Fotograf Magazine

This Place

At the end of 2014 the DOX Center for Contemporary Arts in Prague was host to the opening ceremony for the traveling photo-exhibition This Place, accompanied by an eponymous book. Initiated by the French photographer Frédéric Brenner, the project represents the perspective of twelve photographers on Israel and the East Bank of the Jordan today. Each of the participants approached the subject in their own unique way. Whereas Wendy Ewald spent six months in the region (her extensive contribution is the result of collaboration with fourteen local communities), Jeff Wall produced a single large-format photograph during a much shorter sojourn in the area. Among the artists Brenner invited to participate in the project are Martin Kollar, Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Gilles Peress, Fazal Sheikh, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Fox Solomon, Thomas Struth and Nick Waplington.

The book, published alongside the exhibition, is essentially an exhibition catalogue. The introductory essay by curator Charlotte Cotton focuses chiefly on the process of putting the exhibition together, and rather than expanding on his concept, Frédéric Brenner provides an outline of his motivation and the manner in which he approached the various artists involved in the project. Brenner’s own text represents a sort of coda to the book, as he writes on the new grammar and syntax of the language of art, opening a new perspective on an area that has been much photographed in the past.

The main part of the book consists of interviews with the artists involved and reproductions of their works. However, one learns more about the working method of the respective artists than Israel or the East Bank, since the interviews, mostly conducted by Charlotte Cotton, revolve primarily around the ways in which the artists became involved in the project, how long they spent in Israel, how they approached their collaborators, how they edit their pictures and select them for exhibition, or their approach to photography as such. Their relation to the actual place and their political views are thus very much in the background. The only artist who provides a more outspoken commentary is Josef Koudelka, who stresses the importance of the Czechoslovak experience of occupation and also distances himself from the claim made by a friend who criticized his work as pro-Israeli propaganda.

Dramatic subject matter related to military interventions by the Israeli armed forces, Palestinian suicide bombers or life in refugee camps occupy no particular place in either the book or the exhibition. On the contrary, the entire project corresponds with notions of an “unbiased” outsider view – since none of the artists actually lives in the area. At first glance, this may seem like a decent approach – showing a sense of place in its more mundane aspects, depicting scenes from the everyday lives of people, as well as the landscape and local landmarks. But does this not result in an undue anesthetization of daily life? The very concept of the book unfortunately elicits a positive answer to that question.

Johana Lomová