Discussing the “Radical Otherness” of Israel with Frédéric Brenner
Only such a spectrum of perspectives could really do justice to the complexities and to the fact that Israel is totally un-understandable.
While researching our September 2014 Forum on Israel and Palestine, the magazine’s art department became interested in THIS PLACE, an expansive project developed by the French photographer Frédéric Brenner. Starting in 2009, Brenner sent twelve photographers to Israel and the West Bank, where they each spent six months capturing what he calls the “radical otherness” of the area’s ethnic and religious groups—the ways in which their political, social, and religious identities are always forged in opposition to other groups. Among the project’s contributors were pioneering photojournalists Josef Koudelka and Gilles Peress, as well as conceptual fine-art photographers like Jeff Wall and Thomas Struth. Brenner’s insight into the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—developed during projects like Diaspora: Homelands in Exile, in which he documented Jewish communities outside of Israel—was that no single voice could capture the issue’s complexity; instead he envisioned a collaborative project that would produce “a diverse and fragmented portrait, alive with all the rifts and paradoxes of this important and highly contested place.”
THIS PLACE is modeled on the grand photographic “missions” of the past two centuries, projects that had profound impacts on the nations they portrayed and on the medium of photography itself. Beginning in the 1850s, during the height of industrialization, the French government created the Mission Héliographique, dispatching five photographers to document the country’s rapidly disappearing architecture. The images produced were fundamental in defining France’s sense of self, its so-called “patrimoine,” in a time of intense social and political change. Along the way, new pictorial techniques were developed, and the project solidified the reputations of several photographers—notably Édouard Baldus and Gustave Le Gray. Nearly a century later, the United States government undertook a similar project in an effort to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression. In 1935, the Farm Security Administration sent out photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks to report on farmers whose livelihoods had been destroyed by the financial crash. The profoundly humanist work they produced (discussed by Stuart Franklin in our December 2014) catalyzed public awareness of the Depression’s effects and helped cement widespread support for President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Today, the FSA photographs are considered a “national treasure” and their creators paragons of a socially engaged documentary practice.
An exhibition of over 500 photographs produced by the THIS PLACE photographers will travel throughout Europe, Israel, and the United States over the next two years. The first leg, at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague, opened two weeks ago. In addition, the photos produced for THIS PLACE will be published in twelve monographs, as well as in a catalogue of the exhibition. MACK Books, which is publishing many of the monographs, is also producing an e-book This past summer, I spoke to Brenner about the genesis of THIS PLACE, the problems of visually capturing Israel and the West Bank, and how the photographer can and should be considered an visual archeologist.
Can you tell me about how THIS PLACE came about? Did you have particular photographers or artists in mind who you thought could picture Israel and the West Bank in arresting or novel ways?
I originally wanted to do this project myself. And then I thought it was far more interesting to question the very notion of otherness, and also to pay justice to the unbearable complexity and dissonance of Israel. I needed to have those other witnesses, other eyes. The working hypothesis of the project is to look at Israel and the West Bank as place and metaphor, as a place of radical otherness. It’s because I look at Israel as a place of radical alterity, of radical otherness, of radical dissonance, that I wanted to bring others to question that otherness.
As I was shaping my working hypothesis, I was thinking, simultaneously: who would be the right candidate? Who are the obvious suspects? Then I met with my dealer Howard Greenberg, a person with whom I exchange ideas. I’ve had an ongoing conversation with him. He basically gathered a small team of curators and asked them this question. We had an A-list and a B-list. And then I interviewed those people. I used both the sponsors and the photographers as a soundboard to try to understand what I wanted to do with the working hypothesis, which was shaped over the period of a year. Howard and I, and the curators who were helping us, were responsible for the first six artists. It was really a mix. Jeff Rosenheim, the curator of photography at the Met, was our consultant curator for two years, and helped us identify or validate the names of photographers. It’s a very, very diverse list. But it came about in a very organic way, I would say.
Do you consider your contribution to THIS PLACE, An Archaeology of Fear and Desire, an extension of your past work? Were there themes that you wanted to explore in Israel, as opposed to abroad—a kind of return home, in a sense?
