Of the three sites I visited during Walking Walls, I’m still debating which one is the odd man out, and whether or not it even makes sense to think about the conflicts through the lenses that would group them in such a way. You could make endless arguments that distinguish one site from the other two: Israel/Palestine as the odd one due to not being part of Europe…the physical borders have yet to be fully constructed….most recently a violent hotspot. Cyprus because the UN is still involved…because the border is built to stop an army instead of individuals. Northern Ireland because the borders are entrenched in neighborhoods…because the walls were requested by the residents.
But even as I was writing that list, I was struck by the number of things that I had to omit after encountering dissenting opinions on this trip. For example, although I cannot articulate the details of the argument, I now know better than to classify the Troubles as only an intra-state conflict. I have come to appreciate that the generalizations I made above are much more complex than I have characterized them to be; I think you could find exceptions to any of them.
I can’t reflect on this project without being comparative because I intentionally went to three different sites to gain a more complete understanding of what it means to live in a physically divided society. The idea was to unite the partition in different places through the common, human threads in my experience. But you cannot separate the personal stories from the conflicts. A Palestinian refugee is not a Greek Cypriot refugee is not a Belfast resident who moved to a different neighborhood to escape car bombs and gunfire. Glossing over this would be a disservice to the individuals, the complexity of the conflict, and the difficulty of any solution.
But at the same time, it’s not very useful or interesting to completely separate my reflections on each site, because it misses an opportunity to deepen my understanding of why and how people build walls, and discourages any transfer of good ideas for solutions from one place to the next. There will be some good insights on the X axis from thinking about the intersections of these three sites, both in commonalities and differences, the negative and the positive.
I’m not sure what the Y axis is at this moment. Maybe it’s the stories of exceptional circumstances, the extremes on the scatter plot, the odd man out. That’s worth thinking about too.
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.
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.
Salzburg Lion, 2009
Before I had ever gone on a bike tour, or even knew how to change a flat, I did a series of bike photos. They were details, cropped into squares, trying almost unwittingly to maintain a primary color scheme. This one has always been my favorite. The afternoon light, color scheme, and composition works well in this image. I’d love to come back to this project with 5,000 miles under my belt. I wonder how I’d approach the details of a bike now that I know which parts are likely to break and how to fix them?
This afternoon I went back to Walajeh to spend some quality time in the village on foot. Just a few kilometers west of Bethlehem, Walajeh is across the valley from settlements in southern Jerusalem and around the corner from the settlement of Har Gilo, which continues to expand and encroach on the town. The solution to this proximity, is, of course, to build a wall around Walajeh that will create a tight enclosure around the village, a Palestinian enclave in what was once Palestinian land. But, construction on said wall is not finished, so there remains some (small) hope that Walajeh’s fate may change. Numerous gaps in the unfinished wall make it easy to ‘cross sides’ so it’s also a very strange and interesting place to visit for this project. Today was the first and last time I walked on both sides of the wall in a single trip, much less a single hour or minute.
Standing on both sides of the wall like this was a powerful experience, and I’m not sure I’ve fully processed it yet. I felt exhilarated by the idea of being in two places at once, kind of like when you’re a kid and you get to stand in two states at once, or three, or four (maybe this is just me?). I also felt triumphant, like I had somehow outsmarted the wall and managed to do what it prevents by its very nature. But I was also frustrated, because this line that I stood atop of doesn’t mean anything! It does not correspond to the green line, international law, or municipal boundaries. This spot was just a green hillside until last year when bulldozers carved it into a flat road and covered it with gravel and concrete. It holds no significance beyond that which concrete and the muscle of men can lend. Alas! The joys and sorrows of a border-walking border-theory junkie.
This is a tunnel that runs under where the wall will be built. It will serve as a dedicated checkpoint for the people who live in the house in the picture below, which will be entirely cut off from the rest of Walajeh by the wall.
Right now, with gaps and no guards, the wall around Walajeh is not keeping anybody out or in. But mentally, it’s already working.
Walking walls is not simple. It means checkpoints, trepidation, foreignness, obstacles. It means running into subsidiary fences that sprout out of the barrier like offspring, like a child who has learned to carry a gun, built by a different hand but for the same purpose. It means walking twenty yards before going back down the hill to find a way around this particular snake on the militarized Medusa head. Sometimes it means walking on a ridge that is in sight of the wall but on the opposite side of the valley because there is no way across. Walking walls means using a 300mm lens to photograph watchtowers. Walking walls means Arab buses to East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Walking walls means stepping in dog shit.
Walking walls means being invited for tea and coffee by strangers who turn out to be really nice. It means eating felafel that is consistently cheap, but wildly varied in taste. Walking walls means playing it cool at the checkpoint, and switching out memory cards beforehand. Walking walls means navigation by compass. It means meeting sheep and goats daily. It means wishing I spoke more languages hourly.
Walking walls means being in sight of where you want to go and having no way to get there. Experiencing frustration and angst, but ironically this is exactly what you hope to experience by going here. To understand, a little, tiny sliver, for one day, what its like to live with the wall. Walking walls means the wall will walk on you.