Biography

Josef Koudelka was born in Moravie, Czechoslovakia in 1938. Trained as an aeronautical engineer, he began photographing in the 1950’s.

Koudelka left Czechoslovakia for political asylum in 1970 and shortly thereafter joined Magnum Photos.

He has won significant awards such as the Prix Nadar (1978), a Grand Prix National de la Photographie (1989), a Grand Prix Cartier-Bresson (1991), and the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography (1992).

Since 1986, he has worked with a panoramic camera. Significant exhibitions of his work have been held at the Museum of Modern Art and the I.C.P, New York; the Hayward Gallery, London; the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, Amsterdam; and the Palais de Tokyo, Paris.

“This country is divided, each side reacts to that division in a different way, but the landscape can’t react.”

Biography

Josef Koudelka was born in Moravie, Czechoslovakia in 1938. Trained as an aeronautical engineer, he began photographing in the 1950’s.

Koudelka left Czechoslovakia for political asylum in 1970 and shortly thereafter joined Magnum Photos.

He has won significant awards such as the Prix Nadar (1978), a Grand Prix National de la Photographie (1989), a Grand Prix Cartier-Bresson (1991), and the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography (1992).

Since 1986, he has worked with a panoramic camera. Significant exhibitions of his work have been held at the Museum of Modern Art and the I.C.P, New York; the Hayward Gallery, London; the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, Amsterdam; and the Palais de Tokyo, Paris.

Josef Koudelka

Wall

Josef Koudelka uses the Israeli-built Wall in the West Bank as an anchor for exploring major social and environmental questions through his panoramic lens.
He travelled to Israel and the Palestinian Territories seven times between 2008 and 2012, often returning to the same locations to shoot. He worked intensively for periods of several weeks, leaving disturbed by what he saw, which he calls ‘a crime against the sacred land’.
From the beginning, Koudelka specifically imagined his project as a series of photographs presented in the format of a book that would open accordion-style and create a symbolic wall that ruptures the gallery space.

Josef Koudelka interviewed by Shela Sheikh

Based on a previous interview by René Backmann, translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll

SS: Was your involvement with This Place the first time that you had been to Israel and the West Bank?
JK: Yes, it was the first time. In 2007, the photographer Frédéric Brenner – whom I’ve known for a long time – asked me to participate in a project with several other photographers, in Israel. I said no, I wasn’t interested. But Frédéric is very convincing. He tried to persuade me for a long time, and in the end he proposed that I come for two weeks – all expenses paid – to Israel, with no obligation whatsoever, before making a definitive decision. I was so certain of my decision that I said: ‘OK, I’ll come, but I will pay for my own plane ticket, because I want to be sure that I won’t have any obligation to you’. And that’s what I did.

SS: When did you first visit the region to explore the idea of joining This Place?
JK: The first time I went was in June of 2008. It was a kind of sightseeing tour, in which I saw a little bit of everything. And it was during this trip that I saw the Wall. I couldn’t forget it. But as I had seen only a small part of it during those two weeks, I thought my perception of it might be only partial. But I knew for sure that what I’d just seen didn’t exist in such a way anywhere else. And so I wanted to see more. I said to myself, if I come back for a second trip, to see it more closely, maybe I can do something there.

“The first time I went was in June of 2008. It was a kind of sightseeing tour, in which I saw a little bit of everything. And it was during this trip that I saw the Wall. I couldn’t forget it.”

SS: Did you have reservations about participating?
JK: Yes. I knew from my colleagues at Magnum that it would be complicated to work over there. In my previous work, I had always imposed strict conditions: the subject had to interest me. It had to have something to do with me. I had to have the freedom to photograph everything I wanted to. I had to have control over the production from beginning to end, and have enough time to do my work the way I wanted to. I wasn’t sure if these terms would be met by this group project.

Moreover, for me, the vital question from the beginning was: where was the money coming from? I was assured that the support was not coming from the State of Israel, but mainly from several American cultural foundations. In general, I don’t have a lot of faith in collective projects. It’s hard to have full control when one isn’t working alone. It’s a set up that comes with limitations. I ended up getting involved in this project because I received a formal assurance that I could do what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. I set down all my conditions in a letter addressed to Frédéric: the work was to be devoted to the Wall and the surrounding landscape; the end product of the work had to be a book; no restriction would be placed on my work and I would have the ability to complete the project; and most important, I would be able to photograph not only in Israel but also in the Palestinian Territories. Furthermore, I was to be the only proprietor of the work and would retain the copyright; I would choose the images and captions to be used; and I would have complete final approval of all texts accompanying the images. I would also have final approval of the design and content of the book and of exhibitions of the work – and of the publication and distribution of the images. My original plan was for an accordion-fold book that would be called Wall, and would be shown, open, in the group show. Something that I would be the master of, and that would show my vision in all its complexity.

