Aesthetics and Ethics (Miki Kratsman)

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translation by Miss XS

In a little opulent village nestled between Rhine and Neckar, the Ursula Blickle Foundation presented a monographic exhibition of works by the Israeli photographer, Miki Kratsman for the first time ever in Europe (it was until April 17th). Walking through the door, you pass from the calm German countryside enlivened by the first colours of spring, to a sorry and desperately dry universe aptly translated in the black and white of his photographs, the aridness of the Neguev Desert. Here live thousands of Bedouins, Israeli citizens whose villages are not ‘recognised’ by the State of Israel and are thus frequently razed by the army, in order for their ancestral land to be appropriated by the United Jewish Fund for the plantation of trees in recreational parks or by Jewish settlers avid of new land. Ahlam Shibli, a native of this region, showed us those who submit to the new order, who earn their quietness and their integration into society by becoming Trackers for the army (one thinks of the Harkis in Algeria or of the Amerindian Scouts, helpers of the conquest of the Wild West : they fight their brothers on the side of the colonial power, yet they remain always second-rate citizens). Miki Kratsman shows the others, those who attempted resistance, who came back, who hung on, who refused deportation and regrouping. For him (a key figure of Israeli photography and the director of the department of photography at the Bezalel school, as well as a photographer for Haaretz), it is imperative to witness and conserve the fugacious traces of this presence of the Bedouins before they are erased, deliberately eliminated. Nothing or next to nothing remains of the Amerindians or Aborigines before their genocide; nearly not a single image of the central European schtetls before the Shoah; no longer are there any traces of the Palestinian Arab villages destroyed during the Nakba in 1948, neither ruins nor memorial plaques or even a single photograph. So, in order to avoid the negation of the Bedouins of Neguev, a world which tomorrow will not exist anymore, Miki Kratsman and a few others want to be witnesses. Here, we see only the beginning stages of a very long project, the fruits of his first one-month stay in a village under destruction.

There are two types of photography: some show ruins, little trivial dumps of stones, flooring, tarpaulin, beams, scrap iron, residues of habitats that were themselves made wit scrappy bits and pieces. In the desert landscape, under the overwhelming light, the detritus would mean nothing if we didn’t know, if we didn’t point the finger at what happened: the men and women who lived here have been chased out of their own homes. This aesthetic of the ruins questions the role of photography itself, as an index and a sign of mourning.

The other series is made up of the portraits of inhabitants of a neighbouring village on the eve of their expulsion. These were taken in an improvised studio: the men in front of a white fabric, proud and calm outcasts; one of them in traditional attire, the others in their everyday wear, this one sporting a shirt stained with oil. Maintaining a little bit of distance, they pose standing straight in front of the camera with their arms dangling on either side. Their gazes are terrible; they are looks of suffering or resignation but also of resilience and eternity.

The women pose in front of a carpet with geometric floral motifs. If the youngest of them adorns a very simple veil, the others are more or less completely veiled; Bedouin women full of restraint in front of the stranger, who after all is a man, and one from the dominant ethnic group. From their gaze, we retain their sense of dignity. One can only think of Dorothea Lange and the FSA photos, also attempting to conserve the traces of a humanity derailing.

The workbooks of the photographer containing notes, drawings, and small photos, are exhibited in the level above. We can imagine (even without understanding Hebrew) his stylistic interrogations, his sense of composition, his will to make strong images that are well constructed and real. It’s photography without flourishes, without ‘special effects’. Rather, it is direct, brutal (and thus very much anchored in the Israeli reality, very different from German or American photography).

The last floor shows a slideshow of 1800 photographs from his archives spanning 25 years. Some are in colour, most are black and white, and some are pixelated reproductions of newspaper or book pages that have been re-photographed. Many of these are portraits taken very close to their subjects. Their gazes are dense, energetic and brutal. Many are tragic and full of signs pointing towards death: pilots walking towards their bomber planes, mutilated men and children, crying women, burials and control radars. None of the images in the slideshow have captions, and we strive to discover in them markers of place and time. In some of them, there appears to be kippas, kaffiyehs, the Hebrew or Arab alphabet, uniforms, flags, posters, badges, but often we do not know if the mother crying is Arab or Jewish, if the picture is about an explosion in a restaurant in Tel Aviv or about the Israeli bombing of Gaza or Jenine.

Miki Kratsman says that his work is destined in priority to the Israelis, him being a witness of events that the majority of his countrymen does not want to see, like a Just among the Nation in the midst of indifference (or worse). A good number of his photographs shown in the slideshow (without captions) are  enigmas for the non-Israeli. They are presumably men of power, politicians, generals, or footballers, unknown to us Europeans. No shock here, not many clearly identifiable events; yet there is an atmosphere, an ambiance, a culture appearing in these images. Tears rather than blood.

Images from his series Targeted Killings are shown here and there. They were taken with an objective identical to the one used in the Israeli drones, shot from the Jewish enclave of Mount Scopus. These photographs show anonymous Palestinians, as seen by a presumed Israeli sniper executing a preventive killing: these are the only fictitious images shown here, and they are very dramatic.

Let us hope that one day we will be able to see the photographs of Miki Kratsman in France, that we will be able to discover the story of the winners, the losers, the expelled, the massacres, that we won’t anymore be able to say “I didn’t know”; but then we will also have the chance to discover a work like no other, where ethics and aesthetics unite, like at the times of Lewis Hine or the Depression.

Photos of the exhibition were taken by the author.

En français

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