The above photograph was featured on this blog last year, but I think it’s worth sharing again. As I was reflecting on January 24, 2012, I realized that hearing this man’s story had been a turning point for me. He had been shot in the leg by a Settler in his own neighborhood, and walked with a cane and a pronounced limp. His story was heartbreaking. Silwan’s story is heartbreaking.
After listening to him and seeing the streets of Silwan for myself, there was little doubt in my mind that the neighborhood was under siege. As I was leaving, I remember being inspired by panic and flat-out running to catch up to the group I had come with after lingering for a moment to take a picture-an uncharacteristic move, I’d like to think.
A few weeks later, the building we sat in while this man told us his story was torn down by the police. It was sickening and frightening to begin to see the human impact of the Occupation.
The language barrier I encountered in Israel/Palestine was probably the most disorienting obstacle I faced throughout Walking Walls. I traveled extensively before heading to the Holy Land and from Paris to Poland, I had always been able to read a few street signs, master some key phrases, sometimes I could even understand and respond to simple conversation in German or more advanced discussion in Spanish.
I didn’t stand a chance with Hebrew or Arabic. Reading was out of the question and I only learned a few basic words in either language during the five weeks I spent in and around Jerusalem. To be fair, I didn’t have the time or resources to make a more serious effort at either language, but my resulting confusion and dependance on the prevalence of English signs and English speakers was both remarkable and isolating.
And a note about the prevalence of English on those signs. In Israel/Palestine, most public signs and notices will include writing in Hebrew, Arabic and English. In my experience, the order of the languages tells you who controls the area and by extension, reveals your relationship to the neighborhood. English is usually last, but it seems to me that the real battle is between first two, Arabic and Hebrew. They switch predictably based on geography, but with an insistence that would make you think someone was keeping score.
The above photo was taken in the Shu’afat neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
The only thing I know for sure about this picture is that it was taken from a moving bus on a Friday somewhere in East Jerusalem. But when I found it in my files today, I thought to myself, ‘those people are probably Jewish Settlers.’ And I thought it with a smug sense of superiority and disgust.
I’m not sure when it started, but there was a time on this trip when I began to make ruthless and unwarranted calculations about the character of people I had not met. It was very easy, and the consequences of this discriminatory, dualistic thinking was exactly what I had come to study. But in my idealistic manner, I had hoped to avoid the uncomfortable details and continue to see myself as part of a solution. I was happy to play the role of ‘concerned but largely-innocent global citizen’ who could easily step aside if things got out of hand.
Yet there are no outsiders in this conflict because at its very core, building walls is about distilling complicated ideas into right and wrong, something humanity has done for thousands of years with the ease of instinct. And it’s a mindset, a pitfall that we are all a party to.
One year ago today, I went to Bethlehem for the first time and saw the wall up close. I wish that I had more time to explore it at my own pace, in addition to being whisked around by my enthusiastic taxi driver. Yousef was wonderful, but it would have been fascinating to get a closer look at the graffiti on the wall there. From what I did see, a lot of it was in English, Arabic a close second. Some of it was peaceful, some of it was angry. It felt immediate, important, and unsettling.
When I first arrived in the Holy Land, I was astonished by the scenery. I remember thinking that the fields between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were quite possibly the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen. I was also astonished by the very existence of the small mountains that Jerusalem is built upon. Despite considerable time spent perusing the Bible, it had somehow escaped me that Israel was anything other than arid and sandy; it took some reflection to reconcile the vistas I imagined in my youth with what I saw before me. Beginning to walk through the rugged beauty of this land helped me begin to understand why people fight over it.
This is one of my only pictures from January 17, 2012. I had just boarded a bus from the side of a small highway near Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, fairly sure that it was bound for Jerusalem. I was fascinated by the accouterments that the bus driver had affixed to his ceiling. There was a Star of David that looked like it had been fashioned out of Popsicle sticks, a few photos, air fresheners, and most mysteriously, a row of red things that resembled small shovels. I was struck by how the collection was vividly personal but on display, strange in its look and arrangement but familiar in sentiment.
