Shooting Israel / 'A Crime Against Sacred Soil'

Czech-born Josef Koudelka chose to focus his lens on the separation barrier, because 'I grew up behind a wall and am very sensitive to all people who grew up behind a wall'.

Josef Koudelka closed a circle this year, perhaps the most important one in his life. He relates with pride that 43 years after the Prague Spring, and 41 years after he fled to the West, an exhibition of his photographs has been mounted in Moscow. And not just any exhibition: For the first time, Koudelka is showing his dramatic photos of the crushing by Soviet tanks, in the name of the Warsaw Pact, of Czechoslovakia's brief interlude of liberalization.

"These are not just about the Soviet invasion. It is a story about one man who has a gun and another who doesn't have a gun. This is something universal and therefore it engages me," says Koudelka, who traveled to the Russian capital for the opening of the exhibition. Do those historic pictures, which have been described as "one of the most important photojournalistic series in history," still have any resonance today? Koudelka believes they do. He says his hope is that there will be young people in Russia and elsewhere "who will see the Russian soldiers who arrived in Czechoslovakia and were put in the position of being the country's occupiers" - and draw conclusions.

Separation barrier by Josef Koudelka
Josef Koudelka

In August 1968, Koudelka faced down some of those occupiers with his camera. At the time he was a engineer and novice photographer who realized that a political and human drama was unfolding before his eyes. He photographed the young people fighting the Soviet tanks bare-handed, documented the burning buildings, and immortalized moments of fear and hope - such as when a group of people stood outside the Communist Party headquarters in Prague, singing the Czech national anthem.

The photos were smuggled out to the West and published under the pseudonymous initials PP, which stood for Prague Photographer - and played an important role in exposing the world to the Soviet regime's web of lies about its "friendly intervention" in Czechoslovakia. After he was granted political asylum in France and began working for the famous Magnum photography agency, Koudelka's name became well known. Indeed, he became a living legend in photojournalism, in particular, and in photography, in general. Among the awards he has won for photography are the prestigious Henri Cartier-Bresson prize in 1991, and the international Hasselblad Award in 1992.

The conclusion Koudelka has come to, and carried with him ever since is clear: "The man without the gun is more powerful." And with that insight he also came here last year, as part of the "Shooting Israel" photography project - albeit not without hesitation. "I am very picky about the things I do," he admits.

Along with his photos of Gypsies throughout Europe, (published in 1975 under the title "Gypsies" ), Koudelka is known for taking a long time with his projects. Maybe for this reason he hesitated so much before agreeing to come to Israel, with which he was not at all familiar.

As one who began his photographic career under an assumed name in the harsh days of communist Eastern Europe, it was mainly important to him in coming here, he says, to ensure at all costs "the possibility of photographing what I want - to control the project from start to finish." Only after a series of visits here, which he paid for out of his own pocket, did Koudelka sign the contract and join the global team of photographers that Frederic Brenner gathered together for "Shooting Israel."

Considering the place he fled four decades ago, Koudelka's choice of a site to focus on is not surprising, and is perhaps even predictable: the West Bank separation barrier, which Israel has been building since 2002.

"I grew up behind a wall," he says simply, "and because of that experience I am very sensitive to all the people who grew up behind a wall."

Judging at least by the way he describes things, knowledge of Israel and its geopolitical situation did not affect this choice. Koudelka repeats that he arrived in the country knowing very little, and deliberately refrained from reading up on the subject. "I came here a virgin," as he puts it.

Koudelka broadens his view of the separation barrier to include an overview of its route and of the territory it transverses, and of fences dividing the land in general (as in the work published here, photographed at Kalia in 2009). In the photo he chose for publication here, he spreads out before the viewer the land which the barrier bisects, the "division of space," as he puts it, and the response to it. He explains this decision without explicitly mentioning the subject of his photograph.

"For the past 17 years I have been preoccupied with the question of how man affects the landscape. And here we have one of the landscapes most important to people," he says, referring to it also as "the current Israeli landscape."

"What is happening here is a crime against the landscape. A crime against the most sacred soil," he charges. It was not an easy task for him, he admits: "Ordinarily I photograph things that I like. Unfortunately these are not things that make one happy."

Faced with that reality, he says he was hoping to "do something that has universal meaning."

In any event, Koudelka promises to return: "When the project is over, I will want to come back here in another year or two, to see the places [I photographed] and how they have changed."

It is apparently obvious to him, as well, that the barrier will still be around then, and for the foreseeable future.