An exhibition at Prague’s DOX gallery features wide-ranging depictions of Israel and the West Bank by 12 renowned photographers from around the world, including one of the greatest Czech photographers, Josef Koudelka. The exhibit, entitled This Place, explores the complexities of life in Israel, and offers an unusual take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The exhibition This Place had its world premiere at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague last week. The exhibit features several hundred photos of Israel and the West Bank. They range from street scenes in East Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to portraits of Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Some photos capture aerial views of Bedouin settlements in the desert, others focus on the West Bank Wall and Palestinian refugee camps. The exhibit is the result of an eight-year long project initiated by French photographer Frederic Brenner.
“When I initiated this project, it was clear that its intention was to provide the tools for a range of artists with different grammars and different syntax to look at Israel as a place and metaphor. The great reward for me now is to listen to this incredible polyphony. I believe I was the vessel of something that grew far beyond my understanding.”
In 2006, Frederic Brenner invited 11 international photographers to travel to Israel for weeks at a time. Each of the participating artists eventually found their own themes to capture with their cameras. The Canadian photographer Jeff Wall spent three weeks taking photos for his piece entitled Daybreak, depicting a camp of Bedouin labourers at dawn, with an illuminated prison complex at the background.
“What I was most strongly struck by was the fact that Israel did not seem different from other places I had been. I was most impressed by the fact that I felt I was in yet another complicated place, not more complicated that Canada or Turkey or the US or Switzerland.
“It’s complicated in its own way but not of the type that we sometimes feel we must be looking at when we read about it in the media or even in books.”
Wendy Ewald from the United States worked in 14 communities in Israel and the West Bank, running workshops for the locals whom she encouraged to express how they saw their own reality. She says the beginning was difficult and tumultuous.
“As soon as I started working, I felt much more comfortable. I quickly began to see there were so many layers of culture and history that it became a very complex and nuanced day. I continually had problems but I was able to understand how they came to be, the discomfort and the joy that everybody that I worked with feels.”
The Czech-born, US-based photographer Josef Koudelka presented a series of photos of the wall the Israeli authorities built to separate the West Bank from Israeli territory. Mr Koudelka says he decided to photograph the moment he first saw it.
“People from my generation spent decades living behind a wall, and we wanted to get on the other side of it. I understand the reasons – and there are many – why the wall was built. But building the wall in fact means that the society failed in dealing with these problems.”
Of all the participating artists, Nick Waplington from the UK spent the longest time in Israel. His series entitled Settlement looks at the life of Jewish settlers in West Bank.
“I decided to go and live in Israel. I thought that by living there, I could immerse myself in the cultural life there. I love Jerusalem, the vibe and the energy on the street, and I tried to mix with as many people as possible, and that has affected my viewpoint on Israel, on my own work, and eventually on the conflict. I had a complete about-face in what I believed in while I was there.”
What made you decide to take part in the project?
“I said no to taking part. But then Frederic came to London to see me and persuaded me; he told me he had decided that I was going to be the first photographer and everything was there waiting for me, and I should go for at least a month to see what it was like. I went for a month, and I stayed for more than four years.”
“I consciously chose not to take any photographs in Israel at all. I only dealt with subject matter in the West Bank, and I made a number of projects there, with the Bedouins, the Palestinians and with the settlers that incorporate film, photography, painting and sculpture; this is only one piece of work.
“This was the initial piece of work. I was interested in settlers for a number of reasons. They were outside the mainstream of the Israeli society, and they were living amongst the Palestinians and were kind of at odds with everyone. When I arrived, I was very much against what they stood for and what they believed in. It was a kind of engaging with the enemy for me.”
Was it difficult for you to approach them and have them agree to being photographed?
“Yes, it was very difficult at first. I had many problems, people did not want to be photographed but slowly, by getting to know people and actually living there, I was able to break down those barriers.
“I started to take pictures, then take them back and show them to people. And slowly, the people started to come around, one place led to the next and one family led to the next family.”
“I think everything that you do is political, not just in Israel. If you make art, by trying to disengage from politics, you are engaging in politics.
“What I tried to do was to remove the sensational from the pictures. You were able to view the pictures and the landscape in a matter-of-fact way, and I was therefore able to bring to the viewers something far deeper than the kind of journalistic pictures that I had seen of settlers in the West Bank prior to making this work.”
The author of the project, Frederic Brenner, says the photos are not political, and were not made with the purpose to support the argument of either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the contrary, the variety of approaches creates polyphony, in Mr Brenner’s words, that capture Israel with its complexities and divisions.
In some countries, however, the exhibit has been considered controversial. Indeed, Mr Brenner only decided to launch the exhibit in Prague after venues in some other European cities refused to host it.
“We encountered difficulties in trying to find a venue in several other countries including the country where I was born. So the exhibition is not yet going to France.
The exhibition This Place runs at DOX in Prague until March, and is then set to travel to Tel Aviv, Florida and New York City. More information can be found at dox.cz.