Exactly one year ago, I was laying in a warm bed in a nondescript flat in Vienna. My girlfriend’s arm was draped easily over my chest, her breathing steady while outside, snow fell thick and fast for the first time all year. It was almost time to get up, but I hadn’t slept to begin with; rest would not come. My mind had been projecting a relentless loop of blurry horrors on my path ahead which prevented me from closing my eyes for too long. This was the first time I fell prey to my imagination by night, but it would not be the last. I said goodbye to her at the bus stop, night heavy around us despite the orange haze rising from the blanket of snow.
Exactly one year ago, I took my first physical steps of Walking Walls. Those steps took me from the comfort of Vienna to an airport terminal in Berlin where I observed a pair of Orthodox Jews with a strange intensity; to Tel Aviv where I refused to let the customs agent stamp my passport; to the streets of Jerusalem, where I somehow found my way to my friend’s flat in Nachlaot, the world buzzing around me and wet stones slippery underfoot.
Tonight, my girlfriend will come to bed, drape her arm across me, and we will go to sleep in our American apartment where it is very easy to rest and I rarely awake with last year’s half-remembered visions a scream on my lips.
Last year, I was beginning a long and lonely journey that was often terrifying but ultimately rewarding.
I have not yet found its end.
As I continue to reflect on my time in Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland, I have been seeking new conversations, lenses, and methods for examining my experiences. I’ve tried to quantify what it was to wake up softly on a chilly morning in Jerusalem, to feel again the peculiar mixture of awe, intoxication, and trepidation when I first saw strips of light marking the Buffer Zone from a university campus in North Cyprus, or to understand with my head a certain ache of my legs and heart after walking miles across Belfast to visit strange neighborhoods.
I have few illusions that these sketches of memory will ever be more than pieces in my quiet and private portrait of self-confidence. Though really, that is quite enough. But, anniversaries are a time to remember, reexamine, and contextualize events of the past. They are dates that demand attention, for better or for worse. And so, to mark the 1-year anniversary of Walking Walls, I have posed the following challenge for myself:
1. Every day, post a photograph that was taken a year ago and has not been posted previously on this blog (if one exists).
2. Craft a brief reflection on the photograph, the day as a whole, or a moment of the day, ideally reflecting an idea that that has not been discussed extensively on this blog.
It is my hope that this process will allow me to think more deeply about my experience of Walking Walls than I have had time to do since getting home. The length of the challenge will mirror the length of the trip, thus matching my new reflections to the speed of the previous year’s progression of travel and thinking. Furthermore, I will be able to connect last year to the present by reliving my trip in some small way for the next 90 days, considering what forces I encountered last year that shape my thinking now. And finally, I hope to give life to the small memories and strange photographs that I know exist, but have been ignored because they had little to do with Walking Walls and everything to do with life on the road, strange experiences, and an eye-opening journey.
For a start, here’s the only picture I took on January 16th, 2012, using my phone. This was supposed to be my directions from the Jerusalem bus station to the place I was staying in Nachlaot. Of course, I didn’t account for the fact that I didn’t understand any Hebrew characters, rendering the street names on this map useless.
But what was I expecting? How could I use this map when it was from a different world?–the world I knew before I woke from a foggy fear, got on a bus and then a plane, slammed my feet on the ground in Jerusalem, and kept walking.
We may not be able to control how the cards fall when walls are built by states that are motivated by fear. We can protest, be arrested, go to court, but there too often comes a time when the foundation has been built and division is cemented on the ground, and these measures become less effective because it is harder to bring a wall down than to leave it there. Walls, after all, are about limiting these options, beating your path for you by dictating where you can and cannot go, what experiences you have, and implying what you should think about the other side by making it almost impossible not to think in us-versus-them terms.
But when walls change the rules, we can choose what they represent to us. If we are taken in by their unfeeling, monolith blocks, if we live in fear of their prickly-poking barbed wire, if we treat them as the alpha and omega of our world, then they have won, and things will begin to unravel around them accordingly as people’s conceptions of their place in the world shrink and spiral. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the cruelest variety; the walls themselves lack agency in this process, it is entirely based on how people act around them. If those who guard the wall worship it as their idol, they will destroy anyone who thinks otherwise. If those who oppose the wall cannot see through it’s sham, they too will fall under its spell of violent dichotomy. If we choose to empower walls and the places they inhabit with the mystic fear of the edge of the world and monsters unknown, we surrender ourselves to base human behavior as the walls come to represent the edge of our minds, reflecting the fear, doubt, and lack of reason that lurks there.
