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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Interactivity was built into the exhibition Agitprop

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It also featured numerous protest videos.

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Here, museum security closes Agitprop to actual demonstrators.

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

 

 

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Women, Tents, Energy, Caves: The Rural Women Association and Comet-ME

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“Do you teach about this at your university? Do you teach about our lives here?” asks Fatma Nawaja as she prepares for a meeting of the Rural Women Association.

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“I’m not qualified to teach about your lives. I can make a few photographs, perhaps of baking . . .

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or the pigeon roost.”

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“But I would rather photograph your meeting.”

On March 15, 2016, eleven women converge on a tent in Susiya from four scattered villages in the South Hebron Hills. They are determined, Fatma says, to develop the necessary financial and educational resources to achieve autonomy. As she uses the word,  “Autonomy” means individual  advancement toward a collective aim. An autonomous  woman is able to take responsibility in the family and contribute to its support.

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Working together, the women have instituted workshops, school activities and summer camps, but their most important achievement may be that they are meeting at all.

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The association is a new idea and it is not easy to arrange the meetings. Were transportation available, more members from more villages could attend. Today the group comes from four of them: Susiya, Al Mufaqarah and Umm al-Khair, all tent villages, and at-Tuwani, home to the high school and two NGOs. The treasurer of the group, Naima, is from the Beduin village Umm al-Khair. Support for the group comes from small annual dues and donations.

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Of these towns (and several others), at-Tuwani is the only one that can be found on google maps. The “Susiya” on the map is not the village where we are meeting but the Israeli settlement that took part of the village’s land and all of its  name. The archaeological site (see “ancient synagogue”) marks the place where the town was located before the residents were expelled in 1986 to create the archaeological park. The former residents constructed a village on some of their remaining farmland between the two locations named “Susiya.” They have been expelled several times from this location also.  According to Wikipedia, Umm al-Khair is located at 31°25′29.60″N 35°11′46.41″E.

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The Oslo accords placed these villages in “area C,” under Israeli control, and the authorities have refused the residents permission to construct permanent buildings. In the past few months, the civil administration has carried out several demolitions . Since this meeting, too, it has destroyed a number of structures in Um al Khair. I am told that a demolition order is also pending against a memorial erected at the entrance to Susyia in memory of a Palestinian baby burned to death in his home last year by settlers in Duma.

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Naima reports on the group’s financial condition

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The women discuss the development of their  website  – it is unfinished but it lists many of their current and planned initiatives.  Many of them center on education.  English lessons for example are scarce, expensive, and crucial.

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School is another topic. They have been helping children who are struggling, but the school needs trained social workers. Recently one of the woman offered a workshop to children to help them recognize explosives so that the children will stop picking them up on the way to school.

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Economic issues are another topic. Many of the women engage in crafts.

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They sell their wares at fairs and at their embroidery shop in a cave in Susiya. You can see the interior in a previous post here.

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A workshop on techniques for making yogurt and machinery and the skills to spin wool professionally come up in conversation.  Wool from the sheep in the villages tends to go to waste in the summer.

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Dreams and energy fill the room – including the energy without which the meeting would have been next to impossible. The Israeli government sponsors power lines for Israeli settlements; these bypass the Palestinian villages. But an NGO, Community Energy Technology (Comet-ME), has for some years provided renewable technology to these communities and the expertise to maintain it.

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COMET’s office is in a pre-existing building but the added roof over the terrace is subject to demolition. Hence their workshops are in caves:

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There a staff that includes Israelis and local residents makes solar panels, wind turbines and water filtration systems for tent villages in South Hebron.

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The energy also powers television sets in Susiya. There, a mother and her six children can watch Bollywood films at bedtime with their overnight guest after a day that began before dawn.

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text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2016

*For information about how to donate to the Rural Women's Association
click here; for Comet-ME, click here.

