This Place is the creation of photographer Frédéric Brenner. Inspired by his own visits to Israel and the visual and photographic potential held there and in the West Bank, began to build a project that would commission twelve photographers to go to the region and make their own work. Brenner’s vision was to encourage artists to Israel and the West Bank and open their eyes to a place many would normally be apprehensive to shoot. The result is an epic project including twelve books, a touring exhibition, in-depth catalogue and digital archive. All the photographers involved are big names including some titans of the observational documentary aesthetic like Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore and Thomas Struth. The project was initiated in 2008 and began with all participating artists making a trip to Israel as a group and meeting researchers, guides and figures from the region and given exploratory trips and assistants to produce work.
The majority of the work was finished in 2012 and in 2014 the first of the books were released and the first site of the exhibition, Dox Gallery in Prague, opened its doors to visitors in October 2014. I was immediately interested in how and why so many photographers were convinced to make work which is apolitical, in an area which is often instantly polarised and everyone seemingly has an opinion on.
Rosalind Solomon’s newest book Them (MACK, 2014) is one of the 12 books published as part of the This Place project. Solomon has traveled the world, often photographing in areas of crisis such as the South African Apartheid and the eruption of AIDS in New York during the 80s. Them is a collection of portraits spread over Israel and the West Bank; Rosalind’s first commission in over 45 years of making photographs. Through her book we gain an idea of what the people who make up the region look like. We are always the outsider, the direct gaze and the use of a flash give a blunt feel to the book. Her subjects stare back at you; you are made aware you are looking, forced to deal with your objectification and your distance from their lives.
You book contains people from lots of different communities within Israel; African Christians, Muslims, Jewish, Hasids and more. Were you fully aware of the country’s diversity before this project?
No not really. I was a little, my first visit was right after the Ethopians came. I was in Greece and I went to Israel for around 5 days but I wasn’t aware of the diversity of the African community, and it’s not a community, it’s a lot of different groups and communities and I was kind of fascinated with that. I’d worked with pilgrims before; photographing Hindu pilgrims in India Catholic processions in Guatemala and Peru and Spain, never in Israel though.
Everyone seems to talk about your bus journeys? Why do you think there’s so much interest?
Yes they seemed to be quite intrigued by that. I suppose because a lot of the other photographers didn’t use the buses but I always had somebody accompany me because I don’t speak the language. I don’t speak Hebrew and I always had to have someone with me because my equipment is heavy. The busses were an economical way to travel as much as anything, whereas renting a car was far more expensive. It was certainly more interesting by bus as well.
Were you relying on the This Place team to make introductions for you or were you out exploring on your own?
It was really more my own explorations. I didn’t really meet the pilgrims or the different African groups on the exploratory trips. I didn’t really have a project when I first went and my first ideas were ones that it wasn’t really possible for me to pursue.
Were you conscious that you wanted to be the one making the decisions about you trips, rather than being instructed on where to go?
Yes I really was, in my prior work that’s what I have always done; I’ve just followed my nose.
When reading the biography on your website, I saw that it said ‘You were a pioneer of traveling around the world to photograph without taking on commissions’. Obviously this is a commissioned project and I believe it’s your first, is there any particular reason why you’ve started?
This was my first commission, I was invited to do it and at first I turned it down. A year later I thought I’d made the wrong decision. I realised it was an opportunity so I talked to Frédéric [Brenner] and asked if I could still be involved. That was all, it was really great to have the underwriting, that was really helpful and I could never have attempted the project on my own, I wouldn’t have been able to self-finance such a project so it was an opportunity to work; an opportunity to do my work.
A lot of times you have gone to photograph in places heavy with tension or conflict, whether it was Belfast or Yugoslavia. You were in the southern states of USA during the 50’s, were you around a lot of tension then and did it inform your way of seeing? Did this have an effect on what you wanted to photograph or did it in anyway plant a seed in what you wanted to say, or had your photographic journey already begun by this point?
You mean because I was in the south when it was still segregated? Yes that was sort of a beginning for me. Early on I was working with an international exchange organisation. I mean, I wasn’t marching but where the idea was, we learn to know and understand people by living with them and people came to live in families. I was deeply involved in that and that was sort of my idea of trying to do something towards peace. I started becoming a photographer after the assassinations in this country [USA]. I started losing a little hope in what I had been doing and started thinking that I was not going to make as much of a difference as I had hoped.
So the idea with photography for you then was to show something that was happening?
No, not at the beginning but it grew into that, in the beginning it was a retreat.
