What Does an IDF Mock-up of an Arab Village Tell Us About Israel?

Daniel Tchetchik
Daniel Tchetchik
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Daniel Tchetchik
Daniel Tchetchik

London-based photographers Adam Broomberg ‏(South African, b. 1970‏) and Oliver Chanarin ‏(British, b. 1971‏) published a book in 2007 entitled “Chicago” ‏(Steidl; in English‏). It features photographs taken at an Israel Defense Forces urban-warfare training facility of that name, which is modeled after a typical Arab village. Recently, the two artists were interviewed by photographer Daniel Tchetchik.

I saw the work “Chicago” for the first time a few years ago and thought it was fascinating how this fake world you created reflected, to me, more of the reality here then all the so-called wartime images I’d seen before. Did you feel the same way?

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin: “We didn’t create the fake world, we just photographed some things that we found. You could call them ready-mades. Chicago is a structure designed and built by the IDF, not us. To explain what Chicago is ... Everything that happened, happened here first, in rehearsal: the invasion of Beirut, the first and second intifadas, the Gaza withdrawal, the battle of Fallujah − almost every one of Israel’s major tactical operations in the Middle East during the past three decades was performed in advance here in Chicago, an artificial but realistic Arab town built by the IDF for urban-warfare training.

“Although these buildings have been constructed in a pragmatic way, to train soldiers for combat in foreign, urban architectural settings, a sense of fantasy inevitably slips in. The place contains structures that are much more than what you might call architecture. There is a narrative built into the blank walls and door openings, a story about a city purged of enemies. It is not our fantasy but the fantasy of the soldiers who built it. Since we visited Tze’elim [the Negev army base where Chicago is located], it has been razed to the ground and rebuilt many times, and has significantly increased in size. Also, we would say that our photographs of Chicago are not exactly ‘war images.’ The classic images of conflict that we all have burnished in our minds are produced and distributed in a very different way to the way that ours function.

“Chicago” came out a few years ago. Tell us about the relevancy of the project then and today.

“We think it’s equally as relevant then as it is now. Our idea was to look at how states ‏(in this case, Israel‏) are aware of and use aesthetic strategies in very sophisticated ways. The images we found inside Tze’elim, of Israeli soldiers dressed up as Palestinian militants and used as target practice, is a clumsy example. The targets are almost a cartoon of what the enemy looks like. One of them is an enlarged image of a blaxploitation photograph. It seems the ‘other’ has a wide range in this case.

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Yasser Arafat, Ramallah (from 5x4' plate camera, 2004).Credit: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
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Chicago #10 (C-type print, 19x23', 2006).Credit: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
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Independence Park (C-type print, 19x23', 2006).Credit: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

There are more sophisticated examples in the book. The use of the forests, for instance. A forest suggests the sublime innocence of nature. We all know now ‏(the Jewish National Fund has admitted as much in Israeli courts‏) that many of the forests in Israel are planted over the sites of Arab villages destroyed in 1948.

“Mini-Israel is another example − a tourist site, an animated scale model of the State of Israel. A few things were interesting about this place: for instance, the only Arabs presented [here] are either religious ‏(in the act of praying‏) or shepherds. In other words, none are represented as contemporary active citizens. In Mini-Israel, every significant piece of architecture is represented except of course a very significant one − the so-called ‘security wall.’ Most bizarrely, a large section of the moving model was devoted to large buildings in the process of being built. This points to something interesting: that construction is used as part of the state’s arsenal. Buildings are ‘facts on the ground’ that can’t be denied. The narrative here is that the State of Israel is still in the process of being built.

I think the name Chicago is brilliant. To see the name of one of the biggest cities in the world and see an empty desert landscape is nothing short of chilling ... I’d be happy to hear your take on the name of the project.

“Chicago is the nickname given to the training camp in the Negev. We couldn’t get a clear answer why ... Most people agreed it was a nod to the gangster era, to the bullet-ridden Chicago of the 1920s.”

Having an outside perspective of Israel, what aspects of the culture do you think this series reflects?

“One of the most enduring memories we have from our trips to Israel was going to meet [former PLO leader Yasser] Arafat in his compound in Ramallah. This was several months before he died. He was imprisoned in his compound, of course, and we decided to photograph a strange object in his office: a low, steel shield on wheels with a small opening to peer through. This object was built especially for Arafat, who was a very short man. We also made a portrait of him with our 5x4 plate camera and on our return journey out of Israel, this film was X-rayed by the IDF Border Police over 30 times. It was clearly an act of willful destruction.

“Of course we were upset to find that the portrait of Arafat had been damaged by the X-ray machine. A green strip was discernable across the frame. But later we understood something important: that the damage from the X-ray was more important than the image recorded on the film.

“Somehow, the IDF had written on our image, making it a kind of collaboration. And [that] was far more revealing about the occupation of the West Bank than any photograph ever could be.”

Independence Park (C-type print, 19x23', 2006).Credit: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin