by Nayrouz Abu Hatoum, York University

A landscape is not on the verge of collapse, unless a vanishing landscape is a collapsing one. I came to this realization during my fieldwork in Palestine (2012), when I spent a year travelling between different cities and landscapes. I was trying to capture the visual presence and absence of the separation wall in Palestine and how The Wall’s presence and absence was mirrored in Israeli national discourse. I interviewed several Palestinian and Israeli photographers and artists, but was particularly struck by the photographic work of Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili. In Landscape of Darkness (2010) and On Love and Other Landscapes (2011) we see reflections on love, memory, pain and vanishing landscapes, which bring to the surface Khalili’s hesitation of capturing The Wall in photographic frames. His hesitation is coming from a place of resisting The Wall through shifting Palestinians’ gaze onward towards themselves, in a way that removes the catastrophe from their self-representation.

Most photojournalists (Palestinians, Israeli or international) who work in Palestine are attracted to capturing violent events like demonstrations, clashes between Israeli police or army with Palestinian civilians, house demolitions, home arrests or Israeli military raids in Palestinian villages or towns. Such photography, however important in depicting the reality of military occupation, has the capacity to marginalize other forms of resistance or violence which are subtle, in the landscape, and often outwardly uneventful. Khalili’s work is crucial in depicting those uneventful normalized moments of structural military and colonial violence imprinted on the landscape and on an occupied nation.

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In Landscape of Darkness, Khalili moves with the vanishing light, documenting West Bank Palestinian cities fading into the darkness, indistinguishable with the landscape. On Love and Other Landscapes, Khalili takes a more complicated narrative, charting the end of a love relation and an exchange of photographs taken in Palestine between the artist and his ex-lover. Khalili’s work is landscape photography uncontaminated by The Wall. The Wall, however, is not absent in his work; instead, The Wall sits in the text captioning the photographed landscape. In the later work, The Wall is a visual ghost that is felt but not seen through the photographs, as if defying the purpose of the material presence of it in Palestine, the very essence of its erection, which is to be encountered and seen by those who are suffering from its presence on a daily basis.

The Israeli government began construction of the separation wall in Palestine in 2002. The purpose of The Wall, according to the Israeli government, was to prevent Palestinians from crossing into Israeli territories without passing through military checkpoints, arguing that a solid barrier would prevent Palestinian suicide bombing in Israeli cities[1]. The effects of the Israeli Wall in Palestine have been catastrophic in all aspects of daily life, furthering the destruction of the socio-economic fabric of the nation already occupied by a military [2].

The destructive and catastrophic effects of The Wall today sit on the hearts of Palestinians. My interview with Yazan Khalili brought to the surface the visual dilemmas of a catastrophic monument, or as he puts it, “can we resist The Wall by photographing it, or should we resist the photograph framing it?”

Nayrouz: In your work, you photograph landscapes without The Wall to make a political claim about the landscape in Palestine.

Yazan: It is not like I never photographed The Wall. In some photography tours I photographed The Wall. But, I always asked about the moment in which the photographer confronts The Wall. I ask, as a photographer, where is my role, my political role to refuse to work with The Wall, to refuse to deal with it? Or to refuse to deal with it as an item of representation? It is impossible for me not to photograph it, or pass in the landscape and not see it. We see it. It attracts us. Earlier I was working on a project called Landscape of Darkness. It is a photography project of the landscape at night. In that project I was playing with capturing light and darkness; the Israeli settlements in the West Bank were powered with light and the Palestinian towns were dark. I had an incident once where Israeli soldiers stopped me and took my camera and deleted some of my photographs. They deleted exactly the photographs that demonstrated this power structure. So, I was left with photographs of darkness, failed photographs, politically failed photographs, failed to show political structures, failed photographs that have nothing in them.

Nayrouz: By “failure,” do you mean artistically failed photographs or photographs that showed failed situations?

Yazan: Failure in the sense that these photographs do not portray the power structure I saw. I was left with photographs that failed to represent. So I was looking at them and asking myself what, then, do they fail to represent? Where is their incapability to represent oppression? So, I started working with darkness as photographs that are outside the systems of representations. This project was complemented with the following one, On Love and Other Landscape. In this project, I asked what are the possibilities to liberate our vision from sight?

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Nayrouz: You expressed reservation about photographing The Wall, while it is now one of the most photographed structures/landscapes in Palestine, representing Palestine.

Yazan: Through this endless depicting of the Israeli constructed and imposed Wall it became ours! It is a symbol of our tragedy and catastrophe, but it also becomes us, and we become our tragedy. The problem with oppression is not only that The Wall is in the landscape, but also that the landscape itself becomes The Wall. This happens when we as Palestinians have to fight these moments of visual representation. Objects transform through politics; then, should I photograph The Wall to resist it, or should I resist the photograph that it is depicted in? The Wall cannot fight itself. Contemporary art has a capacity to devour anything that speaks against it, it eats everything, it recreates itself through criticism. Without understanding this mechanism of representation, one becomes stuck or engulfed by it. Each time one uses photography against The Wall, s/he ends up publicizing it. Through these understandings, one has to work against the existence of The Wall, and Israeli oppression in general.

Nayrouz: In your work On Love and Other Landscapes you wrote a visual-textual story. The Wall appears only through the textual representation written on photographs of Palestinian landscape. There is a strong message here. You abstracted its physical presence, and this abstraction elicits the feelings of the reader. When I read your book I asked, “Where is that thing, where is this monster?” You cultivated strong feelings in me through this work! Absence is central to my dissertation, and absenting The Wall visually is a key issue at stake. You absented The Wall and then brought its presence back as an emotional thing, as an affect.

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Yazan: Absenting its representation but not absenting the resistance against it. The Wall has a defeating element…because it represents our helplessness. I do not want to engage with The Wall, and still, it comes back at us… The Wall comes back and we are almost obliged to reaffirm its existence and our helplessness…when we keep representing it; The Wall becomes a Palestinian object, it becomes a Palestinian aesthetics, like the destruction of Gaza, it became our aesthetics, aesthetics of destruction, and we should always remain careful and call out, “these are aesthetics of destruction. These are the aesthetics of the destroyer”. To reach some kind of solution should not be through reaffirmation but through erasure, the erasure of The Wall and whatever it represents, visually and physically.

In Palestine, this is our catastrophe: we are all the time occupied with occupation, or preoccupied with occupation. So, from this position of occupation you start working towards liberating yourself, towards full liberation.

Nayrouz Abu Hatoum (nayrouz.abh@gmail.com) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at York University in Toronto, Canada.

[1] To read more visit Israeli Security Fence website operated by Israel Ministry of Defense at http://www.securityfence.mod.gov.il/Pages/ENG/purpose.htm

[2] For more information about the devastating effects of the Separation wall in Palestine visit: Stop the Wall Campaign at http://www.stopthewall.org/the-wall or UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Country: Occupied Palestinian Territory at http://www.ochaopt.org/ or Al Haq at http://www.alhaq.org/.

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