New York Times : : December 14 2011
Top Photographers Try Looking at Israel From New Angles
By ISABEL KERSHNER
GAN HASHLOSHA NATIONAL PARK, Israel — The image is both idyllic and carefully staged:
nearly a dozen foreign photographers, some of them celebrated on the international art scene,
posing for a collective portrait on a sunny November morning against a startling green pool in this
lush park in northern Israel.
Some of the artists were half wet, having taken a dip in the temperate spring waters of the park,
popularly known by its Arabic name, Sahne, which means warm. A table was laid with a simple
picnic of pita bread, hummus and olives.
“Most of these artists do not work in groups,” said Jeff Rosenheim, the curator of photographs at
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, observing the scene. “Here they are sitting on the grass
The participants are players in a project conceived and orchestrated by Frederic Brenner, a French
photographer. He invited 11 acclaimed photographers, including Jeff Wall from Canada and
Thomas Struth from Germany, to spend six months exploring the country’s deep and many fault
lines to create a body of work that might reframe the conversation about Israel.
Mr. Brenner previously spent 25 years documenting Jewish life around the world for “Diaspora,”
his book and exhibition. But after the violent convulsions of the second intifada, which broke out in
2000 and lasted for years, he was “very sad to see how Israel was being portrayed,” he said. “We
were in a binary paradigm — for and against, victim and perpetrator. There was such a lack of
complexity in describing this place.”
The new project was a risk, one that may not cast Israel in any softer light. Many of the artists
approached it warily, afraid of what they called being “instrumentalized,” or used for political aims.
The work is still in progress, but the result is likely to be as challenging and troubling for many as it
is curative for others.
One source of concern was the sponsors. Mr. Brenner raised $3.5 million from a consortium of
more than 60 almost exclusively Jewish donors and foundations in the United States and Europe,
but what the artists generate is up to them, and there is no guarantee that the images they produce
will help smooth Israel’s well-worn rifts. To the contrary, they may entrench them further.
“I did not like the notion of anyone thinking I had come here as an apologist for one side,” said
New York-raised photographer Fazal Sheikh, known for his work on displaced peoples in Asia,
South America and East Africa. On the other hand, Mr. Sheikh added, “it was also a very generous
For some it was their first time in Israel. Most came with a keen awareness, if only from newspaper
headlines, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Several said they found being here difficult.
Josef Koudelka, a Czech photographer who recorded the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, has
been photographing the high concrete wall that makes up the Jerusalem section of Israel’s West
Bank barrier. Though he is not a political person, he said, “it is not easy for me in this country. I
don’t see things that make me very cheerful.”
He said he was focusing on “the crime against the landscape, in the most holy landscape for
An American photographer, Rosalind Solomon, the oldest of the group at 81, began shooting
portraits in the Palestinian city of Jenin in the northern West Bank. She was a few minutes away
when Juliano Mer Khamis, a famed Israeli-Palestinian actor and theater director, was gunned
down by a masked Palestinian in the city’s refugee camp in April.
“I just feel the turbulence,” she said. “I think on both sides people are very affected by the climate
they are living in.”
Mr. Sheikh said he had hit upon the theme of “erasure,” including tracing the memories of
Palestinians now in West Bank refugee camps and the essence of evacuated villages.
Gilles Peress, the renowned French photographer, who has covered many conflict zones, is
focusing on three or four streets in the volatile and symbolic Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of
Silwan, coveted by the Palestinians because of its proximity to Al Aksa Mosque, and now by Jewish
settlers because it sits on the ruins of what many believe to be the ancient City of David.
Each came for different reasons. Mr. Struth, born in the decade after World War II, said that his
father had been “wounded twice in the Nazi army,” and that he had come to Israel partly “to come
to terms more with my country’s history.”
Mr. Wall said he had come simply to make art, and because he had been invited. Regarding the
conversation about Israel, he said, “I’m not here to help anyone to resolve these matters.”
Mr. Wall said he did not hunt for images, because people can look only for things they already
know about. He came across his subject, which he will only say has to do with the olive harvest, by
The diverse group also includes Wendy Ewald, an American conceptual artist and educator; Martin
Kollar from Slovakia; Jungjin Lee from South Korea; Stephen Shore from New York; and Nick
Waplington, a Briton who has been focusing on Israeli settlers. The photographers roamed venues
from the Negev desert to the famed Weizmann Institute of Science.
Mr. Brenner himself has been exploring the theme of sovereignty versus portable identity and has
been photographing portraits and landscapes.
“There are so many wounded feelings in this country,” he said, “so much anger and rage. And at the
same time there is so much ‘chesed,’ ” Hebrew for benevolence or loving kindness.
Mr. Brenner provided the photographers with a two-week “exploratory mission” to immerse them
in some of the complexities of the region. That included dinners and field trips with a variety of
Israeli thinkers and experts from different disciplines, like the philosopher Moshe Halbertal and
Clinton Bailey, an expert in Bedouin culture. Israel’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design provided
each of the artists with local assistants, and almost all are working in film, donated by Kodak.
Several of the photographers lectured at Bezalel; a thousand people attended Mr. Wall’s lecture,
which was taped and then screened four times. Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a cultural and conference
center in Jerusalem, opened its facilities for the project.
The entire opus will be revealed about two years from now with a traveling exhibition, a catalog of
all the artists’ work and a digital offering. From the end of 2012, the artists will begin releasing
their own monographs.
The Met’s Mr. Rosenheim is the project’s curatorial adviser.
Some of the photographers were wondering what the Jewish backers would make of the outcome.
Mr. Brenner said that he would not be disappointed and that he had chosen photographers who would
be compassionate, not complacent. This, he said, is “a place of radical otherness and
unbearable dissonance. There is beauty in dissonance.”
Borrowing biblical phrases from when Moses sent a dozen spies to explore the promised land, Mr.
Brenner added: “I did not bring people here to see the land of milk and honey. I brought them here
to see the land that devours its inhabitants.”