A Birthright Trip for Photographers? “This Place” at the Brooklyn Museum

I owe the comparison with Birthright to Abby Glogower, so this post is for Abby.

“I came to think that there was something very special in this land that a lot of people recognized and wanted to claim for their own.” Stephen Shore, about his contribution to This Place


A pro-Palestinian, anti-gentrification protest. The protestors are standing in front of a projected photograph by Josef Koudelka, in the exhibition This Place, Brooklyn Museum, May 7, 2016.

It’s all about the land. The same land visited by young Jewish men and women in free trips organized by Taglit-Birthright with an eye to giving them a closer connection to that land and encouraging them to marry other Jews. Similarly, the project This Place brought twelve world-famous photographers to Israel and the West Bank for extended periods to offer them a chance to forge a visual relationship to “this historic and contested place.” The hope was that they would portray Israel in a “universalizing” way and transcend the “polarizing perceptions and familiar images of the region in the mainstream media.”

The introductory text on the opening wall of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition This Place did offer a comparison, but not to Taglit. The text states that this project, spearheaded by Frédéric Brenner, rivals the photographic project of the Farm Security Administration, an undertaking of the United States government during the Great Depression, and the Mission photogtraphique de la DATAR, a French documentation of the French countryside in the 1980s. The differences here, according to the same wall label, are that This Place was privately funded, not publicly, and that its photographers were foreign, not Israeli. On the face of it this comparison is ambitious: I won’t speak to the French project, but the Library of Congress has put 167,000 Farm Security images on line.


Frédéric Brenner, organizer of This Place, exhibited his own photographs in the exhibition along with those of the famous photographers whom he recruited for the project.

It might seem superfluous to enumerate the differences between it and This Place, but here are some anyway. Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, photographers of Roy Stryker’s project, were in their thirties or even younger, much of their famous work still ahead of them. They came to document poverty amid an economic crisis in their own country. The photographers that Brenner has gathered are all well established; most are in their sixties, seventies, even eighties. They were not brought in to document a crisis, although one certainly existed and most of them wanted to see its effects. Brenner had to be persuaded to allow them to visit the West Bank as part of the project; he wished them to avoid politics. Several of them touched on it only obliquely. Certainly they did not come as part of a New-Deal-like effort to combat rural poverty and inequality out of a commitment to social reform. No Migrant Mother can be found in the exhibition, and although part of the bargain with each photographer included the publication of a book, no Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is likely to emerge.


Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936.


The photographers of This Place were strangers come for extended, but still limited times. The question, what can a stranger’s eye hope to illuminate in this situation, applies to me as well in my own ongoing project, and this is the light in which I see and worry about This Place.







Photographs by Thomas Struth in the exhibition “This Place,” Brooklyn Museum.

Some of these photographers are my favorites, but their contributions to this exhibition are not my favorite work. Thomas Struth was well aware of the ethical situation in which he was enmeshed. His almost surreal look at the settlement Har Homa is perhaps the classic image of that terrible place. But within the framework of the exhibition it is little more than an example of one of his classic genres, along with others: monumental street photography made with a view camera, family portraits, cityscapes and landscapes.


Josef Koudelka sought to portray Israel’s “security wall” as a force for the destruction of the environment. I appreciate Koudelka’s attention to the way in which the wall affects the landscape and I take his concern seriously. Yet his work, beautiful here as always, in the main shows me what I have already seen and photographed. Murals in the Aida camp, for example, the way the “separation” wall loops through the landscape, swooping to enclose a bit of land in a greedy fist, and the barbed wire that stretches and curves everywhere in the world, but for some reason, is almost irresistible to photograph here. All these subjects immediately strike my eye.


Protesters in the exhibition This Place

But I could never have duplicated Faisal Sheikh’s series Desert Bloom. It sent me back to my own photographs to look at their subjects differently. He arranged his photographed traces of Beduin villages in the Negev, taken from the air, in a tile like grid format on one wall of the exhibit. I have no interest in making areal photographs; it is too important to me to stay down on earth among people. Yet I could not tear myself away from them.


Demonstrators near the installation of Desert Bloom by Faisal Sheikh

The unremittingly pale brown, washed out beauty of these desert tiles pulled me in. Subtle deviations in the ground are indications of cataclysmic changes. They signify the nearly effaced suggestions of the people who once lived there. The ominous feel of the title, “desert bloom” alludes to Ben Gurion’s call to the Jewish people to “make the desert bloom.” Here the “bloom” looks less like fertility than like the cruel beauty that keeps a desert from sustaining life.

