This Place – Unveiling the bias that separates us
By Nicole Margaretten
A circle of friends embrace while swimming. Children groggily wake up in squalor on a dirty concrete floor. A young couple dances under the stars. These fleeting moments, collected by Wendy Ewald, are from This Place, Frédéric Brenner’s new exhibition that examines the land and people of Israel and the West Bank in its complexity.
While photography is often thought of as two-dimensional, This Place portrays Israel and the West Bank’s land and people in a myriad of ways. Similar to a kaleidoscope, we see that clear understanding cannot be quickly captured because the images are fragmented and continually moving. Just when one thinks they have uncovered an understanding of the region, the lines shift, much like the changing boundaries within that ancient land.
This Place is the visionary brainchild of Frédéric Brenner, a French photographer best known for Diaspora, his impressive 25-year quest to create a visual record of Jewish people across 40 countries. For This Place, Brenner knew he wanted to create a portrait of Israel and the West Bank that explores the highly contested location “as place and metaphor.” Instead of seeking to capture the diversity, paradoxes and the human condition himself, Brenner invited eleven acclaimed photographers, Wendy Ewald, Martin Kollar, Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Gilles Peress, Fazal Sheikh, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Fox Solomon, Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall and Nick Waplington to join him in Israel and the West Bank for residencies. The photographers came from diverse nationalities, cultures and religious traditions – even their ages spanned 50 years.
Currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, Organizing Curator Cora Michael described how Brenner challenged the photographers during the creation of This Place. “Brenner invited the artists to participate in a two-week “immersion” program in Israel and the West Bank which preceded their respective residencies. During this time, they traveled throughout the region and met with a number of prominent intellectuals, historians, activists, and thinkers.” Michael continued, “His idea was to disorient them, to upend their preconceived ideas, and to give them a foundation; from there, they could each determine their own path forward with the project. The fact that each artist spent an extended period of time in residence (an average of 6 months) also fostered greater intimacy and understanding on their parts.”
Visitors who are native to the region, along with those just learning about its history, are responding enthusiastically to the exhibit. One visitor summarized the experience by saying, “When I think of Israel, I always think that this is a conflict between two groups: Israelis and Palestinians. For the first time today, in viewing these photographs, did I realize the incredible diversity that exists in the region…” Such a response is powerful. It shows not only that art can move the heart but also that a life-long perspective can be dismantled in a short amount of time as one becomes open to learning. Another visitor commented, “As an insider (43 years in Jerusalem), I was expecting a lot of clichés and forced even-handedness. I was, therefore, excited by the freshness that most of the photographers brought to their encounter. Beautiful art and insights; a delight.”
Joyce Dubensky, CEO of the Tanenbaum Center of Interreligious Understanding, also reflected on the exhibition. “This Place captures the intricacy of the human situation in Israel, along with the humanity that is at the core of each story and each person. Together, the artists reveal a connected and visually fascinating reality of the individuals and the land. It was beautiful to see the real people living in Israel and the West Bank, and how each one loves what they see as their home, their land.”
A key to understanding the exhibition lies in Brenner’s challenge to his fellow photographers and to us. He asks, “Will we have the courage to question the narratives and the devouring myths that are the very anchor of our civilization?” To respond honestly to these issues, photographers had to unveil any biases they held and to then find the inner strength to photograph contentious issues without projecting bias – because it would have been instantly apparent in the photographs. As viewers, Brenner also calls on us to resist the easy way out: to see the full complexity without casting judgment on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The exhibition is a telling reminder of how deep the challenges are, for the people and communities embroiled in conflict.” Dubensky continued, “Together the photographs challenge us to leave behind politics and to ‘dare to not understand’ Israel and the West Bank in order to see humanity at its core. Maybe this is a new beginning. From here, we can build a vision of its future from a starting point that’s closer to the truth, stripped of bias and hatred.”
As time is spent with photographs, one notices how details, nuances, complexities and indeed, perplexities are revealed. While common themes are present throughout the photographs, such as identity, family and community, each photographer has a unique conceptual and stylistic approach: Fazal Sheikh’s aerial desert photographs are portraits of the land that reveal markings, icons and scars across the earth. Photographer Jeff Wall was struck when he found Bedouin olive pickers sleeping on the ground by a farm and a large prison – so much that he returned a year later to recreate the scene with the same people, photographing them every morning at dawn as they slept. Gilles Peress, known for his work in conflict zones, was the only photojournalist to participate. Peress captured the joy of life’s simple moments – a young girl playfully balances horizontally on wires, while an older man swings beyond the frame from a plastic chair suspended by rope.
85-year-old Rosalind Fox Solomon traveled by bus with commuter workers across Israel and the West Bank to connect with diverse religious communities, including Ghanaian pilgrims at the Mount of Olives, Jewish teenagers at Purim, and Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Wendy Ewald, known for her work in participatory photography, expanded her project until she had worked with 14 groups of people, providing them with cameras and encouraging them to photograph themselves, their daily lives, and to share the Israel and the West Bank as they experience it. Cora Michaels described some of the communities that Ewald worked with, including Palestinian women elders in East Jerusalem, Druze students in the village of Julis, Jewish Israeli military academy students in Ein Gedi (Dead Sea), 6th grade Palestinian students in Hebron (West Bank) and Israeli high-tech workers in Tel Aviv. Some of the participants had never held cameras before – yet they found beautiful and thoughtful ways to visually communicate about their lives.
The journey toward understanding oneself – and then others – is a lengthy one. Photographer Jungjin Lee walked for hours in search of the right place to photograph. She then printed her chosen images in ways that appear painterly and poetic, provoking us to question the reality of Israel that we see as truth. Within each frame of her large photographs, we find an opportunity to begin our own journey anew, to step beyond the boundaries we have created for ourselves when we judge other places. It’s an opportunity to see Israel, the West Bank and our own life in a new way.
This Place is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum through June 5, 2016 and has been previously exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Tel Aviv, Israel), the DOX Center for Art (Prague, Czech Republic) and the Norton Museum of Art (West Palm Beach, Florida). Ten books were created by the photographers as a result of this project, more information can be found at http://www.this-place.org/