If you think of my work as an exploration of the human condition, you can look at it as two chapters—two sides of a coin. On one side: how, as a people, the Jews have been able to survive with a portable identity, and how history unfolded in such a way during Second World War that it brought the Jews to reclaim sovereignty on a piece of land. After having spent so much time questioning this capacity of becoming the other and still remaining oneself—identity as a journey between the other and the self, back and forth—I love the idea of questioning how, all of a sudden, sovereignty is the compass which redefines the identity of a people who lived for two thousand years with this portable identity. How that reclaiming of sovereignty after World War II resulted in a reconfiguration of roles and relations among all the central actors. And of course, for me, it’s not Jews and Arab-Muslims; it’s really a triangulation. It’s really Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. This is what has been played and replayed for two thousand years.
Again and again.
Again and again, and that’s really why it fascinates me. That’s why we are where we are today. When I initiated the project, I thought it was too bad that photojournalism has become what it has become. Publications no longer have the means to allow W. Eugene Smith or other photojournalists to reinvent photojournalism. You have a few people like Gilles Peress maybe, but very few who are pushing its boundaries. This is what interests me. I thought that only through what I call “une parole poétique,” only through a poetic approach, could we dare to question those constructs in which we are trapped and in which we are forced to trap others—to exit a dual paradigm for Israel and against Israel, as victim and as perpetrator. To try to look at the root level, at the archaic stakes, before it becomes political and religious. When I say this is, for me, an exploration of the human condition, it’s because I look at Israel as this phenomenal experimental laboratory. It’s an incubator—there’s something cooking. Something is being invented. And in it, you have all the ingredients that modernity faces today, that postmodernity faces today. I believe the photographers acknowledged that. It’s Israel as a place and metaphor—Israel as a place of radical alterity, of radical otherness, and of dissonance. A place where every single person is the other of somebody else, close and far others: among Jews, an Ethiopian for a Russian; a Moroccan for a German; an Arab-Christian for an Arab-Muslim, or an Armenian. There are so many “others” and the diagonals are infinite. And there’s this incredible quote by Fernando Pessoa, one of my great heroes, and he says that “each one is several, many, is a profusion of selves…in the outstretched colony of our being, people of all kinds exist who think and feel in different ways.” If we really dare to experience the foreign and the strange within, if we listen to the polyphony inside each of us, then we will get to all the madness happening there. Really, this experience of otherness is what this twenty-five year journey is about: trying to understand how people construct their identity.
This is certainly a theme you began in your project Diaspora. How did the experience of that project influence how you’ve organized THIS PLACE?
Diaspora, in a way, is the model for THIS PLACE. Basically, all its images were nurtured by and through dialogues. I really wanted to pay tribute to those people who nurtured my intuition and with whom I had conversations for two, five, ten years. I wanted to redistribute the cards: to say that the photograph is not the end of the process; it’s just the beginning. The photograph is an open text. Each person has his or her own take on an image. So, for Diaspora, I invited twenty-five people, from Jacques Derrida to George Steiner to Stanley Cavell, to question, from different places and disciplines, what it means to live with a portable identity. And there’s hardly any intersection or any resolution. There are just questions. Did I succeed? I succeeded in that people cannot make sense of what this place is about. The project doesn’t give any answers. And that’s the link between what I did with Diaspora and what I did with THIS PLACE.
So, for me, really, Diaspora was an initiatory journey that opened me up to the notion of paradox, ambivalence, and discontinuity. With THIS PLACE, I wanted to bring those artists to Israel and expose them to the largest possible spectrum of narratives, to get them totally confused, but on a higher level, in order to create a vacuum for each of them to start reclaiming the working hypothesis and define the vectors of their own project. I would say that I left this diaspora journey much more confused than I was when I entered it.
The other photographers involved—including Martin Kollar, Josef Koudelka, Peress, Fazal Sheikh—bring to bear a very diverse set of intellectual and visual perspectives. In many ways, THIS PLACE recalls past so-called photographic missions, like France’s Mission Héliographique and the US’s Farm Security Administration. Did you have those projects in mind when formulating the underlying concept and execution of THIS PLACE?