20160507-IMG_5872lvlcrpOnce I have looked at these distanced photographs, oddly similar to Alan Cohen’s photographs of boundaries in close-up, I can no longer see the ground in the same way again.


Alan Cohen, Gila River Indian Reservation, 2004. From Lines of Authority


Sheikh has provided ample reading material to explain the subtle clues to large changes that have taken place in the land. I look for images like those that Sheik has photographed from far away but writ large that will explain for me patterns of dispossession and camouflage and the sheer effort to go on in the face of them.





I wonder what areal views of green strips of land might look like where Palestinians and their sheep are not allowed.


A Ta’ayush action, 24 March, 2015, South Hebron Hills. For more, look here

I wonder also about areal views of green strips of land where only Palestinians and their livestock are allowed.



From above, volunteers from Ta’ayush accompany a Palestinian grazing his sheep to protect them from nearby settlers. Israelis and, I was told, anyone eligible to become one are prohibited from descending into the valley. Soldiers ensure that we obey the rule.

Can you see isolated solar panels from the air?  abandoned fences and poles and destroyed houses?


This Place, with photographs by Thomas Struth, Frédéric Brenner, Josef Koudelka

How does an exhibition with well-intentioned photographers fail to attain the complexity to which it aspires? The curators may have something to do with it. The calm, cold beauty, the isolated photographs, the laconic captions with little or inadequate explanations. Jeff Wall’s photograph of Beduins sleeping near a prison in the Negev desert, “where this traditionally nomadic Arab people has lived for centuries.” What exactly does he know, assume, about their centuries-long Nomadic life? Have they always lived in the Negev? What does it mean to be a nomad? Did they always sleep outside on the ground covered only with blankets? Wall himself explains, in an interview, that he sees and photographs in a bubble, but that the photograph “knows” more than he does. I am with him this far, but not when he goes on to say that he can detach the social conditions of the work from its aesthetics.


Photographs of people Rosalind Fox Solomon met while traveling on commuter buses in Israel and the West Bank.

Sometimes there is no explanation at all.


Stephen Shore, Nabi Musa, 2010

In an effort to bring to light some of what the photographs, if not the photographers might “know,” demonstrators on Saturday supplied new captions for Stephen Shore’s landscape photographs of “this land that a lot of people want to claim for their own.”


Photographs by participants in workshops run by photographer Wendy Ewald in Palestine and Israel. What do the explanations say? A line on the floor discourages visitors from finding out.

There are other strategies. The small photographs taken by Wendy Ewald’s workshop participants are arranged on shelves. Wall copy is also arranged on shelves, but viewers cannot come close enough either to the photographs or to the written explanations to examine them and perhaps have their assumptions challenged.

The exhibition strives for complexity but what is complexity? For the most part it seems to suggest that complexity is even handedness. Once one side occupies the other, however, it is impossible to deal an even hand. Similarly, complexity is not universality. To universalize tends to normalize the unacceptable. Complexity demands a degree of nuance that some of these photographs possess but that the framework keeps hidden. All of the photographs “know” more than their photographers, just as my own photographs “know” more than I do. But the neutrality of the installation mutes this knowledge.

The private funding does, too. That the organizations and individuals that funded This Place are not governmental entities means that the organizers did not have to confront the cultural boycott advocated by BDS, the movement that uses cultural boycotts among other strategies to force an end to the occupation. But all the same the funders for the most part fund Zionist organizations; some of them funnel money to settlements and even the Israeli military. None of them fund initiatives to help Palestine or Palestinians. The exhibition itself, which prefers the term “West Bank” to “Palestine,” has tamed its subject.

Perhaps the funders of Taglit-Birthright felt some kinship between This Place and the mission of the Birthright trip to tie young Jews to the land and to one another. The co-founder of Taglit and several of its donors are among the organizations funding This Place. But sometimes a Birthright trip backfires. A young birthrighter may come to see the agonizing contradictions between the framing narrative of the trip and the intolerable ethical situation that confronts any visitor whose Jewish education taught her to regard ethical responsibility as its basis. If so, she might leave feeling that she has been used, and these photographers should do the same.

and one more thing: The demonstration on Saturday, May 6, yoked two protests together, a pro-Palestinian protest aimed at exposing the ideological “neutrality” of This Place and  another that targeted the museum’s role in gentrification through pandering to real-estate moguls on its board. For that protest, the demonstrators targeted an exhibit, Agitprop, about the use of art for social justice.


