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Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Asim Rafiqi and Koudelka's Holy Landscapes

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. 


Stan B. said...

Haviv sells his photos to weapons manufacturers, Salgado sells out to mining companies, and now... this. Wonder what Koudleka would have had to say about that wall had it been around Prague? Man, it really doesn't take all that much to shake the 'shining lights' of photography. As the economic/digital crunch continues to ravage the pro landscape, I suppose one can only expect more of the same...

I guess doing weddings isn't just my vision of hell.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Stan. I think it's a sign that we shouldn't elevate photographers too much and pay excessuve attention to ethical constructs that are built around photography. Photographers are just normal human beings with blind spots and vulnerabilities. They don't save lives, they are not seers, they rarely make a difference and we shouldn't pretend that they do. They are people and like all people they can be disingenous, cowardly, ignorant and crass. And they can be honourable, honest, revealing and poetic. Most of the best photographers are a mix of the positive and the negative - we should accept that a little more.

joao henriques said...

Dear Colin, thanks for keeping the good articles coming. Some comments: a landscape photographer, unless he lived under a rock and/or was the uber modernist/saloonist, might know what the (visual) term landscape is all about: territory and its uses, phenomenology of the place, or in a less expensive word, experience, and artialisation of nature. koudelkas's speech seems a bit lost in "neither this nor that" but definitely anchored on the art side. for him it's just enough to look at the pictures, he doesn't need to know what the photographers say. partly i agree, the photographers words are not so important but the rest of the "picture" is. photographers tend to transfer their narcissism to their images "i'm not important, images are" they say, failing to recognize photography as a very very small lens to understand the world nevertheless thinking that they (or anyone) does see beyond appearances. he chooses to be ignorant when definitely he's not, is that a form of cowardice? he knows the potential public and the potential problems that kind of public brings, is that the reason to address things he the terms he did it? if he wanted to disengage with the work as he so vehemently affirms why didn't it just refuse to do it?

colin pantall said...

thanks Joao. Disengagement with the place, a certain disingenuousness then. It does seem odd and you summed it up quite nicely. I'm struggling to make sense of it, to be honest.

Stan B. said...

I can take the personal short comings and failings, it's all part of the human mix and everyone rationalizes, incl yours truly. Just get tired of being pissed on and told it's raining.

I criticized Burtynsky once, and I was 100% Wrong. If he did open his mouth, he'd lose all access. Maybe that was also at play here, I don't know. The difference is Burtynsky made his argument, one can only take it at face value- and it sure as hell made sense. Here, we just have someone being disingenuous, as you well point out, someone who should know better, does know better and ultimately, should do better.

I can appreciate this work solely for the beauty it portrays, beauty that masks the grave injustice it portrays. But it could be so much more. It is a scar with a multitude of consequences that Mr. Koudelka refuses to acknowledge. The land can be made whole with its removal, the people will take considerably longer to heal.