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Ezra Nawi, Ta’ayush, and 30 seconds of video

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Ezra Nawi, May 31, 2014

“Just as they film, so we film as well”

How powerful is a photographic medium? In Israel, thirty seconds of it is enough to arrest a man and keep him incommunicado for days without access to his lawyer. Enough to prompt from the Prime Minister a vicious condemnation of those who would hide behind the hypocrisy of “caring for human rights,” and, from the Defense Minister and the Education Minister, even more extreme attacks against human rights organizations. At best, there are calls for the “moral left” to repudiate the man who is under arrest, to condemn him without a trial, as well as “to thank the two journalists for their courageous, professional work.” You can read this piece by Ari Shavit here. The officials posted their remarks on their respective Facebook pages.

So: how powerful is a photographic medium? The question has occupied me for a few decades. Most recently, on-and-off over the last year and a half, I have been using my own camera to investigate how human rights groups in Israel use their cameras. One especially has absorbed my attention, the group Ta’ayush (the name is Arabic for “living together”), a rather small all-volunteer organization that works through legal channels to win back land stolen from Palestinians in South Hebron and prevent further robberies and demolitions. On Saturdays members accompany Palestinians to their lands to protect them from settler violence while they plow, graze their sheep, plant and harvest crops. Their cameras are always in action. You can see some of my results and a few of my anxieties in past posts on this blog. Their work is heartbreaking but still manages to inspire hope. To me the group means far more than an academic exercise.

But my epigraph is not from my own research. It is a translation of some of the first spoken words in an incriminating half hour video that appeared on January 7 on Uvda, a major Israeli investigative news program. Author of the report is Omri Assenheim, an award-winning journalist. The report is about two members of the far right organization Ad Kan (meaning literally “up to here” and figuratively “enough is enough”), who “infiltrated” Ta’ayush, filmed its activities, and zeroed in on its most loud-mouthed member. The two, a young man and his girlfriend, eventually succeeded in goading him into saying something outrageous. He said that he hands over “them” (we eventually find out that “them” means Palestinians who sell land to Israelis) to the Palestinian Authority. The infiltrator asks him what happens to the people after that, and he answers that the Authority kills them, after first subjecting them to beatings. There are many problems with the “facts” that the video claims to document, and some good commentary on the film points them out.  In English I recommend David Shulman’s report here. You might also read the report in Haaretz by Amira Hass here. I will add only that I know Ezra Nawi through Ta’ayush and while he might say anything at all, he would never knowingly send anyone to his/her death. Indeed this case is no exception.

Here I want to concentrate on the video itself. When I first saw it I found it hard to imagine that anyone could take it seriously; it has all the hallmarks of a hack job, a video tabloid. Clips taken on different days are bunched together randomly and accompanied by scare music and voice-over narration that romanticizes the investigators. Images of Ad Kan members setting up their cameras are interspersed with those of scary-looking Ta’ayush volunteers. It is possible that one of those alarming “lefties” hiding behind a camera could be this writer, an aging, but not-very fearsome scholar like several other members of Ta’ayush. The founder of Ad Kan says he was horrified to hear a few such people make demeaning remarks, right in front of a young soldier, about his failure to remember the values he must have been taught in high school. The identities of the moles are hidden. The young woman’s face is blacked out in an interview, but not before we are treated to a tantalizing silhouette of her slim body in profile as she tosses back her long silky hair. I have seen many similar videos, some, for example, from anti-abortion groups in the United States seeking to discredit Planned Parenthood. The word “heavily edited” was on everyone’s lips concerning these videos, but other methods are often used to enhance such editing. Shooting so as to conceal the lips of the speaker for example, can hide the cuts that leave out words central to the speaker’s intentions.* Most of the planned-parenthood videos are far more subdued than this sensationalized video by Uvda, however. While watching it eyes roll. At least they should.

The crux of the video from Uvda centers on Nawi. There is a good deal of discussion of a putative land sale by a Palestinian who, we are given to understand, Nawi wishes to lead into a trap. But perhaps the decisive moment takes place in a car, in footage made with a hidden camera and first aired two minutes into the program. There, in less than 30 seconds, Nawi makes the above-mentioned incriminating remarks. The visuals are terrible. It is impossible to see him as he talks. Lights flash twice in the middle, blotting out everything.

But this is just a teaser toward the beginning of the program. The same conversation reappears twenty minutes later in the course of a longer discussion of the deal with the Palestinian selling land.