In the end, due to costs, the monograph was published in 2013 in a standard bound format, and while a prototype accordion-fold book will be displayed in the exhibition; I hope to publish an edition in this format in the future. As I had never worked under such circumstances before and I didn’t want to be used in any way, I consulted with many people. Most of them said to me, ‘Don’t touch this subject. Even if they let you do whatever you like, you will be exploited’. But I thought the conditions I’d set down would give me the guarantees I needed. When my terms were accepted, I signed the contract. That was only during my fourth trip.

Still, after I’d agreed to participate and signed the contract, I received a letter from a publisher I respect very much. He wrote: ‘Josef, I saw your name on the list of participating photographers. You’ve sold out. You know perfectly well that this project is going to end up as pro-Israel propaganda’.

SS: How much time did you spend in Israel and the West Bank? How many trips did you make?
JK: Altogether, during four years, between 2008 and 2012, I made seven trips. I went when I had the time to go, and when Gilad Baram, a young Israeli photographer who was accompanying me, was available. Each trip was about three weeks long. What I saw was so depressing that I found it very hard to stay any longer.

“Each trip was about three weeks long. What I saw was so depressing that I found it very hard to stay any longer.”

SS: With whom did you work most closely?
JK: As I mentioned, I was accompanied by Gilad Baram; together, we travelled along the Wall. Sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other. Gilad was taking a double risk crossing to the other side. First, because Israelis are not authorised to enter zones under the control of the Palestinian Authority. And also because Israelis – as you can imagine – are not always warmly welcomed by the Palestinians. Gilad went with me almost everywhere. But some areas were too dangerous for him. For example, when I wanted to stay overnight on the Palestinian side of the Wall, he went back to Israel. I learned many things about the local situation by talking to that young man, twenty-seven years old when I began working with him, who was very passionate about our work. We would meet every morning at eight in Jerusalem, and we worked around the Wall until the end of the day. I was deeply affected every day by what I saw. Gilad, too, was shaken. He was changed by what he discovered about his birthplace. While accompanying me he was also documenting our working process. In the end, he said to me that, during our trips around the Wall, he had learned to look.

I also developed a close working relationship with Miki Kratsman, head of the photography department at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, where Gilad was studying at the time. Additionally, at some points during the project, we were accompanied by Issa Freij, a Palestinian photographer-filmmaker who was very helpful to us, and by a former colonel in the Israeli army, Shaul Arieli, now a member of the Israeli NGO The Council for Peace and Security; they advocate that the Wall should not be a political tool or a means of defining a future border, but that it should simply contribute to preserving Israel’s security, harming the Palestinian population as little as possible.

SS: How did you formulate your concept of concentrating on the Wall? And did this come to you immediately?
JK: From the very first visit, back in 2008, I felt that if I were to participate in the project – working with my usual conditions – the only subjects that would interest me would be the Wall and the surrounding landscape. Since 1986, when I began to work on the landscapes of France for the Mission DATAR with a panoramic camera, I’ve tried to show how contemporary man influences the landscape. I’ve published ten books on the subject. The construction of the Tunnel under the English Channel, the ruins of Beirut, the coal mines of Central Europe… but I’d never seen anything similar to this. From my point of view, I could not find a subject more powerful than the Wall that mutilates the Holy Land.

One day, while we were walking along the Wall I saw a graffiti that said: ‘One Wall, two prisons’. That sums up how I was feeling. You know, I grew up in Czechoslovakia, behind a wall. I always wanted to get to the other side.

I know what a wall is about.

SS: How do you start a project such as this?
JK: By photographing. Whenever I see something that interests me, I photograph. Later, I look at what came out and I see if I can do something with it. That is what happened when I saw the Wall. From the start, my own approach was not political. All I wanted was to show what I’d seen. One day, when the project was almost complete, I showed my work to someone whom I met in Israel, who said to me, ‘Josef, this book goes beyond politics: it is a book about man and the land’.

When I first arrived, Frédéric Brenner suggested that I meet with people who could clarify the situation. I said no. I didn’t know much about Israel, and I didn’t want to know too much. Photographers don’t all work the same way. Whenever Henri Cartier-Bresson was getting ready to leave for a country where he was going to work, he would read everything: philosophy, history, literature – whatever he could get his hands on. But I prefer to go not knowing much. So what I end up knowing, I know through my own eyes. Later on during this project, I met a lot of people on both sides of the Wall and listened to a lot of testimony that helped me to understand more.

