Mosaic Rooms, London
- The Observer, Sunday 23 January 2011
The award-winning Wiedenhöfer, whose exhibition moves to London this week, is not unaccustomed to such charges and finds them ridiculous. They first emerged in 2005 during discussions with Berlin’s municipal authorities for a project – which never saw the light of day – involving affixing giant prints of Israel’s West Bank separation wall on to what remains of the Berlin Wall. During talks, a local politician informed him that the panoramic images in his book, Wall, which were to be used for the project, were “antisemitic photography“.
“I asked him to define antisemitic photography,” says Wiedenhöfer. “He replied that I had pictures in the book that showed Israeli soldiers being violent against Palestinians.”
Sitting in his bare Berlin apartment, Wiedenhöfer is suddenly animated and goes to fetch a copy from his bookshelf. “I know every picture in this book. There is not a single image of an Israeli laying a thumb on a Palestinian. So I said, ‘Show me!'” Wiedenhöfer flicks through the pages. “This is the only image of violence in the whole book – it’s an Israeli soldier removing Israeli peace protesters.”
Wiedenhöfer’s pictures are controversial because his three books – Perfect Peace, detailing Palestinian life between the two intifadas, Wall and now The Book of Destruction – focus almost exclusively on the Palestinian experience. Self-employed and funded often by grants, he is free from the requirement of television and print media to tell both sides of the story with equal weight, instead photographing what interests him, which has rankled deeply with some of Israel’s supporters.
Here, I believe, a disclosure is in order. I have known Wiedenhöfer, who was born in 1966 in a village near Stuttgart, for almost a decade. We first met and travelled together when covering Israel’s 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, dodging tanks in Bethlehem. Wiedenhöfer borrowed the title for his current exhibition from an article written by myself and my Observer colleague, photographer Antonio Olmos, about a list we came across of all of Gaza’s damaged buildings, a document we called “the book of destruction”.
Wiedenhöfer’s dedication, even in a profession that requires such discipline, is extraordinary. I recall running into him in Jerusalem almost five years ago when he was working on Wall. He was staying in a filthy, cell-like single-room dwelling owned by a monk, scattered with crucifixes and empty whisky bottles (the monk’s, not the teetotal Wiedenhöfer’s) because it meant he could come and go as he pleased and he wanted to capture the morning light. He took me on one of his early-morning outings, wandering beneath watchtowers full of armed soldiers to study how the light fell on concrete at different times, scrambling up ridges to find new viewpoints of the concrete barrier snaking among the hills and observe the pattern of daily life flowing around it.
If Wall was about separation, Wiedenhöfer’s new book and exhibition, funded by the Fondation Carmignac Gestion, is unquestionably about violence, documenting in almost unbearable detail the damage left after Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2009. Unpeopled images of ruined buildings, photographed with an architectural precision, are contrasted with portraits of equally ruined people with truncated limbs and scarred bodies. His human subjects look into the camera, seated in their own homes: women and children; the family of fighters and civilians – all displaying bewildering variations of traumatic amputation and burns.
The photographs of the ruined buildings supply their own taxonomy of the consequences of different explosive forces: houses brought down by mines rendered into bristling igloos of concrete; buildings pierced and burned by shells; walls perforated by gunfire. The result is a body of work that is anti-sensational but shocking in the directness with which it engages with violence.
“I wanted to make a record,” Wiedenhöfer says. “That’s all. I do not accuse Israel. If there is an accusation, it is in the record itself.” Therein lies the problem. He has come up against the increasingly prevalent desire of many within Israel and without to rule inadmissible any “record” that depicts what Israel or its defence forces do in a negative light, deploying an intellectual sleight of hand to suggest that all such criticism is designed to “delegitimise” the existence of Israel. That it is “antisemitism” of a new and sneaky kind.
The irony is that Wiedenhöfer had not intended to return to the subject of Israel and Palestine again after his books Perfect Peace and Wall. Indeed, his main interest these days is examining the nature of boundaries, particularly in areas of conflict or that have been affected by conflicts, something he is pursuing with the same single-mindedness he dedicated to documenting Palestinian life for almost two decades.
Wiedenhöfer insists that he could have done a similar study to The Book of Destruction in Afghanistan or in Iraq and that the real meaning of the book is the horrible “creativity” people use to hurt others. What really concerns him is the unwillingness of many photographers, and the media, to document the human consequences.
In part, he blames the constrained economics of the media today, which, he believes, has made many photographers take fewer risks, instead focusing on images they know will sell. “We see the same pictures all the time. A Palestinian child throwing a stone. A soldier surrounded by dust in Afghanistan. An IED exploding. But what does it show us of the true meaning of war?”
Peter Beaumont is the Observer’s foreign affairs editor. Kai Wiedenhöfer’s The Book of Destruction: Gaza – One Year After the 2009 War is at the Mosaic Rooms, London SW5, from Friday to 12 Feb; mosaicrooms.org. Funds raised through the exhibition will be used to support the individuals featured in his photographs. The book is published by Steidl/Fondation Carmignac Gestion on 6 June, £30