Memory and photographs in the “twice promised” land

I am winding up my time in Israel and the West Bank. Having spent time in both places, I can safely say I am more confused then ever. So much so, that I will not be blogging about the politics of the conflict. I am not sure I can add anything to what is already a very heated and complex debate. I will be blogging this week about the one topic that I can speak about comfortably, photography. I want to think out loud about the interesting role that images and memory play for both “sides” here. My thinking is derived from my recent experiences here, my years working here as a photojournalist and my larger interest in the history of photography.

Among the many things we did while we were here was to go to a variety of different events and places where photographs were an important part of our experiences in each of those places. We visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance museum. Going through the museum you really appreciate the horror and madness of the holocaust, the very human price families paid and the remarkable importance of photographs.

Photographs serve an interesting double duty in Yad Vashem. On the one hand they compellingly portray the horror of the holocaust, the Nazi death machine and the magnitude of man’s inhumanity to man. This is done very effectively using large-scale, black and white enlargements of historical images, news photos and other “documentary” evidence. Contrasted with this are smaller scale more intimate personal photos. Many of these were clearly the prized possessions of those who lived through (and died in) the concentration camps.

Though we did not tour anything as formal as a museum of the Palestinian experience, we did in fact attend the opening of an exhibition of photographs by a Palestinian press photographer who has been covering the conflict for over 40 years. The exhibition photos were a retrospective of his more photo-journalistic work, which was accompanied by a slide show, which focused more on his work exploring daily life. Together, they gave a wide portrayal of the contemporary Palestinian experience. Most of the work we saw in Ramallah was in color, which gave it a much more contemporary feel.

In between, we have been photographing a diversity of different families, all having three (or more) generations of women. It has been an amazing experience. We start each encounter by looking through the albums of old family photographs. We are trying to find one photo that shows something of their family background and history and shows the grandmother or great grandmother when she was young.

Then we do a portrait session where Annu makes posed, family portraits for the various families, gifts that they get as prints, which serve as a thank you for allowing us into their homes and lives. Then we do portraits of the three or more generations of the living women, re-enacting/lighting them so they mimic the gesture and pose seen in their historic photograph. Through Photoshop and Final Cut Pro, Annu blends the old and new images into an animation, set against the background of the historic family photograph.

Annu describer her project, Re – Generations, saying:

“….uses digital technology, to reorient the viewer’s connection to time as she collapses the presumed progression of it’s borders, so the past and present appear here in the same virtual space. The final ephemeral animation is a combination of a scan of an archival image and recent photographs of three generations of women, which magically flow one into another. These animations weave in and out of spaces of time, allowing the viewer to simultaneously ponder the history, future and aging of the subjects. This malleable flowing object leaves the viewer to wonder where the past and present overlap and warp. Here, history is distorted, evoking a new dimension of memories which is uniquely digital.”

You can see samples of the work she has done so far, from India at: http://annumatthew.com/Portfolioregeneration/index.html . She has expanded the project to include Vietnam (where we were working in December and January) and now to Israel/West Bank.

In some families, the older photos are many, so we have a difficult time choosing. In other cases, there are few photos so the choices are made for us. In all cases the stories seen in the older images, and the stories behind those images, round out our experience.

One thing that became apparent in nearly all cases was how the older photographs, which of course are fewer in number, are highly valued. The ubiquity of contemporary color images (even the slightly older film based photos) means that all of those tend to look the same, so we value no one more than the other. The explosion of digital imagery only heightens this effect.

In all cases a few themes repeat. The older generation is the one that has experienced most of the displacement that is so much a part of life here, whether Holocaust survivors and displaced Palestinians. Like in most families, grandmothers are beloved by their grandchildren and mothers and daughters may have their unique issues yet obviously love each other.

Because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is such a complex issue fraught with so much history and passion, I am steering clear of the politics. I do not want to minimize what each side has experienced over the last few decades (or milenia.) What I can say is that both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, have an awful lot in common, at least when it comes to photography. Both sides use it to highlight their cultures, argue for their cause and most importantly to hold onto their pasts.

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