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This Place Exhibition Review: Unveiling the bias that separates us

Frédéric Brenner (French, born 1959). Ruth Chaya Leonov-Carmely, Nechama Weitman, Pnina Leonov, 2010 Archival pigment print, 23 5/8 x 18 ¾ in. (60 x 47.7 cm). © Frederic Brenner, courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Frédéric Brenner (French, born 1959). Ruth Chaya Leonov-Carmely, Nechama Weitman, Pnina Leonov, 2010 Archival pigment print, 23 5/8 x 18 ¾ in. (60 x 47.7 cm). © Frederic Brenner, courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

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/

 

Religious groups take on gun lobby at Capitol Hill: News Roundup

In the news this week, religious coalitions take on gun lobby, Hindus enter world's largest religious festival, anti-semitism threatens Jewish presence in France, and other stories. 

Dozens of the nation’s faith leaders said Tuesday (Jan. 15) that they’re ready to take on the gun lobby and demanded that politicians take quick and concrete steps to stem gun violence.

At a Capitol Hill press conference and in a letter to Congress, more than 45 clergy and heads of religious groups — representing the spectrum of American religious life — petitioned lawmakers to reinstitute a ban on assault weapons, require background checks on all gun buyers, and make gun trafficking a federal crime. Religion News Service

Once every 12 years, tens of millions of pilgrims stream to the small northern city of Allahabad from across India for the Maha Kumbh Mela, or Grand Pitcher Festival, at the point where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet with a third, mythical river.

Officials believe that over the next two months as many as 100 million people will pass through the temporary city that covers an area larger than Athens on a wide sandy river bank. That would make it larger even than previous festivals. After a slow start, police chief Alok Sharma said 1.5 million people had gathered by 8 a.m. (0230 GMT) on Monday, with more on their way. The Huffington Post

Anti-Semitism could destroy the history of French Jewry, the leader of France's Jewish communities said. “Not long ago, the notion that resurgent anti-Semitism could endanger the presence of Jews in France would have been considered absurd,” Dr. Richard Prasquier, president of the Jewish CRIF umbrella group, said Sunday in Paris at the organization's annual national conference. 

“This has changed” due to “parties and groups which are at times explicitly racist, and at other times ultra-secular [and in opposition to] ritual slaughter and circumcision," he said. "There is new anti-Semitism, and it complements the old.”

Planned as French Jewry's main event of the year, the conference was devoted to combating anti-Semitism and drew a predominantly Jewish crowd of approximately 1,000 people. CRIF's first annual event was held last year under the banner "Tomorrow, the Jews of France.” The Global News Service of the Jewish People

NPR published a story about making marriage work when only one spouse believes in God. Bixby and Peyer have known each other since they were young, but got married only a few years ago. Bixby and Peyer live in Longview, Wash. They have been married for two and half years but have known each other since 1981. Peyer is a church-attending Lutheran, and Bixby is an atheist. 

Europe's top human rights court ruled on Tuesday that equality laws and safety concerns trumped religious freedom in three cases where British Christians were sacked or sanctioned for expressing their beliefs at work.

The European Court of Human Rights ECHR.L ruled employers did not violate the religious rights of a registrar who refused to officiate for civil partnerships of same-sex couples and a counsellor deemed unwilling to offer sex therapy for gays.

It also turned down an appeal by a nurse whose hospital barred her from wearing a cross around her neck. In the fourth case in the verdict, a British Airways clerk suspended for wearing a cross won her appeal and was awarded damages. Reuters