Or rather, the same audio reappears, but the video is different. This new video, also in the car, has a different time stamp about 15 minutes later than the first one. Or perhaps it was taken on a different day altogether, since there is only a time stamp and no date stamp on the first video. The camera angle is different. A paper in the foreground on the first run-through has mysteriously vanished and there are no blinding flashes. Only in the later video does Nawi wear sunglasses. In the middle of this new video, after Nawi says that he turns people over to the Palestinian Authority, but before he is asked what happens to such people next, there is a cut, and suddenly the time stamp registers a six-minute long gap. Were there two – or three – hidden cameras? I doubt it. Did Nawi repeat the same words with exactly the same inflection after fifteen minutes, then after another six minutes, or on other occasions altogether? I doubt that as well. Only the speaker, whose mouth is invisible in both versions, connects the visuals. At the end of the new 30-second clip you can finally glimpse his mouth and it is smiling. Is Ezra’s “vicious smile” (in the words of the Jewish Press) the reason that the conversation was attached to these visuals and not to others?

Why does the altered video matter? Am I acting like an academic book reviewer who discredits someone’s hard-won argument because of a misplaced comma or a typo? I don’t think so. At best the discrepancy reveals sloppiness in the television producers and at least one place where the video takes words out of context. We should consider the possibility that there may well be more. The incriminating words could have been spliced into the program at nearly any point. Perhaps this thirty seconds is indicative of the false premises on which the entire thirty minutes were constructed.

On this basis, a man has been subjected to death threats and then arrested. Worse, all human rights groups and especially Ta’ayush are immediately drawn in and subject to wholesale condemnation although there is no suggestion that they had anything to do with the land deal. And this at a moment when the government is in the midst of a campaign against them. As I write, Ezra Nawi is about to come before a judge. His guilt or innocence or whether he is charged at all will presumably be decided without the help of this doctored video. I hope he is released unharmed and soon, but whatever happens, it should not affect the work of Israeli human rights organizations. Any Jerusalem resident reading this might consider accompanying Ta’ayush to South Hebron one Saturday.

Epilogue: Soon after I posted this, two more arrests were made; two more dedicated activists were held behind bars with no access to lawyers, without formal charges, their names under a gag order. They were released after about a week. Thankfully, all charges were eventually dropped.

*On March 28, 2017, the two moles who infiltrated Planned Parenthood were indicted in California on 15 criminal counts of illegal recording and conspiracy and a warrant was issued for their arrest. I am not informed that any members of Ad Kan have been subjected to anything similar.

Thanks to Yagil Eliraz for assistance with Hebrew.

 

Text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2015Project20140531_0532-crp2

 

 

 

 

March 14, 2015: Zanuta and Rahwah – Guest Post by David Shulman (photographs: Margaret Olin)

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Four happy months in India, and today I’m back in south Hebron. Before leaving I asked my friends to finish off the Occupation before I returned, but somehow they haven’t managed this. Yesterday I meet my neighbor Rama in the street, and she asks how it is to be home. It’s good, I say, at first I was even high, but little by little despair seeps in. “That’s right,” she says, “here everything is really fine except for the despair.”

It torments me all the way down to south Hebron, a dark and acrid journey. Why why why? I remember this: when you’ve been away and you come back, at first you find the reality of Palestine unreal. Unthinkable. A kind of lunacy. The colonial project, the horrific crime at the heart of it—it all looks mad, and beyond fixing. Nothing we do can change it. Nothing we say matters.

Then, after an hour on the hills with the shepherds, the craziness begins to feel natural, normal, and I know what I have to do.

I’m lucky to be with Guy today. He turns out to be a hardened optimist: Maybe the elections this week will bring the beginning of the change. But even if they don’t, we’re coming closer to the point of decision: either full-blown apartheid or a peace agreement, whose details are anyway well known. If Israel opts for apartheid, the Netanyahu way, then the world will force a change. The pressure is building up. The boycott will do it. One day we will come down here to visit our Palestinian friends, we will remember these bad days, we will have coffee and laugh, we will say: “Do you remember that hot day in March when the soldiers came and arrested Hatim and Guy and Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim, when they cooked up this idiotic rule that you can’t graze the sheep in the wadi or on the slopes to the east, and they held them for hours in the jeeps and then finally let them go?” Those good days will certainly come, Guy says, it could, it should, be paradise here. In the meantime, we have to do what we do to keep things from getting worse.

There are lots of sheep—four or five herds from Zanuta, we count about 300 heads; and another four or five herds from Rahwah, to the south where the wadi takes this grand ravishing curve. Rashad is responsible for one of the herds. He has a story to tell, which goes like this, in his fierce and fluent Hebrew:

“It was years ago, this crazy settler, Avi, came with his brother and another man and they picked a fight with my brother, who was out with the sheep. They beat him badly, and another shepherd too, and they threatened to kill them. My brother called me and I came fast, walking over the hill with my shepherd’s staff. “We’re going to kill you,” they said. They made us sit down on the ground and wait. They had heavy guns. I was afraid of them, they’re bad and they’re crazy, you can tell a bad man when you meet one. There’s room for everyone here, we don’t care if they’re here, but they want only to hurt us and take the land. [Guy interjects: “We’ll kick them out of here, don’t worry.”] So we’re sitting there and waiting, and the settlers have their guns pointed at us, and luckily an army jeep came by on the road, in those days the roads weren’t so good, I ran to the jeep and stuck my arm through the window and said to the officer that he has to come with me. He didn’t have much choice. When he got to where my brother and the other shepherd were sitting, the settlers started beating them again, and they said to the soldiers, ‘Look, this one has a stick,’ meaning my staff, so the officer drew his pistol and cocked it and made sure the bullet was in the barrel and then he pressed the pistol against my forehead and said, ‘Get rid of that stick or your brains are going to be blown to heaven.’ I said I don’t need the staff and I threw it away. Still, they hit us some more, and they told us they’d come back to kill us some day, for sure, and they went away. In those days we didn’t have friends like you to help us.”

Rashad has a permit, which means he can work inside Israel; so he’s in Beersheva most days of the week and out on the hills with the sheep only on Saturday. He’s rough, good-natured, utterly and oddly innocent, as innocent as a human being can be. He thinks people have the option of being good. He laughs a lot. I like the idea that we’ll come back some day to laugh again with him.

Pastoral interlude. We lie in the sun, resting against the rocks, waiting. A delicious silence soaks the green slope—green as Ireland, after the rains. Everywhere the anemones are straggling into the sunlight, and there are daisies and dandelions and tiny nameless purple blossoms and thick green reeds as well. A partridge flutters over the stream. Happiness. Guy says it’s the silence before the storm.

Of course he’s right. Above us, across the wadi, there’s the settlement of Har Hamor, where a single settler family lives. They’ve cordoned off huge chunks of the ancient grazing grounds, and, as always, they’ve got the soldiers to guard them and do their bidding, which means driving Palestinian shepherds off Palestinian land. It’s no surprise when two drab khaki-grey jeeps turn up on the path near the tiny stream, heavy with the sewage of Kiryat Arba, at the base of the hill. Then they are upon us.

20150314-IMG_5127-SheepLooking-crpThere’s a vanguard. “Get these sheep away from here,” they order us, but of course we demand to see the signed order, and all too soon the Big Officer comes with those foolish fancy stars on his uniform and his big heavy gun and with the piece of paper signed by the Brigade Commander and the map on its inverse. It decrees—illegally, of course—that the wadi and the hill where the settlement sits and about a third of the hill where we’re standing are all now a Closed Military Zone. In itself, this wouldn’t be so bad, though it’s a crime, and cruel, and, more simply, wrong. What makes it worse today is the Oral Law, the torah sheba’al peh, that accompanies the order and that declares the whole rolling expanse of the slopes, all the way uphill to the highway a mile or two away, to be forbidden to Palestinians, since these lands, says Big Officer, are “Jewish grazing grounds.”

