Testimony: Photographs by Gillian Laub, Essays by Ariella Azoulay and Raef Zreik, Aperture, 103 pages, $40
Something strange is happening in photography: Poverty, misfortune, wretchedness and suffering are what photograph splendidly; the drama of the anguished individual, the tattered emaciation of indigence and hunger, the outcry of grief and the bleeding victims blur the goal. How can the photographer, who tries to organize the frame so it is pleasing to the eye, also convey the horror?
During a visit to New York a few weeks ago, I entered the Lincoln Center branch of Barnes & Noble. A designer bookshop that is almost sterile in its atmosphere, it covers three escalator-connected floors and is adorned with huge wall paintings of the giants of Anglo-Saxon literature. Its glass walls are crystalline and it contains a high-tech cafe. Prominently displayed among the tens of thousands of books was a "Darfur album," containing gorgeous shots of the atrocities. The aesthetics are in competition with the atrocities, and we are hard-pressed to say which draws the eye more - the beauty of the photographs or their horrific content. Are we awed by the African landscape, so artfully framed, or are we appalled by the horror and despair? And what do we remember, in the end? Wars, too, photograph "well": fighters, death, shooting, tanks, power, weakness, helplessness. The vanquisher and the vanquished.
Regrettably, as one who was born in Israel and lives here, I have seen many such photographs, as has every Israeli. We are inured to these images. We are inundated with them every day in the newspapers, on television, in films and on the Internet. At most we experience a split-second frisson and move on to the next frame. We have wearied of our hundred-year war.
Still, how are we to continue - we, the brutalized photographers who are witness to and repulsed by the occupation, the war, the suffering, the fears and the hatreds - how are we to continue describing what our eyes see without becoming disgusted? How can we interest ourselves and the observer in this enervating routine, so wearisome and so wearying?
Gillian Laub, a young Jewish-American photographer, has succeeded in collating graphic testimony of the conflict that is both riveting and different. She spent five years photographing Israeli youngsters - Jews and Arabs - and Palestinians in the territories. As a "photographer who lives in New York," she writes in the introduction, "I was hoping to find out what it was like to live in a place plagued by constant conflict." She acknowledges that "the images in the newspapers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were devastating and horrific. These images were one part of the story, but I knew they weren't the whole story. I had a sense that I wanted to photograph the complexity of individual lives, but not in the way people and events or the bloody carnage on either side made the headline news. Instead, I was interested in the enigmatic spirit of determination, the optimism of individuals living through these events, that had captivated me as a teenager. I wanted to get beyond the stereotypes and the idea of the 'enemy' that I had encountered earlier and to hear the individual stories..." Laub's concern was that she would present a complex story in a two- dimensional way - solely through photographs. "I wanted to provide a platform for a multiplicity of perspectives, not just my own."
As a solution to the problem of the two- dimensional photograph, Laub asked her subjects to write a personal declaration in the form of a testament. She chose to focus on young people, she explains, because it is they who determine the future. The result is a collection of portraits of young people, all of whom live in this place, a place that others - who may be people like them - are making unbearable. But the personal statements of nearly all of them convey a message of peace. As Ron, a soldier photographed with his weapon, writes, "I think Hebrew and Arabic are the only languages in the world where the greeting is the word 'peace.' All that's left is to implement it."
The subjects are anonymous; all of them look into the camera and "have their picture taken." And the pictures are excellent. Most of them are intriguing, filled with details and with hints that transcend the faces. Each photograph tells a story, thereby, in my opinion, rendering superfluous the personal statements, most of which read like Peace Now communiques.
The book begins with quite routine photographs of individuals or groups, as if to say, "Let me introduce Israeli and Palestinian youth in their natural habitat." But in short order the viewer comes to the heart of the matter: young people from both sides who were victims of terror and who expose their wounds: amputated limbs, burn scars, bizarre orthopedic devices growing out of their bodies. Crutches, wheelchairs, eyes that will never see again - portraits of the catastrophe, of the war. The images are provocative and uncompromising but not pugnacious or humiliating.
Nearly all the subjects were innocent passersby, who were wounded by chance. Anna, now paralyzed, was a waitress at the Park Hotel in Netanya, where a suicide bomber blew himself up on Passover Eve 2002; Murad, from Hebron, was playing with a plastic toy rifle and was shot by Israeli soldiers and lost a foot as a result. The camera does not lie: The young body, twisted and disabled, and the sad eyes assault the observer, and for a split second, in some involuntary spasm of the brain, you imagine yourself armless, legless, blind, paralyzed - just for a twinkling. The young people we are looking at will continue to live like this for many years.
Laub has succeeded, in these fine photographs, in showing disability as the routine, not the exceptional. And this is our tragedy, Jews and Arabs alike, in this land. The trouble is that we Israelis no longer see this - or, more accurately, do not observe and do not draw the obvious conclusion, as recommended by most of the book's subjects: to make peace. It is a pity that we need a foreign photographer to show us the disability of both peoples. Laub manages to touch the pain and convey it to even the most jaded viewer. The deformities and incapacities cry out to the heavens, but the sad eyes of the youngsters tell most of all the story of the misfortune of us all.
Few Israeli photographers focus on this all-important theme or choose to pursue documentary photography instead of the "artistic" type - photography that does not concentrate on the concrete but on symbolic images, propelled by the photographer's desire to become famous and sell and be shown in galleries. The problem is that even those who touch and photograph and document the calamity we are living do not get the exposure they deserve. In sum, this is an excellent book. Too bad, though, that the cover photograph is of a beautiful Israeli female soldier - but maybe this is the best way to market our troubles.
Haaretz photographer Alex Levac won the Israel Prize for Photography in 2005.
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