It is typically photojournalists who grapple with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but fine-art photographers have also ventured in. A decade ago, Frédéric Brenner spearheaded a project called “This Place,” to explore Israel and the West Bank “as a place and metaphor” with 11 other photographers. His hope was that they’d produce individual bodies of work that transcended the usual political dichotomies—and shouting.
Participants included Wendy Ewald, Stephen Shore, Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, Gilles Peress, and Josef Koudelka, to name several. “This Place” spawned some notable books and exhibitions. One of the most recent is Fazal Sheikh’s “Independence/Nakba.” It is the final part of his “Erasure Triology,” which explores the erasure and preservation of memory through the lens of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Steidl published the trilogy as a book last fall.
Now on view at Pace/MacGill Gallery until June 11, “Independence/Nakba” consists of diptychs pairing portraits of subjects from both sides of the conflict. Sheikh made a total of 66 diptychs—one pair of portraits for each year from 1948, when Israel was founded and thousands of Palestinians were expelled from the land, to 2013, when Sheikh finished the project. The pairs of subjects gradually increase in age, from toddlers to the elderly. All of them either lived in Palestine before the founding of Israel, or are descendants of people who lived there.
“The double portraits ask us to think not only about the relations that existed between Israelis and Palestinians before the war…but also about the impossible politics of separation that, still today, maintain a distinction between Israeli liberation and Palestinian catastrophe [nakba],” Sheikh says in his artist’s statement about the project. “Staging a relation across a line of division, the portraits invite us to register the enduring bonds that tie the past, the present, and the future together.”
Sheikh coaxes viewers to look closely at the subjects—and at their own assumptions. He shot in black and white using diffused light, giving the portraits a timeless feeling. He uses a narrow depth of field to draw viewers to the eyes of the subjects, who gaze directly at the camera and provoke questions (What are they thinking? What are their circumstances? What are their politics?) but provide few answers. Pairs of subjects look nothing alike, but some subtle feature—the shape of the lips, say, or eyes of different sizes—connects them, visually and metaphorically.
The cumulative effect is to call into question facile dichotomies such as good/evil and perpetrator/victim that help keep the intractable conflict going around in circles. —David Walker