A photographer friend, Asim Rafiqui, has alerted me through his blog Spinning Head to a depressingly unilluminating / illuminating interview in the NYT with Josef Koudelka, one of photography’s grandmasters.
Koudelka has just published a book of his photographs of the wall Israel has built across Palestine. By all accounts the photographs are an unequivocal indictment of Israel’s imprisonment of the Palestinians. If only the same could be said of his interview.
The elderly Koudelka has reached a point in his career and his life where one might have hoped that he would not have to worry too much about contradicting dominant narratives (i.e. myths) or about damaging his reputation. But it seems saying critical things about Israel, rather than just showing them, is career-death even for someone like Koudelka. Instead he starts the interview observing that he had always before avoided visiting the “holy land” and finally came under pressure and with great reluctance: “I don’t want to get mixed up with Israel because it’s very, very complicated”.
Rarely has such a heavy burden been placed on that word “complicated”.
As Rafiqui notes of a man he views as a mentor, Koudelka talks only about the effects of the wall on the physical “landscape” – as if the humans in that landscape are incidental or irrelevant to what has occurred. For me, the interview throws a very different light on his photos, or at least the ones published by the NYT, which show the wall in all its physical horror but barely feature real-life (Palestinian) human beings. In Koudelka’s photographs, an act of barbarity is portrayed, but supposedly one without victims.
In one of the greatest acts of dissociation I can recall, Koudelka walks into the bantustans of the West Bank – a region teeming with a few million imprisoned and brutalised human beings, and is moved by the destruction of the landscape! That is, he choses one of the greatest physical structures of political, cultural, historical and social segregation and negation concocted in modern history and reproduces it in his images as an apolitical statement about the environment. …
Koudelka’s explanations very quickly veer into the pathetic and cowardly, constructing a ‘moral outrage’ against the destruction of the landscape, and a crass, inhumane, clownish equivalence between crimes against humanity and crimes against the landscape. …
It is difficult to fathom the cowardice that underpins Koudelka’s prioritisation of a mythical holy landscape over a real human one. It takes a tremendous amount of ignorance, or an equally large amount of hypocrisy to make such a claim. I find it unbelievable that this otherwise intelligent man spent at least 3 weeks on multiple trips over 4 years amongst the dispossessed, harassed, humiliated, imprisoned, brutalised, demean, denigrated, violated, trapped and helpless Palestinian population, and came back with an ‘apolitical outrage’ about the landscape. But Koudelka must have seen it all. He just chose not to say anything about it, to turn his eyes away from it, to erase his moral conscience about it. He saw it all, but he chose not to include it in the photos, or in the text. And now not even in his interview.
The interview can be found here: