in conversation with Charlotte Cotton
‘This Place’ explores the complexity of Israel and the West Bank, as place and metaphor, through the eyes of twelve internationally acclaimed photographers. Their highly individualized works combine to create not a single, monolithic vision, but rather a diverse and fragmented portrait, alive to all the rifts and paradoxes of this important and much contested space.
The project follows in the tradition of such projects as the Mission Héliographique in nineteenth-century France and the Farm Security Administration in the United States, which gathered artists who use photography to ask essential questions about culture, society and the inner lives of individuals. Initiated by photographer Frederic Brenner, the completed project consists of a traveling exhibition, companion publications and a program of live events.
Frédéric Brenner was born in France in 1959. He is best known for his opus Diaspora, the result of a 25-year search in 40 countries to create a visual record of the Jewish people at the end of the twentieth century. Brenner has had solo exhibits at venues such as the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography in New York, Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie Arles, the Musee de l’Elysee in Lausanne, as well as in Mexico City, Tel Aviv, Paris, Amsterdam and Buenos Aires. Winner of Prix de Rome (1993), the Prix de Salon de la Photo (1982) and the Prix Niepce (1981), he has also directed an original film and has published seven books.
“Ultimately I believe that my incapacity to compartmentalize my identity bettered both the project at large and my own.”
— Frédéric Brenner
Charlotte Cotton: Frédéric, I’d like to start this interview by asking you about when you pinpoint the moment that you decided to making your own photographs as part of this project?
Frédéric Brenner: There’s not one moment, exactly. Many years back I had thought that at some point I would like to do some- thing in Israel, having spent more than twenty years exploring so many expressions of Jewishness, diaspora, portable identity and survival. It seems, retrospectively, obvious to me that I would come to question this issue of Jewish identity further, in its modern expression. The process of becoming clear about my working hypothesis — seeing Israel as a place of radical alterity, of radical ‘otherness’– made me envision other photographers becoming part of the project. As my idea started to crystallize, it made sense to invite ‘others’ to question ‘otherness’. But it was not until 2009 — three years after I initiated the project — that I committed to joining the project as a photographer since all my time was being devoted to running the project and fundraising.
CC: So you compartmentalized your identity as a photographer as something separate from that of the founder of This Place?
FB: Yes, at least I tried to compartmentalize and, thank God, I failed. I think these are strategies that one explores to create tension out of which something erupts; and one shouldn’t be fooled by one’s own fictions which at best are devices used in order to find one’s vantage point. I had a kind of back and forth with myself — should I do it, should I not do it — and while my frustration was growing bigger every day with being confined by the administration of the project as a whole, I decided to join. Ultimately I believe that my incapacity to compartmentalize my identity bettered both the project at large and my own.
CC: It’s important that you were not participating as a photographer too early or too late, isn’t it? It would have been strange if you had waited to make your own photographs until everyone else had completed, just as it would have been impossible to have made the initial approaches to the photographers if you had already decided to take on that role.
FB: Well, it was also a kind of psychological wrestling for me about how to photograph this place. The beginning of any project is always about wrestling: what is the story I really want to tell and how am I going to tell it, exploring content and form, knowing perfectly well that unresolved questions of form are first and foremost unresolved questions of content. But in addition to the two main technical questions — digital or film, and medium or large format — the other question was about whether to work in black and white or colour. While I knew intuitively that I couldn’t photograph in black and white anymore — I had done that and exclusively that for twenty-five years — I wasn’t ready at the start of This Place to photograph in colour. I had three years to resolve this question and then it was by putting my foot in the sea that the sea parted. I can see that the colour photographs I made are all quite monochromatic, so there’s a residual trace of my former faithfulness to black and white.
CC: And you also worked with 8 x 10 inch negatives? What do you think you achieve with these techniques?
FB: Beyond the aesthetic photographic considerations, it has to do with the ritual of making a photograph with an 8 x 10 inch camera and the way people relate to you. As my work has become more of a participatory and a performative process, I had to use the tools that offered me the scope to work in this way and the view camera has been a tool to that end.
CC: Tell me about why the Palace Hotel is what you call the ‘first photograph’ for your project.
FB: You should ask the Palace Hotel why I fell for its inside-out shell! I had never photographed architecture up until this point nor did I consider including any architectural images in a corpus of my work. But I was unusually attracted by this ruined coliseum: these are the real gifts of life for those who dare to adventure beyond the narrow pattern of the known and I believe that as much as we act, we are being acted upon and as much as we choose, we are being chosen. Retrospectively, it seems that everything I felt about this place is encapsulated in this one scene. The series of images I made in Israel and the West Bank just unfolded from this first improbable photograph. The image of the Palace Hotel plays the role of an epigraph, the role of the determinant in a hieroglyphic suite and is the key to reading all the other images. I cannot fail to think of one of my most favourite passages from Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet: The feeble man claims to have achieved all that he wanted, and it’s a lie. The truth is that he prophetically dreamed all that life achieved through him. We achieve nothing. Life hurls us like a stone and we sail forward in the air saying ‘Look at me move!’
CC: Tell me about how what you describe as the ‘second’ picture, of the Weinfeld family, came about.
FB: It is another improbable image for me. My partner had been invited to a Shabbat dinner at the Weinfeld’s family home. I was exhausted and the last thing I wanted was to have to meet more people that night. What I saw in front of my eyes was the dream already dreamt, something of cinematographic dimensions, where reality and fiction seem to blur. In order to make the photograph, I had to negotiate and convince the family to work with me quickly, since their daughter was getting married a few weeks later, which meant one less person around the table. But why did I fall for this image? My first photographic project was a monograph about the ultra orthodox neighbourhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem in 1981. While I was actively determined to move beyond my previous work and leave Diaspora behind me, I found myself photographing the Weinfelds, who represent the most emblematic residue of diaspora in the heart of the Middle East.
CC: Did you know from the outset that these two pictures were the pivots for what you would do next?
FB: No, it is more that these two unexpected images only created more confusion for me about the direction that I would go. The one thing that became clear to me because of these first images is that this project would be in colour. Also it is around this time that the title — An Archeology of Fear and Desire — came to me. A title is so important because it really sets the direction and modality of a project; even if its influence is subtle, you carry that awareness of what you are fundamentally seeking. The first photograph was a surprise to me; the second was also a surprise because it was not what I thought I wanted to show. So what could be the third photograph?
CC: After the first two ‘unexpected’ photographs, what became the pattern of being in Israel and the West Bank to make your photographs? Were you there for short periods very often?
FB: From 2008, I was based in Jerusalem, travelling almost every other month abroad to raise money for the overall project. But no matter what, I didn’t sacrifice the necessary fieldwork to prepare the exploratory trips to Israel and the West Bank and the residencies of the photographers. I knew it was the key to the success of this project. I was invariably adapting myself to the programme of the photographers and the needs of the project. When I decided to join the project as a photographer, I benefited from the research that was originally done for the other photographers and, slowly but surely, the fragments for my own working hypothesis emerged from this exposure to so much information and so many narratives. And I played with these fragments in a way that tried to create images that act as open texts, with nothing set in stone. But there is a question, which remains central to me that has to do with a prom- ise, a promise attached to this land for all three narratives, the three monotheisms. This promise is stated in Genesis when God speaks to Abraham and sends him to ‘the land I will give you to see’, not a land given to possess. And the question for me is: what have we done with this promise? What can we do? What will we do with it? And what will it do with us? At stake here is the universal and not just a piece of land. It is at the edge where the particular and the universal meet, and it is not a coincidence that at the edge things remain in flux, don’t get coagulated, don’t solidify. This is truly what is at the core of my quest, the main tenet around which I have built a scaffold made of words, sentences that I have heard, quotes, potential alternative titles, mind maps that are part of my dialogue. My photo- graphs are the questions at the intersection of these internal conversations.
CC: How does this relate to the title of your project, An Archeology of Fear and Desire?
FB: I had originally envisioned ‘Between apocalypse and redemption’ as a possible title. For me, Israel is a contemporary expression of redemption and don’t forget it is a place where secular and socialist expressions of redemption were played out after the Jews experienced their own apocalypse during the Holocaust. ‘Promise’ and ‘redemption’ were key to the formulation of my working hypothesis, a promise of redemption for everyone, that is, redemption as intimacy and intimacy as redemption. So my journey is an exploration of an experiment in redemption whose outcome is in part quite tragic but also so alive — this is such an insane place. How does one represent this chaos, this aberration, this ‘parody gone wild’ as [my assistant] Oren Myers would say? Many people feel cheated in this social experiment. This place has forever been a theatre for utopian dreams, but the problem is that one can only dream for oneself. Can one dream for somebody else? Or can one dream through somebody else’s dream? So my camera has been a tool to explore the groups and individuals who have been sacrificed on the altar of this experiment.
