Biography

Nick Waplington received an ICP Infinity award in 1993, and represented the UK at the Venice Biennale in 2001.

He has exhibited widely including the Whitechapel Gallery, London and The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

His work is held in a number of prominent museum collections including the Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and MoMA, New York.

“ I wanted to know why these people are there, to reach beyond the stereotypes and engage with the land and the people themselves.”

Biography

Nick Waplington received an ICP Infinity award in 1993, and represented the UK at the Venice Biennale in 2001.

He has exhibited widely including the Whitechapel Gallery, London and The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

His work is held in a number of prominent museum collections including the Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and MoMA, New York.

Nick Waplington

Settlement

Nick Waplington lived in Israel from spring of 2008 until the summer of 2010, creating a photographic survey of more than two hundred Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He returned through 2012, both to complete this project and to work on other projects related to the region, including a sculptural series of water tanks which were transformed into ‘racing cars’.
Often travelling alone, he explored the landscape, architecture, and the contradictory nature of settler identity. With this work Waplington focused on new immigrants from the Jewish diaspora paying particular attention to families from Britain, Canada, South Africa, Australia and the United States, who had given up other lives to help create settlements in the hills of the West Bank. His project combines intimate family portraits with images of the natural and built environment. This group of photographs represents a small selection from the more than one thousand images he made in the settlements; a larger selection of images is included in his book Settlement.

In conversation with Charlotte Cotton

Summer 2014

CC: Can you tell me about how you came to decide upon the West Bank and the Jewish settlers as the focus of your work in Israel?
NW: When I arrived in Israel for the first time in 2007, I was struck by how many different identities existed in the region, and how many ways there were to be ‘other’ – not just Jewish versus Arab, but even within the category of ‘Israeli’. This seemed particularly true in the disputed territories of the West Bank, where Jewish settlers were not only occupying the land in a politically ambiguous way, but also occupying an ambiguous identity in terms of Judaism and Zionism. This identity, on the one hand, was based on an extreme version of Jewish nationalism, and was supported by many Israeli politicians, particularly the more right-wing factions. On the other hand, the settlers were very much ‘others’: many of them immigrants from other parts of the world, sometimes living off the grid in remote outposts, and alienating not only the Palestinian villagers and Bedouin tribes they displaced, but also the many Israelis on the left who felt strongly that the Jewish occupation of the West Bank should not continue.

CC: How did you decide upon your photographic approach? Were there precedents or experiences that helped you shape this?
NW: As I thought about the Jewish settlers and their communities, and about their identities both as Israeli and ‘other’, my mind often turned to David Goldblatt’s work about Afrikaners in 1970s South Africa. His book, In Boksburg (1982), also depicts the lives of a community apart from but also within the larger community of South African society. Many years ago, I drove with Goldblatt from Cape Town to Johannesburg in South Africa, a twelve-hour drive of nearly a thousand miles, and over the course of that journey we did not see a township, or hardly even any black people. We’d stop at service stations and everyone at the petrol stations would be white. Every community we saw from the road was a white community. I realised that the road had been laid out to avoid any contact between the races, even visual contact. This was not just about the systematic political disempowerment of a population. It was also about creating separate worlds, separate realities, and so enabling a kind of mutual denial of ‘otherness’. For me, the power of Goldblatt’s work was in its attempt to understand the particularities of the people within this system.

“This was not just about the systematic political disempowerment of a population. It was also about creating separate worlds, separate realities, and so enabling a kind of mutual denial of ‘otherness’.”

CC: In a more literal sense, how did you find your subjects?
NW: As I drove around the West Bank, getting a sense of the land, I found myself once again on a road loaded with ideology. Route 60, which runs through the West Bank, like the road I drove along with Goldblatt, is also laid out in order to avoid contact with the other, in this case the Palestinian and Bedouin communities – ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as much as is possible. I knew there was more to it than this, however, and I began exploring the small roads that took me out of the sanitised world of that freeway into a world of specific communities and identities: from Palestinian villages to Bedouin encampments. I remained particularly fascinated, however, with the Jewish settlements, which seemed to exist in a strange reality of their own. Obviously, these communities were part of an occupation in the name of Israel, but they were also in some sense in defiant opposition to mainstream Israeli society. Some of these communities were prosperous suburbs with tree-lined streets and sports fields, while others were spartan groups of caravans with organic vegetable plots and armed guards; some looked like bunkers in a new world war. As I spent day after day exploring with my camera, recording the landscape and those in it, I slowly came to know some of these settlers, and was able to spend time in their world, and to eventually to work with them.