La DATAR, or la Délégation interministérielle à l'aménagement du territoire et à l'attractivité régionale, was created by the French government in 1963 to coordinate French territorial policy at the regional level. In 1984, the delegation started La mission photographique de la DATAR, and sent out twenty-nine photographers to document the French cultural and physical landscape of the 1980s.
About a year and half after I finished Diaspora, I remember taking down from my bookshelf the big La DATAR book, Paysages Photographiques, which had a photograph from the Mission Héliographique on the cover. I knew all the photographs from La DATAR, because in the early Eighties, I was printing my work at a lab called Picto, which was the best in Paris, and all the La DATAR photographers came through. So I had never really opened the book, as I already knew every print. And then I opened it, and it had an introduction by François Hers, basically explaining the genesis of the project and the influence of the Mission Héliographique. And, in reading the essay, I thought, “Wow, how is it possible that nobody ever thought of organizing something of that caliber in Israel—Israel as the locus of paradox, ambivalence, a place that gave birth to three major narratives that have been in conflict for the past two thousand years—why has nobody thought of that?” That was really the inspiration for THIS PLACE.
And then, I was having a lunch with a friend of mine in New York, and he said, “Frédéric, you are like an archaeologist.” And I really envisioned this project as one might approach an archaeological dig—you find the perimeters and the parameters, the grid. Because in archaeology you set out with a question and seek only the answer to that question, if the parameters are too limited there’s a lot you separate out when you’re sifting. By putting a magnifying glass on something, you blind yourself to all other questions, and this is the danger in Israel. But instead, imagine you have twelve sifters! I like the idea of multi-sifting. So many more possibilities, maybe much less lost.
You know, through Diaspora, I was boring into the very question of otherness—and the Jews have been the defining others in Europe. I published two books about Israel: one with A.B. Yehoshua in 1988 and one with Yehuda Amichai, the poet, in ‘98. And I thought at some point I would love to go back and dig even deeper. But because I looked at Israel as a place of radical and unbearable otherness, it would make the most sense to invite a very large spectrum of others to question otherness. Others in ethnic, cultural and religious origin, and grammar, also. You can see a very broad spectrum of visual grammars and syntaxes with these photographers. I ask: What do Jeff Wall and Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee and Thomas Struth, Stephen Shore and myself, what do we really have in common? Such a broad spectrum—that’s what I really like. And now we have eight books out, and when you look at them it’s incredible. The titles are so diverse and powerful. Only such a spectrum of perspectives could really do justice to the complexities and to the fact that Israel is totally un-understandable. It is just a major enigma.
How are you thinking about exhibiting all these different voices together in a single exhibition space? Do you consider the accompanying publications as separate from the exhibition?
Yes. For me, it’s another take on a corpus of images. There’s the way people relate to the large format of the exhibition, and the book is where photographers can really tell the story they want to tell with fewer limitations than in the exhibition. What’s brilliant about Charlotte Cotton, the curator of the exhibition, is that she’s not trying to impose one narrative; she’s embracing the twelve perspectives by articulating them together. Josef’s “Wall” project, hung along one partition, cuts through the exhibition a long scar. Nick, who did a true cataloguing of over 180 settlements with GPS coordinates and longitudes and latitudes, has a wall covered with contact sheets. Jeff Wall has a single image. Fazal Sheikh’s project presents in a grid of forty-eight images. It is called “Desert Bloom” and examines the “sedentarization” of nomadic Bedouins, the erasure of their identity. (A state does not feel comfortable in front of something that moves all the time.) The ultimate goal is that the entire archive of this project will be deposited eventually in two major institutions—one in America and one in Israel.
With the exhibition opening, and almost all the books completed, how does it feel?
It has been a very long journey. You cannot even imagine, just running a project with twelve artists like that… But it’s been very rewarding. The idea was really to look at the archaic stakes and to ask deep and painful questions, and this is what people have done. But I would say when I tried to set the agenda of this project it was really an attempt to re-contextualize Israel as place and metaphor without complacency, but with compassion. This is the big word of this project. Compassion. And, in truth, photographers have opened their hearts. And it’s also about sharing; I see my life as sharing. And I wanted to share with those people. I’m not Israeli; I’m French. I’ve done quite serious work on Diaspora, but I thought: no, I need to invite more voices. I really consider myself a vessel for a project that grew far beyond my understanding.