02 December 2013

Koudelka Interview - Follow-Up (2)

I've just come across this critical and troubling post regarding the recent two part interview with Josef Koudelka on the Lens Blog at The New York Times. I noted the Koudelka interview here when it appeared. Prior to that I posted a link here to an essay by David Shulman on Koudelka's Wall; in that essay Shulman raises some of the factual matters noted in the post that prompted me to write on Koudelka once again.

Although I would need to inquire further, the problems seem to lie primarily with editorial decisions at The Times rather than with Koudelka. No one should be surprised by shenanigan's at The Times. Note what Shulman says of the "separation barrier": "If you haven’t seen it with your own eyes but would like to know what it is like, your best option is to study Wall, Josef Koudelka’s new book of eloquent black-and-white photographs, taken over four years in repeated trips to Israel and Palestine." Shulman notes that the wall does not actually separate Israel and Palestine, but encroaches systematically on the latter. Indeed, he suggests that: "The Wall has become one more instrument—some would say the most useful of all—in the ongoing land-grab that is the real, indeed perhaps the sole, raison d’être of the Occupation."

For his part, Koudelka makes clear that he is not sanguine. "Of course I don’t have any illusion about this book that it will change anything. I am just showing what I saw. That’s all." and "I am not this guy who wants to change the world — of course I would be happy if it helped." This strikes me as unexceptional. Critics, though, do seem to have taken exception to these remarks:
I think it is not only about the wall, my book is about the wall and the Israel and Palestinian landscape. You have this divided country and these people who react certain ways to these conditions.

For me, Palestinian or Israeli, I look at you for who you are. When I left Czechoslovakia people asked me: “Are you a Communist? Are you opposed to communism? Are you an anarchist?” How you label it doesn’t mean much to me.

We have a divided country and each of two groups of people tries to defend themselves. The one that can’t defend itself is the landscape. I call what is going on in this most holy landscape, which is most holy for a big part of humanity, is the crime against the landscape. As there exists crimes against humanity there should exist the crime against the landscape.

I am principally against destruction — and what’s going on is a crime against the landscape that is enormous in one of the most important landscapes in the world.
 But this strikes me, too, as unexceptional. (Meaning I see no reason to take exception to his comments.) Why? I read that passage in light of this one:
An Israeli poet said to me, “You did something important — you made the invisible visible.” He meant that Israelis don’t want to see the wall and they don’t even want to speak about it. They don’t go across it. It is very easy to live in one country, in France or Czechoslovakia, and ignore completely one thing, one important thing, that you want to ignore.
And, surprisingly, this comment brought to mind Jacques Rancière's essay on the intolerable image.* I don't have time to offer a detailed discussion. But Rancière invokes this image of an Israeli constructed roadblock on a Palestinian road from the series WB by Sophie Ristelhueber.

From: WB. Photograph © Sophie Ristelhueber.

As Shulman notes: "We tend to imagine the Wall as a single, monolithic structure. In reality it is a set or system of walls and fences within walls and fences, a recursive infinite regress of barbed wire, rock, and cement that turns inward as it slithers over the hills, enclosing most Palestinian villages on the occupied West Bank in non-contiguous enclaves even as it incorporates into Israel as many Jewish settlements as possible." Apparently, it is not even continuous. It is simply part, as Shulman suggests, of a wider, more concerted strategy.

As in Koudelka's images there is intolerable suffering and behavior in this image. But it is not shown. This illustrates Rancière's point:
The classic use of the intolerable image traced a straight line from the intolerable spectacle to awareness of the reality it was expressing; and from that to the desire to act in order to change it. But this link between representation, knowledge and action was sheer presupposition.  . . . Renewed confidence in the political capacity of images assumes a critique of this strategic schema. The images of art do not supply weapons for battles. They help sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said, and what can be thought and, consequently a new landscape of the possible.
Rancière thinks Ristelhueber's "little pile of stones" performs just this function. So too does Koudelka's series on the separation barrier. Not because he, like Ristelhueber, on Rancière's account, "has refused to photograph the great separation wall that embodies the policy of the state and is a media icon of 'the Middle East problem'," but because he too has focused on the various segments of the wall as "elements of the landscape" that inflict "wounds and scars ... on a territory." Koudelka is uninterested in the indignation his critics express. (He knows first hand about living behind a wall.) He is interested in making the scars and wounds on landscape visible. In that, it seems to me, he succeeds.
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* In Jacques Rancière. 2009. The Emancipated Spectator. Verso. I thank Mark Reinhardt for persuading me that it is worth reading Rancière. I finally seem to have gotten something from the exercise!

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