CC: There is a sense in your final edit of An Archeology of Fear and Desire that behind each ostensible subject is a personal story and overall, this represents the breadth of individual dreams and aspirations played out within the confines of Israel.
FB: Ideologies offer the promise of redemption but they are ultimately a betrayal of the humane in the human, and eventually people feel abandoned and starved of love and intimacy. Towards the end of my project, I concentrated more on stories of individuals who bear the wounds and scars of this experiment; from the kibbutz to a Palestinian village in the West Bank.
My last photographs required a lot of homework to get people to open their hearts regarding the source of so much suffering: the four women I photographed in the Maagan Michael Kibbutz were raised in collective children homes and only allowed to see their parents one hour a day. They are still asking, ‘Why did our parents give us away?’ They speak of eternal longing. Bushra Awwad is a Palestinian woman from a village in the West Bank who, after her son was killed by an Israeli soldier, had the courage to join the Circle of Bereaved Parents, Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost a loved one but have renounced violence and revenge. Or her relative Siham who eloquently talked about an entire society trapped in a cycle of profound deprivation of love, overwhelmed by frustration and anger, and who asks, ‘When we eventually reach peace, what are we going to do with our anger?’
CC: Do you think that these experiences are legible in your photographs?
FB: Here resides my frustration. There is a limit to what a photograph can say. Even when the group of women in the kibbutz decided to testify on the traumatic experience they underwent thirty years ago, the photograph that I staged with them failed to tell this story. Perhaps, even worse, what the photograph gives us to see is their vitality and robustness. Just the opposite of what they wanted to testify! Where are the scars, where is the eternal longing? But life seems to be stronger than anything and despite the fact that they experienced this profound deprivation of love, they are today surprised to find in themselves so much love for their own children. No photograph will ever give that insight. We are forced to admit that, as Lacan stated, ‘reality is what resists and escapes us’. Yes, that photograph is one that I love and has many layers within it but, fails to express what I intended to say. Since there is only this paradox and there is nothing to understand except that we are made of fragments so opposite and diverse, I resisted the temptation of including didactic captions and privileged a poetic dimension. At the price of depriving the reader of a precious source of information, I hoped to also prevent the reader from having the illusion that there is a definite answer.
CC: When did you make your final photographs?
FB: I made my last photographs in the spring of 2012. This was the first time since I started to photograph this project that I had three almost uninterrupted months. I revisited the work I had done, looked at my framework and thought about what was really missing. These later photographs are important to me because the outcome is quite different from the other images, and they are evidence for me that I could now encounter the world slightly differently. This is true for this entire series, but even more so for the last images. Part of me would like to believe that I am less of a photographic ‘predator’, and these images are a testimony to it. I believe that this project has been a transformative experience for me and for all artists who took part in it. I remember saying before this project started that ‘would people be bold enough to join, they will grow artistically, intellectually and above all emotionally’. This is certainly true for me.
CC: Was it unexpected for you to see the final outcomes of your photographic role in This Place?
FB: Yes, they are unexpected and more enigmatic and elliptic, which is both an asset and a problem. Everything for me starts with a story that grabs my imagination, and I want to tell the story in return. I am a storyteller who eventually ends up telling my own story and enabling each potential reader to connect and reclaim his or her own story, the story of the human condition. I try to trust what happens to me, what kind of encounters I have triggered, since in a way, everything that happens to us looks like us.
CC: Did you edit during or after you were making the photographs?
FB: I resisted the temptation to edit my work too early. Even though I was anxious about putting it off, I knew editing is a trap when undertaken too early which can easily deprive you of making free associations… the secret to any poetic approach. In a way, my first image of the Palace Hotel set the framework of what I would allow and wouldn’t allow myself. Will I dare to be freer with my feelings and my thoughts? This is the only important question for any human being. This didn’t prevent me from playing with the images as soon as I had in hand the first ten photographs. I remember how disturbed I was when I saw that together these images hardly made sense. I had to convince myself that I should trust and embrace the heterogeneity and dissonance of what I was making. The main guideline for my editing was that the reader, by opening the book, should be invited to experience the lack of resolution or answers that I found. I want the photographs to be the tools for the reader to undertake his or her own archeology of fear and desire. I think I was ultimately rewarded by waiting to create a sequence, and the right articulation appeared that enabled all the layers and fragments to be in dialogue. But it was a long and painful process of a year. I am grateful to Oren Myers, to Thomas Struth and to my publisher Michael Mack for enabling me to kill many of my darlings and consequently open myself to the most rigorous edit for this body of work…and embrace it.