Biography

Gilles Peress began working with photography in 1970, having previously studied political science and philosophy in Paris.

Peress’ books include Telex Iran; The Silence: Rwanda; Farewell to Bosnia; The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar; A Village Destroyed and Haines.

His work has been exhibited and is collected by many of the most prestigious art institutions worldwide including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Museum in LA, the Walker Art Center, the V&A Museum, the Musée d'Art Moderne, the Picasso Museum, Centre Georges Pompidou, and the Fotomuseum Winterthur, just to name some.

“The work aims at exploring continuity and discontinuity under different modalities of the dissonant relationship between the Palestinian and the Israeli experience.”

Biography

Gilles Peress began working with photography in 1970, having previously studied political science and philosophy in Paris.

Peress’ books include Telex Iran; The Silence: Rwanda; Farewell to Bosnia; The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar; A Village Destroyed and Haines.

His work has been exhibited and is collected by many of the most prestigious art institutions worldwide including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Museum in LA, the Walker Art Center, the V&A Museum, the Musée d'Art Moderne, the Picasso Museum, Centre Georges Pompidou, and the Fotomuseum Winterthur, just to name some.

Gilles Peress

Palestinian Jerusalem

Gilles Peress traces the visual manifestations of embedded and historic human conflict. Rooted in Old Testament narratives, these archaic sources continue to shape daily life in Israel and the West Bank.
The images in this exhibition represent a continuation of work he began more than twenty years ago in Israel and Palestine, focusing predominantly upon the Road of the Patriarchs from Hebron to Jerusalem, and the Palestinian village of Silwan in East Jerusalem. Peress returned five times between 2010 and 2013 to this fault line in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he views as the central point of rupture in world civilisation, chronicling the ways in which history is both an eternal ritual and an inescapable destiny.

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Gilles Peress in conversation with Charlotte Cotton

Summer 2014

CC: Was it a quick decision for you to get involved with this project?
GP: (Laugh) … I was involved very early on in the process, introducing Frédéric to photographers and curators who could be interested in the project. I wasn’t invited to participate as a photographer until 2011, so there was a huge gap between knowing about the project and joining. I was going to go back to the region anyway, as part of a larger project that I started in the mid-nineties.

CC: Is that often the way for you, that you might return to a place and re-think it and reinvestigate it?
GP: Yes, it is like a curse. I am interested in the time/space structure, especially in places like Israel and Palestine and also in Belfast, in the Balkans, places where the rub of fault lines creates those very specific structures of time and space through a ritualisation of events in such a way that while today is just today, it is also all the other days like today. That ritualisation produces a construct of memory and history that is not linear but helicoidal and is a ‘caged’ existential perception of one’s life.

CC: What were the reasons you had been there in the late Nineties?
GP: I went there initially at the time of Oslo I Accord [1991–97], a time of hope, which resulted in an architecture of overlapping maps (Area A, B and C, etc…) which would supposedly make coexistence possible. Then I was back there at the beginning of 2002, which was an extremely, unimaginably, violent time and the undoing of Oslo I. When you go back to the same places over and over you start to see, in the cycles of extreme violence that dovetails with cycles of estrangement, the emergence of what you could call a quasi-apartheid state made of fears real and imagined, improvised check- points that become permanent and walls that become higher and higher. That determinism – that destiny – is what I am trying to understand.

Ritualisation produces a construct of memory and history that is not linear but helicoidal and is a ‘caged’ existential perception of one’s life.

CC: Can I ask when did you start to trust photography to be able to do this kind of really detailed time travel, or connecting of time?
GP: It was my own destiny. I went to a school in France that prepared you for banking and diplomacy. Then I started to study philosophy in the late Sixties, at a very troubled time. I ended up in the early Seventies as an activist, and at that time I started to see a deep disconnect between language and reality. That is when I decided to use photography; because I was deeply into reality and because of the realisation that language was not going to help me understand its true and deep patterns, I came to the conclusion that the only thing that would allow me to formalise my relationship to the real and keep myself sane was the camera. At that time, photography was very much what Roland Barthes calls ‘savage’ and on the surface was unsullied by codes. That savage quality really attracted me. Did I trust photography? I trusted it more than language, while knowing the limits of any form of description of reality. I know how much reality disappears as you try to grasp it. But I became interested in the process, in the physical and metaphorical structure of the image and I became very interested in the limits of photography. I believe in going to the limit, and I also believe in what happens beyond the limit in the no-man’s land between various forms of description. This no-man’s land for me, with no labels and codes attached to it, is a free space in the gap between photography and film, literature, painting, art and journalism. Do I trust it? I think it is in the making; a journey started after World War II when people such as Robert Frank spelled out fantastically an alphabet and the beginning of a narrative. It is up to us to try to use it as language.

