare not to understand this place?”

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