Interactivity was built into the exhibition Agitprop


It also featured numerous protest videos.


Here, museum security closes Agitprop to actual demonstrators.

if not otherwise identified, all photographs and texts © Margaret Olin, 2016.






Conversations on the Periphery 1: Wall on Wall

I began this post in November, on the anniversary of the end of the “Antifaschistischer Schutzwand” (“anti-fascist protective wall”) better known as the Berlin Wall. In the summer of 1980, during a research visit to East Berlin, I spent a great deal of time looking at the wall. Oddly I never photographed it, but it crept into some of my photographs anyway. A bit of blurry wall appears among the trees in the background of the Brandenburg Gate. The gate itself is behind a barrier patrolled by a soldier.

Borda Gdns Cuernavaca 1977After I crossed the checkpoint it took decades for me to look back. I don’t recall seeing the bright graffiti on the west side of the wall.


This image was taken in 1986 by Thierry Noir at Bethaniendamm in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Licensed by Creative Commons*

But for at least some West Berliners the colorful wall to one side and a park on the other must have made for a pleasant place to walk a dog.  No one painted on the east side of the wall; you could not get close enough.

Eventually the wall came to me. Pieces of it travel widely around the world. The artists Vid Ingelevics and Blake Fitzpatrick have been documenting its wandering as part of a continuing investigation. You can access their website, Freedom Rocks, here. One of them hacked off a small piece and gave it to me.

2015-01-10 15.08.34

My piece of the Berlin Wall, left, helps decorate my office window sill. The other piece was given to me by Naomi Safran-Hon, an Israeli artist who once used “stones” like this during a critique to destroy the domestic spaces conjured in her beautiful cement and lace paintings.

The longest portion of the Berlin Wall still in place in 2013 was a 1.3 km segment known as the East Side Gallery. This huge outdoor gallery acts as a memorial for the wall that once divided Berlin, and even more for the euphoric moment when it came down. Both sides are painted.20130709_Berlin-EastSideGallery_0151That summer, the photographer Kai Wiedenhofer mounted an exhibition at the East Side Gallery. “Wall on Wall” focused on other separation walls world-wide, like the one in Melilla on the border between Spain and Morocco:

20130709_Berlin-EastSideGallery_0152lvlfltAnd Israel’s “separation fence.”



Blake Fitzpatrick photographs a panel of “Wall on Wall,” by Kai Wiedenhöfer, showing the “Separation Fence.”

In Palestine, the wall (it is not a “fence” after all) winds its way back and forth through the landscape

Project_20140605_0375-crpfltcuts off patches of land

20150311-IMG_4829crpcrvcontexpand dominates the view from picture windows.


Studying in the library. Al Quds University, Palestine.

But here, unlike in East Germany, you can approach the wall. Once in a while you can see through it – sometimes only to glimpse more wall on the other side.

Project_20140605_0338-lvlcrvbalfltYou can try to listen through narrow openings


Max Budovitch tries to hear a loudspeaker on the other side of the wall.

And in Palestine, unlike in East Berlin, you can paint on it.

Project_20140605_0347-lvlsatfltInternational artists cover the wall with murals and graffiti. They express support for the Palestinian cause in English, Spanish, French German, Korean . . .



The Brooklyn-based artists of this mural, How and Nosm (Raoul and Davide Perre, German-Spanish identical twins), spent two weeks in Palestine under the auspices of the charity Medical Aid for Palestine.


The  artist Vince Seven, usually identified as French, but sometimes as Palestinian, painted this mural of Leila Khaled, PFLP member and hijacker

equating it with other causes 20150316-IMG_5278-lvlfltand old campaigns of resistance.  In 1968, during a police riot outside of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, demonstrators chanted “The Whole World is Watching.” Under a pair of watchful eyes in the center of this picture, the wall repeats that slogan.

20150311-IMG_4861lvlfltand paraphrases it here:

Project_20140605_0397Some of the world watches in close-up, helping a tourist industry to take shape.


A dove by the famous street artist, Banksy

2014-06-05 10.03.01

20150311-IMG_4855crvfltA “Wall Museum” organized by the Arab Educational Institute (AEI), an NGO, displays dreams by Palestinian women.  Read more here under “Wall Museum.”