This no-man’s land for me, with no labels and codes attached to it, is a free space in the gap between photography and film, literature, painting, art and journalism.

CC: There must have been a strong sense for you that your project already existed before you joined This Place.
GP: To me, what you call that ‘place’ is the centre of the world; a locus of Western oppression, it is on the fault line where what Huttington calls ‘The Clash of Civilisations’ happens. Like any place where you have that rub, there is a deep mystery. It has to do with human nature and why people construct each other as different, though they live side by side and often look alike as in the case of Palestinians and Israeli Jews. The mystery is as deep as the myth, and so for me the mystery is a central element of my quest. When you look at all the projects I’ve done, including my work in Northern Ireland, they are all about this. My work in Belfast was essentially finished in 1990 and I put everything in a box and I put it away, and I went to the Balkans, to deal with the same issue one more time. I can map out the linguistic patterns underlying as an ‘off voice’ in the photographs from the Balkans, Northern Ireland and Israel. As I move forward it becomes very evident to me that the construct of the ‘other’ beyond its traumatic consequences for both sides – beyond the violence, and beyond the hate – is also as a consequence of a paradigm of time, where time is like a vortex of repetition that literally eats lives and generations. I am forever trying to understand it, because this process of understanding does not have a defined end, even when you have the book done and the work on the wall. The process of thinking starts long before you get on the plane; the time spent while doing the research reading empowers the process of what will go through your mind as you are in the field, as you shoot pictures. The process that takes place before you go is very much about formalising the question or sequence of questions, and each time there is a real anticipation that reality will answer. The peculiar and radical beauty of photography is that it always answers questions you never thought of asking, and then comes a real moment of discovery; when you get answers to questions that never crossed your mind. That moment is savage and radical: it’s a humbling moment that cements your commitment to the project. After you return, the process of editing is also one of discovery – of unconscious intelligence – by creating categories based on similitudes, patterns of reality and by the painstaking process of building a narrative out of what is, out of unforseen evidences. I am doing all this to understand what I think and to structure my relationship to the outside world. It is a mapping out of that intersection between the inner world and the outer world. Maybe I should wish to know ahead of time what that intersection is going to be but it is in my nature to not trust that desire, that instinct, and first and foremost to not trust myself. I am very sceptical, even of myself and my photographic language. This process allows me to question every step of the way and to de-construct and re-construct as I go along.

The peculiar and radical beauty of photography is that it always answers questions you never thought of asking, and then comes a real moment of discovery; when you get answers to questions that never crossed your mind.

CC: What is your state of mind when you are working?
GP: I am agonisingly slow, both inchoate and deliberate. My process is much like method acting – diluting myself in the place, or diluting the place by my presence in it. So time spent is really important, as is repetition. I tend to work in very small areas, like in Hebron where I worked in not even two square kilometres. I have watched life, or the absence of it, unfold from the same street corners over and over again for thirty years. I did the same in Belfast, planting myself at the same street corners, over a period of twenty years, hundreds of times. A few things happen in the process; I try many different ways of describing that specific street corner and also this process is about seeing the impact of time. For example, in Hebron I have seen the Palestinian market disappear, each of the Palestinian shops disappear, one after the other, I have seen the texture of the street completely changing. In a way, mapping is really central to what I do and what that place is about, so as you go along, as you go back to the same places you start to understand the deep subtleties of the map.

CC: Tell me about where you worked this time?