I do not know much about bringing walls down because they are so often resilient to attacks that humans can muster. If we let them, they will grow larger in our minds and should brick and mortar ever crumble, our eyes will be unaccustomed to the sunlight revealed by cracks and holes. But by refusing to worship the walls, we can prevent the edges they create from fraying and curling upon themselves, burned. If we reject the idolatry that has always been so tempting for humans, and instead maintain a vision that extends beyond the concrete plane that surrounds us, subverting the wall for a higher, and more difficult purpose: human relationships. I do not know much about bringing walls down, but if we can see through them, we will be ready when they fall.
I’ve been working on the Walking Walls book for a little more than a month now, on the weekends, and I think it’s far enough along to release a little more information. The whole thing will likely come in around 100 pages. There are five chapters:
Introduction – to the project and conflicts
Key Concepts – walls as a site of security vs. conflict, walls in geographic space or not, and walls as symptoms of a greater ill
My Experience – outlined by revealing moments in Abu Dis, Palestine, middle of nowhere, North Cyprus, and Shankill/Falls, Belfast
Others’ Experience – short description and a quote from various individuals, opposite their portrait
No, I don’t have an anticipated release date, I don’t know how it will be published (ideas and solicitations welcome!), and I likely don’t know much more than I’ve outlined here. Nonetheless, I’ve found it to be a very enjoyable process so far, and feel good about what I’ve done. In that spirit, I’d like to share two mockup pages and would really appreciate any feedback on design, writing, layout, anything. The first page is from the introduction:
The second is an excerpt from “My Experience,” probably the section that feels most vulnerable and scary:
Again, any comments or ideas are very welcome.
April 2009, Rome
This was probably the first time I tried to cover an event as a photographer and create a comprehensive photo essay. The occasion was a Communist rally on a warm spring day in Rome, where I had arrived days before for the second leg of a study abroad program. I can’t remember how my friends and I heard about the rally, but it was a Saturday morning, and we took the worlds’ worst metro system to the Pyramid stop, where we emerged, wide-eyed, to a sea of red flags and hammers and sickles. It was overwhelming for my midwestern senses, which were still adjusting to a world outside of Minnesota, much less the USA. But then the adrenaline kicked in and we started to follow the parade towards the Colosseum.
I stayed on the outside of the parade, working my way toward the front. I took a lot of pictures of people’s backs and sides, much to my irritation nowadays. Nearly an hour into the march, I found the beginning of the pack and the leaders of the action. They were riding in the back of this white pickup truck which was advancing at a crawl down the middle of the street. One shouted into a megaphone in Italian. An old man wearing a red scarf walked on the passenger side of the truck. But most of all, I was transfixed by this young woman who seemed to rally the crowd with ease, starting chants and directing the fists of Italian youth. I read her as a symbol of the movement. She was young, maybe as young as I was, and her behavior was a fascinating split between powerful and frail, anonymous and strangely familiar.
As the parade approached the Colosseum, the men in the very front produced giant sparklers which gave off a tremendous amount of smoke when lit. It was the climax of the entire morning and emotions ran high. I began a flat out dash to the very front, planning to throw myself in front of the marchers to get the shot: the men with the angry red sparklers against the backdrop of the Colosseum. Suddenly, other photographers were there, all with giant lenses. I jockeyed with professionals for space, also for the first time, watching to see where they would try and shoot from. And then, my camera ran out of battery. Just like that. Dead. No more photos. I never got the shot. Although the friends I came with were behind me, at least a few of them snapped photos that could have ran on AP with ease. Most of the work is showing up and finding the right place at the right time, but it doesn’t count when your equipment doesn’t show up with you.
I learned a hard lesson that day, but since then, I’ve never ran out of battery at an event. However, I still hate photographing flags, fundamentally fickle in the wind.