Israel Inside Out

Two photographers examine the Holy Land from a different perspective

| Utne Reader May / June 2007

In the decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, no single iconic image has been captured by a camera's lens. No girl running naked from the dark fog of a napalm attack. No hooded man standing crucifixion-like on a box, wires dangling from his hands.

Instead, we've had a steady barrage of stock horror: Commuters wandering dazed and bloody around the contorted shell of a bombed bus. Young boys in dusty streets throwing stones at soldiers. A chanting crowd whipped into a frenzy by a burning flag. A sea of mourners following a body hoisted on men's shoulders.

These scenes could be from last week, last year, or last century. We are shown them over and over again, presumably because news outlets think they will help us understand. For those in the conflict zone, though, the deluge of pictures does little but bolster the case for carrying on the struggle. And for those of us who are far away, skimming headlines over breakfast, it reinforces the seeming impenetrability of the conflict. Our empathy reflex is triggered but quickly relaxes. We shake our heads and turn the page, no more the wiser.

Into this saturated visual lexicon Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin submit a wholly different portrait of Israel -- one that demands careful thought and cool analysis. In their Chicago (SteidlMack/Distributed Art Publishers, 2007), there are no bodies in pain or anguish, no misery tugging at heartstrings. There are only Israeli structures, landscapes, and objects -- artifacts that, when we see them through Broomberg and Chanarin's lens, reveal the tragic constructs of an Israel transformed by its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The book is anchored by a series of photographs from a mock Arab city, the Chicago of the title, built by the Israeli military for urban combat training. In an accompanying essay, Eyal Weizman, director of the Centre for Research Architecture at the University of London's Goldsmiths College and author of the forthcoming Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation (Verso, 2007), explains the moniker -- it is 'in homage to that other bullet-ridden city' -- and details the site's history.

In Chicago's earliest incarnation, when Israel occupied parts of Lebanon in the 1980s, the site resembled a Lebanese village. It was later expanded to double as Tikrit, Iraq, where soldiers hoped to assassinate Saddam Hussein (a 1992 accident at the facility resulted in the deaths of several soldiers and put an end to that plan). Since then, the faux town has functioned as a generic, life-size blueprint for Palestinian urban centers and even as a Jewish outpost in Gaza, for soldiers to practice removing settlers.