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He’s made it up. There’s no legal basis to this draconian restriction. We tell him so, but it makes no difference. He’s given us 10 minutes to get the shepherds uphill before he arrests them. We Israelis, he says, can remain on the “Jewish grazing grounds” if we agree to move a few hundred meters up the slope. The 10-minute deadline applies to us too, and the clock is running.

Here’s a little mini-apartheid moment, as we firmly inform him. “You can’t make one law for Palestinians and another for Jews,” we say. It’s infuriating. I can feel the rage welling up in me, and the morning’s despair is also kicking in, along with the sick feeling of helplessness. We call Amiel, who confirms our reading of the law. Now it’s up to the shepherds to decide; we will follow their lead. I rush over to explain to them in Arabic what the soldiers are demanding; I tell them that the law is with them if they move the herd just a little ways up the slope, but that there’s a danger that the soldiers will arrest them anyway. Several shepherds immediately start moving the sheep. It’s not so easy. Sheep are notoriously slow about such things. They’ve been feeding ravenously on the rich diet of thorns and greens in the wadi and they don’t seem to feel any particular respect for Big Officer who, looking around for a potential victim, settles on us. We’ve started walking backwards, very slowly and deliberately, as he barks at us and counts the seconds left.

Is Big Officer a bad man? Let’s leave this question in abeyance. I’m not sure what it means. He seems unhappy that his order and his deadline have not been honored with alacrity. I wonder if he’s put out at having to waste a beautiful spring Shabbat morning chasing hundreds of stubborn sheep over the rocks. I also wonder if he has any inkling of how much harm he is doing to himself, to his manhood, to the subtle, hidden places of his mind, by inflicting cruelty on innocents, by humiliating them and treating them like children and by exiling them from what is theirs. These thoughts flit rapidly through my mind and vanish into the sunlight because Big Officer has lost patience and arrested Hatim Suleiman Shafiq, though he was actually trying to obey the order and get the sheep going, and Guy rushes down to try to protect him so they arrest him too.

The soldiers march their hostages to the jeeps. By now the police have also turned up, and Hatim and Guy are locked into their blue-white wagon. In the wadi, considerable chaos reigns. Oblivious, joyful, untold numbers of sheep are doing what sheep do, dotting the wadi with a furry beige. Two or three of the shepherds have managed to pry some part of their herds away from the thick foliage near the stream and to prod them some ways up the slope. They’re still far from the highway. Surprisingly, the soldiers, perhaps content with the initial arrests, seem to have forgotten all about their own arbitrary Oral Law. One contingent of them is poking with sticks through the tall grass as if they’d lost something of value there—as indeed they have.

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The Rahwah shepherds are still deep in the wadi to the south, and they seem to have found a creative solution to the soldiers’ threats: they’ve sent young kids, maybe eight or nine years old, to follow the sheep there, on the tenuous assumption that the army won’t arrest children. (It does it all the time.) I join Amir and Peg on the southern ridge. Time slows down, as if high noon had brought it to a leisurely boil. We wait. We call the lawyer who will take care of Guy and Hatim when they reach the police station. We chat with Murad and the other shepherds, who want to know why the soldiers took Hatim. “Who can say?” I answer, a non-answer, since there is no answer    20150314-IMG_5232-lvlCrvCrpFlt

Just when I come to the conclusion that the men with guns have resigned themselves to recalcitrant ovine reality and the danger has passed, they suddenly arrest two more shepherds: Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim. The arrests are swift and brutal, with much shoving and poking. We’re too far away to be of help, but I can’t bear watching this: despair again. Is it the good despair I’ve written about, the kind that makes you act and take risks and not think about results? I doubt it. It’s a black viscous feeling that goes well with the liquid gold washing over the hill.

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It may make you feel better to know that eventually all those arrested were released; that the police refused even to accept Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim at the station and sent them back to the soldiers, who had to let them go; that the other hostages who had been captured at Shweike and Umm al-Ara’is were also freed. It was a messy, foolish day, maybe because the settlers are full of hate and fear as the elections come near, and they know that this time they may lose, so they pick on their usual victims and command the soldiers to do the same. Or maybe there’s no logic to it all except for the random but systemic logic of the Occupation itself, perhaps stirring itself awake in the first real week of spring. You might also feel better if I tell you that I figure that if we keep coming back week after week, the Palestinians may eventually get their wadi back and the herds will flow past the ravishing curve and happily blanket the hungry hills. What is required of us is no heroics but a dull steadiness and perseverance. I think it will work. Speaking of happiness, Peg told me when we said goodbye that she’d felt it today, and then I knew that I, too, had tasted that unthinking, unreasonable joy, the South Hebron happiness, unlike any other I have known, the kind that comes from looking straight at wickedness and not looking away.20150314-IMG_5215Looking-lvlcrpflt

text © David Shulman 2015    photographs © Margaret Olin 2015

Photographs in Gaza 2: “I don’t really know what I am doing here.” Eduardo Soteras Jalil

 

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“Eso: una esperanza.” Just a hope. At the Kamal Aduan Hospital, Jabalya, while injured people and bodies arrived after the attack at the UNRWA School in Jabalya. Gaza, 30/07/14 Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

Some of the people I respect most in Israel and Palestine have been writing posts with the word “hope” in the title and gloom in the content.  The “hope” of this picture’s title refers to the dashed one reflected in a message on a tee-shirt, but the photograph says more. Here hope looks like worry.  The photograph is not an iconic image; it will not change the world or last for the ages.

It is not a photograph of despair either. The people in this set of photographs for the most part just try to cope.

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General view of the UNRWA School at Al Shati Refugee camp.The school hosts more than 2000 people. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil.

They do laundry; they leave ruined houses; if their houses have been spared for the night they return.

Inhabitants of destroyed Kuza'a leave with their belongings.

Inhabitants of destroyed Kuza’a leave with their belongings. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

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Daily life in Gaza: a girl returns home after spending the night in a supposedly safer place. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

Photography itself is a way to cope.

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People take photos of the destroyed Mosque of Elsussi, in El Shati refugee camp, Gaza. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

The Argentinian photographer Eduardo Soteras Jalil photographs everyday life under difficult conditions. I met him this past spring at Dar Al-Kalima University College in Bethlehem at his exhibition “Masafer: Life in the Interstice,” the product of two years spent photographing people living in caves in South Hebron.

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Eduardo Soteras in Bethlehem, June, 2014. Photograph: Margaret Olin

He had been in Israel and Palestine for over ten years, but when I last saw him in Ramallah, he said that it was time to do something else with his life and to go somewhere else to do it.

He went to Finland, but when I caught up with him by email last week he was back, and in Gaza. In his blog, which you may read in Spanish here, he writes: “no sé muy bien que hago aquí.” I don’t really know what I am doing here. He is not looking for the iconic picture (see my previous post); he does not want to cover “current events,” an expression that seems to leave him cold. A photographer of everyday life, I sense he has little experience and perhaps little interest in photographing death.

Unlike some gruesome photographs from Gaza, the piled bodies, the blazing neighborhoods, the weeping parents, these show the everyday weariness that such catastrophes leave and that can last for years. Sensational pictures draw urgent attention to what is happening now, but we can look at these pictures longer. They offer a space to let the people and their predicament sink in.

Or better, they leave room for imagination – not that imagination that conjures images of the exotic or the impossible, that provides extreme experiences vicariously, but imagination that unites our horizon with that of others – the everyday imagination within which we envision our lives while we live them.  We can see ourselves as these people trying hard to keep living such lives. We connect with them as the two young men above connect warily to one another and to the photographer, through crossed arms and a gaze that passes from one to the other to us.  I hope in future posts to flesh out the role of imagination in photography.

Here, however, imagination imputes resilience to the people in these photographs, or in the environments shown in them. For the most part they do not appear to be victims.

They cope and above all wait, each in their own way.

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A boy performs parkur in front of a destroyed Mosque in El Shati Refugee Camp, Gaza. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

 

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Displaced families in one of the rooms of the Greek Orthodox Church of Gaza. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

The photographer waits, too.  To photograph in this manner means to settle in for the long term. Two weeks will not do.

