Stilled life

In my last post I drew attention to China Miéville‘s essay on the Israeli Wall that gashes occupied Palestine which was, in part, a portfolio of photographs, and to Helga Tawil-Souri‘s anguished questions about photographing the monstrosity:

What am I supposed to do with a string of images? How will I put them back together to tell a story when there is no story to be told anymore? Photographing it, filming it, trying to write about it, only contradicts its very nature: a time-space of interruption, of suspension.

Others have reflected on these issues too: see, for example, Simon Faulkner, ‘The most photographed wall in the world’, Photographies 5 (2) (2012) 223-42:

On the one hand, the Wall has become a patently visible structure around which to galvanize opposition to the Israeli occupation. On the other, this very visibility is a problem in that it has tended to reduce the occupation to the Wall.


But I’m particularly taken by the work of the Czech (‘I’m not Czech like the Czechs’) engineer-turned-photographer Josef Koudelka whose Wall (published by Aperture last month) records his own encounters with the structure between 2008 and 2012 and whose gaze reaches beyond the wall itself into the wider landscape of occupation, exaction and repression.

Koudelka’s work first captured public attention in 1968 when he courageously documented the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia.  ‘I grew up behind a wall,’ he told Ha’aretz, ‘and because of that experience I am very sensitive to all the people who grew up behind a wall.’

KOUDELKA Prague 68

His publisher explains that the new book is part of a larger project, This Place, initiated by photographer Frédéric Brenner:

This Place explores Israel as place and metaphor through the eyes of 12 acclaimed photographers, who were invited to look beyond dominant political narratives and to explore the complexity of the place – not to judge, but to question and to reveal.

It’s not easy to track down much information about the project, which included photographers like Jeff Wall and Gilles Peress, but a New York Times report from December 2011 described Koudelka’s response:

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 humanity.”


And over at the New York Review of Books blog David Shulman has an exceptionally fine meditation on the wall and Koudelka’s Wall, which includes a series of images from the book:

Koudelka’s pictures have an eerie, meditative texture. Many of them are structured around the glaring contrast between the Wall, always intrusive, harsh, ophidian, and the organic, still living world of hills, terraces, and valleys on either side of it. Paradoxically, these photographs are beautiful, almost too beautiful, to look at—despite, or perhaps because of, the raw wound they reveal. Look, for example, at the graveyard of decimated olive trees in an area earmarked for annexation to the east of Jerusalem. I have known Palestinian farmers who treat their olive trees—sometimes their main life support—like beloved children, and who sit in mourning when a tree is killed by settlers or soldiers…

To my mind the most powerful of Koudelka’s images is the final one in the book: Wall to the left, Wall to the right, a menacing emptiness in between, a lifeless place fixed in concrete and leading nowhere, despite the sadly hopeful sign pasted on the left-hand wall, pointing one way to Jerusalem, and the other way to Rachel’s Tomb, where the Matriarch Rachel weeps for her children.

And yet, as Shulman implies and James Johnson reiterates here, these images are empty of life and, at the limit, the panoramic gaze seems to ‘depersonalise suffering’… (which, if you follow Eyal Weizman‘s Hollow Land, should come as no surprise, though I think it’s also possible to read these photographs in other, mournful – indeed, haunted – ways).  More from Shulman in his Dark Hope: working for peace in Israel and Palestine (2003).


1 thought on “Stilled life

  1. Pingback: Cracks in the Wall? | geographical imaginations

Comments are closed.