In order to do this, I first had to spend a great deal of time learning to read the landscape, decoding its many signs and signifiers. For instance, what were those big black objects on the roofs of some houses?

I learned, eventually, that these were water tanks used by Palestinians, who are not allowed access to the main Israeli water supply, as the settlers are. Suddenly, what had been merely a piece of visual information – black shapes on a roofline – became loaded with political significance, and a way of decoding otherness. Throughout my time in Israel, I had many more revelations of this kind, as the process of looking became a process of reading. The images I have made are full of such unexpectedly resonant details: not just the black water tanks, but the texture of the road barriers (decorative finish on the Israeli side, blank concrete on the Palestinian side), the difference between a Bedouin camp and a Jewish outpost, and so on.

“Suddenly, what had been merely a piece of visual information – black shapes on a roofline – became loaded with political significance, and a way of decoding otherness.”

CC: It sounds like you learned the visual codes.
NW: Yes but I also spent time learning the political language of the region: what is Area B, what is Area C, what is Area A? Why are they categorised in those ways and who is allowed access to them? What are the differences among checkpoints? What are the differences between lines of cars in the checkpoints? What kinds of cars ‘read’ differently to the soldiers manning the checkpoints? What kinds of clothing?

CC: And how did you gain access to settler communities?
NW: As I continued working, and became better at reading the signifiers, I developed strategies to aid my access to the different communities, be they Palestinian, Bedouin or Jewish. My goal, always, was to make work about the settlers, and their complicated existence in this complicated landscape. And in order to do this, I had to gain access to communities that were sometimes extremely insular and enclosed. I began by approaching expatriate settlers – Canadians, Brits, South Africans, Australians – in communities where English remains the first language. After meeting a few of these families, I did an interview for an English language settlers’ broadcast television channel, which helped legitimise the project. But more often, I’d simply head out to a settlement with the names of two or three people with whom I could sit and talk about the work I was doing; one family led to the next, and one community to another, and I was able to make the portraits that way. In doing them, I tried to reflect the fact that each settlement I encountered had its own characteristics, be it secular or religious, English or Hebrew speaking, militant or dovish.

CC: How were you and your project received by the settlers?
NW: It was not always easy to explain to the settlers why I wanted to make work about them. I met a settler who worked at the Hebrew University, at the art school there. He said, ‘Why do you want to photograph us? No one will touch us, no one is interested in us’. Various settlers I came to know were absolutely convinced for the first couple of years that I was a left wing activist infiltrator, and assumed that my work was going to be a condemnation of their position and their politics. In dramatic contrast, others, particularly in the Anglophone settlements where I became a familiar figure, assumed that the project was very pro-settler and that I was an observant Jew interested in celebrating the repopulation of Judea and Samaria by the chosen people. I tried to explain that I had no interest in making a visual polemic, either in condemnation or support of the settlements. Rather, I wanted to depict this contradictory world of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ as neutrally as possible.

“Rather, I wanted to depict this contradictory world of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ as neutrally as possible.”

CC: Do you think the photographs read explicitly with your intent?
NW: As I look back on the completed work, I think it succeeds in depicting Jewish life in the West Bank outside of the distraction of the narrative of war and political conflict presented in the media. Quite simply this work says these are the people, this is the landscape. But of course, the meaning of the work will depend on the interpretation of the viewer, no one of whom can be absolutely impartial of course which is fine with me. As much as I endeavoured to neutralise my own perspective, and to suspend my own political sympathies as I made these images, I also want this work to be a catalyst to discourse, to be the beginning of something, not the end of something. The images in this book are here to be seen, and to be read, and it is my hope that those who view them will be provoked to more reading, interpreting, debating, denouncing or defending.