above image from the Visualizing Palestine Project
So I go into one of those twitterific discussions about this post from Josef Koudelka's new work on the Wall in Palestine and this response from Asim Rafiqi.
The title is The Moral And Intellectual Cowardice Of Josef Koudelka, which seems a bit harsh.
I'm not sure that I'm that brave that I would call either Koudelka or Rafiqi a coward.
Rafiqi starts by pulling apart Koudelka's opening gambit of
…I don’t want to get mixed up with Israel because it’s very, very complicated…
On his blog, Rafiqi says about his projects"It is difficult for me to talk in public about my personal projects." He works in Pakistan, and from the very strong work that he is showing, one can imagine why his other projects might be difficult to talk about.
But things are difficult to talk about, and not just because they of the complexities of the politics or religion of a place, but because talking about them can open a whole can of worms. Talking about Israel in a particular way in some places can threaten one's funding, one's livelihood and make one the target of a whole bunch of religious and ideoligical extremists and opportunists. It can lead to an endless trail of tiresome arguments by people who know their UN resolutions inside out and have a counter attack consisting of low level psychological warfare with high end bullying and brainwashing - with a toxic dose of denial thrown in with the full gamut of defence mechanisms that will leave you feeling bruised and dirty.
You don't want to go there. Not if you're a coward like me anyways.
A similar thing applies in other areas, including Pakistan or the UK. This might be something major or something quite everyday. There are things that have become accepted taboos - not wearing a poppy in the UK for example, out of the collective militarisation and conformism that has happened in the UK over the last 30 years. Newsreader Charlene White is an example of what happens when you stand out.
Anyway, this is what Rafiqi wrote about Koudelka.
I wanted to give this post a gentler title. I wanted to do that because I have been an admirer of Koudelka’s work for years, considering his book Gypsies to be one of the most important influences in pushing me to become a photographer. For me he has always been the photographer famous for his independence of thought, his personal moral and political integrity and his public reputation as a man whose works embody a moral and social conscience. So it was shocking to read his recent interview in the New York Times Lens blog about his work on the Israeli wall that scars the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza (Koudelka only documented as far as I know the wall as it exists in the West Bank). To find that this otherwise intelligent individual, with enough intellectual and emotional independence to come to an honest conclusion about what is taking place in the West Bank, choses to hide behind an apolitical and frankly cowardly language of ‘environment’ and ‘its too complex’ was staggering to confront. It was down right shameful to read.
Rafiqi continues to pick out pieces of the interview where Koudelka focusses on the landscape (and by extension the Israeli Wall) as the victim of both sides of the conflict. He accuses Koudelka of a lack of empathy with the people. This is what Koudelka says,
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.
And this is Rafiqi's response to another Koudelka quote.
What is interesting for me is that I showed these books in Israel and everyone told me this book is not a political book — that this is about man and the place. This book is not about conflict — of course you can take it as you want.
I wonder if Mr. Koudelka thought about showing this book in Palestine and to Palestinians? I suspect not because there he would have had to deal with the inconvenient truth about the real meaning of the wall. And thatit is in fact very much about a conflict! But no matter how much Koudeka tries to dodge the meaning and brutal realities he refuses to speak about in the interview, or in the book (the book lacks text – see my post Offering Silence To The Oppressed Or How Photography Can Become A Weapon Of Repression on this issue!), he can’t help but reveal something tremendously insidious
So something is going on, but it seems to be a partisanship (the holy landscape? Really.). But is this lack of empathy really cowardice. I don't know. The interview is quite striking in its lack of real engagement with what I imagine to be the realities of the place. Perhaps it is just lack of empathy or lack of identification or lack of... insight maybe.
So perhaps it should be Ignorance in the title rather than Cowardice. Or maybe not. Who knows, but the interview doesn't sit pretty. Pictures are great though but only if they are political. If they are not political, it makes them part of a tumblr stream that ends up on an Erik Kessels Installation. And that's where nobody wants to be.