During the brief cease-fire, Eduardo posted a photograph that speaks to imagination and hope:

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Gaza, mañana. Algo se termina, algo continúa. Gaza, tomorrow. Something ends, something continues. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

I expected him to translate “mañana” as “morning.”  Morning in Gaza would have had symbolic resonance, but a photograph taken today and labeled “tomorrow” solicits the imagination.  The first comment begins “OJALA,” a Spanish word that appropriately comes from Arabic

إن شاء الله   inshallah

In  Hebrew:

כן יהי רצון    ken yehi ratzon

in English:

God willing

text © 2014 Margaret Olin

Photographs in Gaza 1. “What contribution am I making?” Tyler Hicks

Cover of the New York Times, July 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Tyler Hicks

Cover of the New York Times, July 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Tyler Hicks

The photo may endure even if its subject does not.

In the New York Times Lens Blog, the recently returned photographer Tyler Hicks talks with James Estrin about his search for the “enduring photo in Gaza” during his stint, covering the conflict in his first two weeks.

You can see the edited interview and a slideshow of his work in Gaza here:

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/05/looking-for-the-enduring-photo-in-gaza/

Hicks: “So I ask myself, what contribution am I making as an individual when I show up and there are 10 other photographers on the scene? How are my photos going to make a difference compared to the others’? My goal is to find that specific image that is going to have a lasting effect.”

For Hicks, that photograph was “a man running with a lifeless body of a boy on the beach. That one photograph was my contribution of my two weeks there. It’s like distilling everything down to one photo or one scene that you photograph.”

In his own view, Hicks’s contribution was to create the iconic picture that shows us the essence of what occurred on his watch. But for some others, his purpose should have been to create a balanced photographic reportage that would tell the entire story in pictures. Criticism has been leveled against the alleged partiality of his pictures, and to the New York Times for choosing biased photographs. Hicks, so goes the argument, failed to photograph any Hamas combatants that might illustrate the motivation for an attack that caused an unintended massacre on a beach. The argument makes grand claims about photography’s seemingly limitless power.

A more legitimate complaint, if it is that, might follow from photography’s limitations: because photography shows only the visible, photographs can be coopted precisely by the people who make the first complaint. Any child killed violently in Gaza is an affront to morality. But to whose morality? For one speaker, an opponent of the Israeli strikes, the child shows the ruthlessness of an Israeli military that kills civilians indiscriminately or even viciously. To another, who supports the strikes, the child represents a Hamas public-relations coup. One argument goes: Every dead child discredits the Israeli army and thus helps Hamas’s cause. Therefore they use such children as human shields, launching their weapons from their midst. For what it is worth, Hicks’s own account of the process resembles the Israeli government’s account of the civilian killings, according to which the Hamas’s fighters are invisible: Hamas does not distinguish them through uniforms, and it launches its rockets from within the civilian populations who then become targets. In part, this argument is a response to the criticisms about his partiality, mentioned above. He knows that most people looking at this picture will blame Israel and its army for this death.

Even if the evidence for one or another view were in the picture, few people could look at it long enough for more than the simple fact of the horrific act to register. Even if they share the photograph or join in the outcry against the bombardment, they will nevertheless turn the page, click on the next photograph, and try to put it out of their mind.

Another complaint with some legitimacy is that the very artistry of such photographs paints the people in them only as victims. They seem to be passive and nameless. Our right to see this child’s suffering is legitimized by the fact that this one child stands for other children. To show his suffering to others may help end the situation, once the right words manage to tie the picture to a convincing argument for the cause and the solution. If Hicks is right, this child’s image could help end this war, as still images once helped end America’s war in Vietnam. Moreover, the picture will stand not (only) for the child who is its subject, not (only) for all Palestinian children killed in this war, but for all children killed in all wars, for a long time to come.

For the record, I find that civilian deaths rather than photographs of them are doing a good job of discrediting the army and the Israeli government, but I do hope that the photographs help to put an end to this war – or to make permanent the ending that at this writing seems to be in the works. I am sorry if the photographs also help Hamas.  There are, however, other ways in which photographs are being deployed in Gaza, which I will hope to discuss in my next post.

text © 2014 Margaret Olin