GP: I worked in Hebron, at the checkpoint in Bethlehem, but I worked primarily in Silwan which is the last Palestinian village that has access to the Old City. When you look at the planned map for Silwan by the Jerusalem municipality, there is not much of the original village left, as it is being overtaken to become a buffer zone and an extension of the City of David. The Israelis are excavating to understand what the City of David is – an expansion in the name of archaeology. They are digging underneath the Palestinian village. Once again you have overlapping maps – you have the Palestinian map and underneath that you have the Israeli map. On top of the Palestinian map, you also have the Israeli military map, controlling the space from above where just one sniper can freeze an entire neighbourhood. When you look at Silwan and at the dialectical relation- ship with the City of David and the Israeli archeological gestalt you have to go beyond, behind and below this current narrative, to something that has happened since time immemorial, even before the Jewish kingdom comes into play. You have to go upstream in time to the Persian Empire and before. Each time you have the same thing: you have an elite that dreams palaces, and you have the working class, or what Marx called the lumpenproletariat that serves the elite and is the manpower that builds the palaces. And then as you go through the centuries, you see those elite being wiped out by invaders, their palaces destroyed. But the lumpenproletariat stays there and will rebuild the palaces of the next elite that comes along. Once you start to make a class analysis, you can recognise it as the pulsating heart of history, and specifically of the history of Silwan.

I am agonisingly slow, both inchoate and deliberate. My process is much like method acting – diluting myself in the place, or diluting the place by my presence in it.

CC: How did you work in Silwan?
GP: When you go to Silwan with a camera, everybody thinks you are a settler or part of a settler organisation and that you are scouting the real estate. The people there are very cognisant of the mapping process, of the settlers’ efforts to buy Palestinian properties through front men, and of the intent of the Jerusalem municipality for the remodelling of Silwan, which would wipe out entire sections of their neighbourhoods; consequently, they are not very happy to see you there. I was lucky in the sense that one of my former students is a Palestinian, from Silwan. Atta Awisat is a really amazing character. He lives there and everybody knows him. I was his teacher in a joint Palestinian Israeli workshop sponsored by the Peres Peace Centre and we have a very warm relationship and exchange; we were really working together in Silwan and learning from each other.

CC: Are children treated differently from adults?

GP: The problem for children in Silwan is that they are very special targets, the children have become the battle ground. The Israeli border police will arrest children to put pressure on the parents to leave the area. Imagine you are a child in Silwan – there is no space to play, you have the ongoing presence of the settlers, and the settler’s private armies and the border police. You are the battleground when you are a child.

Imagine you are a child in Silwan – there is no space to play, you have the ongoing presence of the settlers, and the settler’s private armies and the border police. You are the battleground when you are a child.

CC: And it is this that you are trying to capture in your photographs?
GP: I am not trying to capture anything, there is no ‘intent’ as such, I am willfully inarticulate and inchoate to myself in order to create a tabula rasa, a savage wiping out, a ‘killing of the word’ so that the photographic process can exist. At least for me, photography is about what happens between the moment of perception and the moment where you can put a word on that perception. So it functions in that space, and it deals with a whole category of ideas that are not yet defined and reduced by language. I could call them pure ideas, but it is more akin to an unchartered territory.

CC: And what were the key categories that have emerged for you in assessing your photographs for this project?

GP: Most of the images tend to the very granular, very descriptive and above all agonisingly slow like those scenes which explore the physical areas of the checkpoints and which correspond to structural moments in the cycle of the day that exemplify the difficult relationship between Palestinians and the current Israeli State. Each of those moments, each of those spaces, are moments of individual and collective existence that structure the beginning, the possibility of an existential narrative which is the birth-ground for the political.

CC: And are such categories gauged as emotional temperatures or formal qualities?

GP: I try to avoid the formal by itself and for itself. There is always a battle between form and content and if one lets form win over content, you end up with an image that you can look at and walk away from: it’s all clear and easily digested. The construct of the battle between form and content is that it has to be a formidable battle between titans where content has to win… in the end. What I’m interested in is the length of time spent by the reader in front of the image, so I start with a premise of photography as an open text. A closed text or a closed image has just one meaning and one meaning only constructed as an ‘egg’ in the middle of the image which itself is cleaned up of any other element which could distract or even contradict. For me, photography is at its best when you build equivocal images, images that have more than one meaning. In the process of doing so you have to acknowledge a multiplicity of authors; beyond the photographer himself each camera has a different voice, and reality also has an incredibly forceful voice. But in the end it is the reader who has the major voice in the making of images. It is in the process of looking at an equivocal and layered image, that the reader spends time and begins a process of surrender. That process of surrender is in a way proportional or parallel to the dialectical tension between form and content in an image. You want images that have a subtle form with an intentionally complex content, and which opens the door (under the theory of open text) to the time spent by the reader, and to that surrender which gives access to a whole category of ideas that predates the word and gives possibility to another understanding.

The construct of the battle between form and content is that it has to be a formidable battle between titans where content has to win… in the end.