Are you confident in the power of observational documentary photography like that of This Place, which allows people to think and look at the area in a different way, as opposed to the typical journalistic style that we normally see come out of the region?
I believe, at least certainly in my case that I wanted to raise questions. I don’t think I have the answers to questions; so I mean, I think that all of us involved in the project presented our views of the region. I don’t know how to define what is typical journalistic style. I wanted to humanize people I was not there to go and photograph the violence.
Is there a single encounter or experience that had a special resonance for you?
Yes the single encounter was Juliano Khamis, the director of the freedom theatre, who was murdered whilst I was in Jenin. I was about 5 minutes away from where it happened. It was a chilling experience and I was witness to the aftermath of what happened. Volunteers left, everyone wanted to get out then because they thought Jenin was destabilised and they never found out or they never prosecuted anyone for this. It was hard to know who actually did it. I mean I’m sure there are people who know but it’s just that nobody talked about it. So that was traumatising and extreme.
Was there a definite urge to photograph the feelings at that time?
Well I went to the checkpoint when Juliano Khamis’ casket was moved. He was half Jewish and half Muslim and they took him back to Haifa to bury him. His mother was Jewish and father was Muslim and so I went to the checkpoint and did do a couple of pictures, I was very glad to have been there.
One thing I kept reading about your photography was people talking about the ‘palpable tension’ in your images. Is this something you’re very aware of when you photograph; the effect of the outside world on your subjects?
I guess I look at a person and I sometimes feel the conflict they have and sometimes the conflicts. I’m always thinking about them and they’re always thinking about me and I actually like that kind of tension. I don’t often do a lot of talking to make people feel comfortable and I feel you can get something more through silence and confrontation with my camera. Of course I was aware of the reality of certain situations but at the moment I’m taking the picture, it’s just more about that time and everything goes into it and I mean everything. It’s not always just laid out, you can’t say one thing that’s influencing the picture but I’m always more interested in the dichotomies people have and the fact there is good and evil in everybody, hopefully. That’s how I usually perceive them.
Do you mean to say the less you say of what you want, the more honest or real a reaction you’re able to get from them?
Well I don’t actually know what I want. When I started to edit, at the beginning I was looking at things that I thought were wonderful then at the end I decided were not wonderful, it all evolved. I don’t go with an absolute set of ideas of what I want to come out. In my opinion some of the greatest portraits are when the subject is absorbed in their own world rather than when as a photographer you’ve tried to bring them into yours. I’ve always hoped I would be in situations where I work were I could sort of neutralise myself, which is a myth in a way because you can’t totally do that. But that’s part of how I’ve worked everywhere or at least that’s my concept of being neutralised.
I agree it’s often said that people will tell their biggest secrets to a stranger before they would a friend, and that lack of a certain intimacy between subject and photographer allows a greater reveal. Precisely because you’re not operating on a social level you are trying to penetrate something else.
Within your project there’s many different types of people caught in lots of different emotional states. Did you want to try and show a full array of human emotion?
I wasn’t really thinking about the project when I worked, I mean I’ve never really worked on this kind of thing before. I’ve always worked as an individual striking out on my own and doing what I wanted to do and thought might result in something. But I’ve always kind of stumbled around to a degree, I make some kind of framework and stumble around. But no, truthfully I didn’t think about it, I just thought about trying to do my work.
Looking at the roster of photographers commissioned for the project, was there a fear of overlapping or the work clashing? Were you worried you would go somewhere and see Jeff Wall was already set up with his 10×8 camera when you got there?
Well that was something I did think about, because the place is small and although there are a lot of layers, that was something I was scared about. I was concerned about finding something interesting and somebody else would go the next day and find the same thing. I didn’t really interact much with the other photographers, I don’t think most of them did. I think everybody was just, well I don’t know if they felt that way. Someone like Wendy [Ewald] wouldn’t have, her project was quite specific and quite wonderful and something very different.
Did it ever happen?
Well it never happened but I know when I went to the church of the Holy Sepulcher, I heard that Stephen (Shore) had gotten permission but my work is so different; I didn’t try to get permission because I work with a smaller camera and I always just shoot in those kind of situations posing as a tourist, I try to look a little kooky, well that’s actually how I look anyway and I just went ahead and did it and nobody ever stopped me.
But I thought he’s going to have all these gorgeous wonderful pictures; I wasn’t thinking about competing with these other photographer,s I was more concerned with keeping my own integrity and be able to work the same way as I would anywhere else.
Interview by Meshach Falconer-Roberts / Published 16 March 2015