SS: Did you meet any resistance?
JK: Most of the people I met there, Palestinians and Israelis, were in favour of my project. They did everything they could to help me. The only ones I had problems with were Israeli settlers, soldiers, and police. I had one bad experience in particular: one day we were in East Jerusalem, on the ‘Palestinian side’ of the Wall, and were looking for a shaded place to eat our sandwiches, when, suddenly, we saw a group of armed Israeli soldiers rushing toward us, their assault rifles at the ready. We didn’t budge. They frisked us and interrogated us, and while they were doing that, one of them hit my camera. I didn’t realise immediately that he broke it, and that it was no longer usable. Nothing indicated to me that it was damaged. I continued to work with it for ten or so days before realising that I had sixty rolls without a single image, because the shutter was broken. The craziest thing is that the Israeli soldier who broke my camera had the same kind of face as the young Russian soldiers I photographed in 1968 in Prague. The Russians, though, never succeeded in breaking my camera.

Except for that incident, I never truly felt in danger. I knew that soldiers could cause me problems. We were stopped very often, sometimes even five times in a single day. Each time, we had to show our passports, and Gilad would explain in Hebrew what we were doing. Sometimes it was long and complicated, as the Press Office of the Israeli government had refused to give me a temporary press card. One day an army jeep stopped next to us while I was photographing. When the soldiers demanded that we stop and began questioning us, Gilad said to them, ‘He’s not a reporter, he’s an artist – look him up on Google’. As we were standing there, they found my name and looked at some photos on their mobile phones, then they let me get on with my work.

“ We were stopped very often, sometimes even five times in a single day. Each time, we had to show our passports, and Gilad would explain in Hebrew what we were doing.”

SS: Can you describe your working process?
JK: You have to see everything in order to choose. I made a photographer friend laugh once by telling him that I consider myself a collector of photographs more than a photographer. In fact, I look for the place where the photograph is waiting for me. And I keep going back to that place until I get it. I never use a tripod because even the composition, for me, is instinctive. It has sometimes happened that I’ve gone back to the location where I’ve made a photograph – and I didn’t understand how I did it the previous time.

In the book there is an image with three olive trees. I don’t know how many times I went to shoot those three trees in order to get the picture I felt satisfied with.

SS: Can you describe the editing process?
JK: I think this is one of the most documentary books I’ve made in my life – the other being Invasion 68: Prague. With Wall, I was guided by the same principle I followed during my work with the Gypsies – in which I wanted to show every moment of their lives, from birth to death.

In this case, I wanted to show the most important aspects of the Wall. I didn’t want to leave anything out. For example, I thought that I should have a photograph of one of the ‘agricultural gates’, through which Palestinian farmers who own lands on the other side of the Wall must pass to get to work, if they get permission from the Israeli authorities. I also wanted to photograph the many different components that make up this wall: the razor wire, the checkpoints, access roads, etc. And this I did.

At one point, I showed my work on the Wall to a friend whom I trust and who knows the situation very well. He advised me to remove certain photographs that, according to him, had nothing to do with the Wall. But in the end I decided to keep them. However, I had to take out some photographs that I thought were very good pictures – for example, one of the tombstone of Baruch Goldstein, the settler who murdered twenty-nine Palestinians in 1994 in Hebron. I kept it for a very long time in my selection. But I thought, If I use the image of Goldstein’s tombstone, to keep the balance, I’ll have to have a photograph related to Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. But I didn’t manage to get any such photograph that I was satisfied with. Anyway, above all, I didn’t want to get into the logic of political correctness.

“I also wanted to photograph the many different components that make up this wall: the razor wire, the checkpoints, access roads, etc. And this I did.”

SS: You created many small maquettes for the book. Is this typical of how you realise your books?
JK: Yes, and with Wall I went through twenty-five variations of the sequence until I was content.

SS: There are two realisations of Wall in the exhibition – the prototype accordion-fold book that will form a sculptural division in the exhibition spaces and also a full wall projection animation. Can you talk about these exhibition display choices?
JK: Yes, and again this is a matter of sequencing. Ideally, I would like to see the accordion-fold book laid out on a long plinth and opened out to full length so that the public can walk along it and see how the images relate to each other. Whereas in the projection, viewers will experience the single images. Here the pictures would be as large as possible – ideally at least ten meters wide – and in a dark, closed space, in which people would experience a direct confrontation with the landscape.

SS: You’ve said that this is one of the most documentary projects you’ve made in your life. Can you say more about this?
JK: I knew that what I was photographing was going to change. I wanted to record a wide spectrum of the landscape in Israel and Palestine, focusing on the Wall.

In fact, this was my last project photographed entirely on film. I think this is important both from a historical point of view and from a conceptual one – everything I photographed existed; it was there, and I photographed it as my
eyes saw it.