Project_20140605_0343-lvlfltThe “Wall Museum” is a venue for Palestinian voices to be heard, but in English. I am hardly the first to observe that the international cacaphony of “conflict tourists” drowns out Palestinian discourse on the wall. Internationals seem to address one another, and perhaps this is the point. The messages implore the international community to do whatever they can to end the occupation and tear down the wall and, while they are at it, end other forms of discrimination in other parts of the world. Foreign visitors hire guides in Bethlehem to show them the famous murals by Banksy or they sign up for group tours of the wall. It is easy to scan the internet for photographs of the murals, or to buy books about them. Anthropologists have studied the images and talked to locals about them. A bibliography will follow eventually.

But when we pull back to look at the wall in its own neighborhood . . .

2014-06-05 10.22.58we understand why not many locals care to stroll near it – even by the section of the wall most popular to tourists, the one near Bethlehem.

People park cars along it, pile refuse.




Project_20140605_0371lvlfltMarooned structures and bits of commerce near the wall


Project_20140605_0351lvlcrvfltmake it seem more desolate.

Project_20140605_0406lvlcrvfltctrfltPeople move through a checkpoint located near this part of the wall.


20150311-IMG_4826crp  20150311-IMG_4811crp

 Once they leave, they do not turn back to look

but sometime in the future they will.


*http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Bethanien06.jpgOriginal source: “selbst fotografiert”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Berlinermauer.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Berlinermauer.jpg

All other photographs and text © Margaret Olin 2015

Visual Borders 1: A Separation Fence is Breached

Apparently a fence has been hampering access to jobs, relatives, even shops for people who live on the wrong side of it, while people on the right side of the fence can easily skirt its curving border. It has been doing this for over fifty years.

This separation fence is located at a corner of Hamden, Connecticut, where it meets New Haven.

You can read about the fence in several recent newspaper articles (and their comments) including here and here.  But I offer a summary: In the 1950s, the New Haven city government in its wisdom located a series of low-income housing projects for primarily African Americans at the edge of town, as far as possible from downtown New Haven and Yale University, as well as from affluent residential neighborhoods. But it was adjacent to Hamden, a middle-class mostly white suburb whose residents were unhappy about their new neighbors. To appease them, 1500 feet of carefully-placed fence, some it as high as 16’, was erected on three sides of the neighborhood. Effectively it prevented roads from connecting the group of housing projects to Hamden. Within the projects the roads stop far short of the Hamden border and the same roads pick up again after it. To traverse the 200 feet that separate one project from the opposite side of the street adjacent to it in Hamden you have to exit on the New Haven side and travel slightly over two miles. You need your own transportation because there is no bus. According to one source, a routine commute to a job in Hamden can take an hour and a half.

Now finally a breach in the fence will make it possible to extend one of these roads to meet its continuation in Hamden. The issue is still fraught with implications for past and present city governments and other constituencies.  Hence the recent newspaper articles.

But this post is about what comes to mind when I try to photograph the fence.  Interestingly, the fence is difficult to photograph effectively.


A fence between Hamden and New Haven. Viewed from Hamden.

The difficulty I am having suggests an issue of visibility. I want to photograph both sides of the fence, but I can’t. The fence hampers the residents of these two communities not just from visiting one another but also from seeing one another. On the Hamden side it is camouflaged by trees and forests that make it impossible to see a house on one side from a house on the other.  Do fantasies about the other side influence some of the frequently-reported negative feelings among Hamden residents about removing the fence? Perhaps. In any case it is unlikely that visibility will increase a great deal immediately after the road is finished. While it will allow New Haven residents to cross into Hamden, its speed bumps will inhibit residents of Hamden from crossing the housing projects en route to downtown New Haven.


The new road will have speed bumps.

The large tract of vacant land that separate the projects from the end of the road could also continue to act as a possibly daunting threshold.


The road under construction. Seen from Hamden, with New Haven houses in the distance.

Until the area between the two neighborhoods is built up, the visual barrier could seal off the area to Hamden residents as effectively as a physical one.

Separation Fence between New Haven and Hamden, CT

The fence seen from New Haven.

Separation Fence between New Haven and Hamden, CT

The fence seen from Hamden

I was away when the fence so near to my home in New Haven became news. By now the breach is wide enough to let foot traffic, albeit rather gingerly,


A New Haven resident enters Hamden through a breach in the fence.

to make its way around the sign saying “Construction Keep Out”


and into Hamden where neighbors can begin to see one another.


text and photographs © 2014 Margaret Olin