This year I have been making a concerted effort to expand my photo book library by purchasing at least one publication per month. Thanks to a great sale at Aperture, I recently received “Wall” by Josef Koudelka. This mammoth book is a powerful commentary on human intolerance, lack of compassion and our misguided need to separate ourselves from others.
What first struck me about the book is its physical size, and the huge typographical “WALL” on the front cover. Upon opening the book, it is easy to see why it was printed in such a manner. Koudelka’s photographs are all panoramic, and the book format is an appropriate size to let the images come to life as full double page spreads. This choice of format matches the subject matter spot on. Koudelka’s images were created in the Holy Land, and all focus on the barrier between Israeli and Palestinian territories. Most of the barrier is an impenetrable cement wall, but there are also scenes of barbed wire, observation towers and security checkpoints. And although there are images of physical barriers, we also see scenes that depict a vast psychological barrier between two lands, two peoples. This is all complicated, and any discussion is sure to take an emotionally charged turn, but as an artist, Koudelka brings us to a place that we can ponder and explore our own feelings of this place, and perhaps draw our own conclusions.
One thing that struck me quite quickly when I was flipping through the book was that lack of actual people in the photographs. With so many manmade structures… the walls, the wire, the barriers, roadblocks, the graffiti, the fencing, the abandoned dwellings… there is a huge void of actual humanity in these images. And it is that statement right there that finally sunk in. These are stark images of human division; of course we see very few actual humans in the pictures.
Another powerful component to the photographs is the depiction of nature. In many images, we see olive trees that have been destroyed, or moved, replanted… or simply abandoned in the no man’s land surrounding the walls. The abuse of the olive tree, so critical to the subsistence of human life (and commerce) in this region, is emblematic of the abuse and inhumanity we can inflict on each other. There are also numerous images that peer beyond the wall, or to the edges of human settlements, where the hills and the desert reinforce their presence, showing perhaps that even as we construct out barriers, nature will have the final say.
While spending time with “Wall” I could not ignore the obvious connections with a wall so much closer to home. I live in New Mexico, and along our southern border there is the much discussed, much debated, highly polarizing border wall between the US and Mexico. I will set aside any overtly political discussion (i have my opinions, you have yours) but I must acknowledge the sobering thoughts this connection provokes in me. While the images in Koudelka’s book may be depressing to view, I have the luxury of distance from this reality. These photos were taken half a world way from me, in a place I have never been, and my opinion has been shaped by years of news accounts that can feed misperception or bias. Yet, a few hours south of where I sit right now, a similar barrier exists. A wall that separates human beings both physically and metaphorically. Why are we so good at building things that keep us apart, yet so poor at building understanding and empathy?