by Steve Bisson

In this new book your attention apparently moves distant from the people and becomes more contemplative, part of the landscape itself. Instead of marking differences these photos seem to explore a shadowy geography of nuanced definitions. Handfuls of houses scattered on territories that have always been disputed. Your gaze is above all that of a geographer who observes how the community spread into the landscape through forms, signs, morphologies and distinctive characteristics. Layers of intentions, of generations, of stories overlap the eye. The landscape is never fully decipherable. When the eye is not able to recognize a territory, its morphology, then it goes in search of other references, elements that are beyond the natural or environmental aspects. In so doing it attempts to detect aspects such as the types of houses, the construction methods, symbols and phenomenological traces. In other words it challenges our own vocabulary and cultural assumption. With this regard in your photographs we can easily recognize elements such the domes of mosques and towers of minarets. This aspect immediately raises some questions. Or to use the words by Mark Long «their purpose is breathing new life into our image of these places». Tell us about this journey, what were your promises, and how did you develop this research.

Yaakov Israel (YI): Most of the work I’ve done up to now deals with similar issues; the social and political issues that affect my life in my country. In every project I chose the visual language that would emphasize best the ideas behind the work. I try to deal with these topics as an insider but with a critical eye. So I don’t feel that my attention has moved away from the people, it is just that I have decided to deal with them in a different way. ‘Legitimacy of landscape’ is a visual exploration of Arab, Bedouin and Druze villages in Israel/Palestine. I decided to start making these images after I got stuck with my car in the territories on route 443. It was at a time of political escalation and I noticed that everybody was driving very fast, so busy in getting from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, not even glancing at the car stuck on the side of the road. This got me thinking of how much of this country that is right in front of our eyes goes unseen. In my opinion during the ongoing conflict these villages have transformed into symbols of ‘the other’, and have become invisible in the eyes of many Jewish Israelis. As a result, they are slowly losing their place in the visual lexicon that represents this land. And it is this that made me wonder if they were in fact losing their basic right to be a landscape. So these images that I am creating function as a visual map of these places and in the act of making them and showing them I am giving them back their legitimacy as a landscape.

© Yaakov Israel, L.O.L. #14, 2006, Judeira

I like the term map. It recalls that attitude I mentioned earlier, typically the geographer, or the cartographer who transcribes on a support the signs of the territory. The function of the maps, as you suggest, can also be the one to witness what escapes the view. From this point of view how comprehensive is the map that you have drawn through these images? Some of the photographs portray the lands around Jerusalem, in the West Bank. However there are many scattered and distant points. These are the ones that intrigue me most. In this perspective your book has made me think, moved forward my assumptions thus becoming mine somehow. If a part of the landscape might become invisible so are the people who inhabit it, with their legacy of traditions and beliefs. You speak of Arab, Bedouin and Druze villages. I believe that most of the readers will not distinguish these terms. As well as most people are convinced that the Arabs are all Muslims. I guess it’s not enough to recognize what is the “other”, as what we trivially consider “other” might hide much more differences. Therefore I feel this book invites us to reflect on the cultural approximation defects. I have the impression that your looking from distance to these villages, placing them in a broader context (the landscape) rather than isolate them, urges us to look at them closely. To understand them better.

YI: This work attempts to tell a story about the place I live in and has kinship to the work of the geographer and cartographer who both attempt to describe the world. The map in the book is a partial one, it shows the villages that made it in to the book. I decided to leave out the ones that I didn’t use. But even so it does somehow still reflect the project as a whole, despite the fact that some places that are in the project but not in the book are not on the map, because the left out images were made in similar topographic areas. One of the things that was constantly on my mind while making the images, editing the project and the book was trying to transmit the idea of how these villages are embedded in and part of the landscape all over the land and all over the country. I didn’t open a map with the idea of building a plan of where to photograph. The work is created based on my experience of being on / and looking at the land, this real life experiences is an important element in my work. And as I’m constantly traveling in my daily life I am always on the lookout for possible places that reflected the idea behind the work in an interesting way. So as you see my approached to this project was in a way organic and that’s why certain parts were worked in more than others. As for the other part of your question; this body of work was made with the intention of making people think, so I’m happy it got you thinking of pre-conceptions… many of our fears generate from these places.

© Yaakov Israel, L.O.L. #15, 2006, Bir Nabala

© Yaakov Israel, L.O.L. #2, 2002, Beit-Jala and Bethlehem

Also I wondered if you ever got in touch with some of these realities, communities that you have represented in the book?

YI: How connected I get really depends on the political climate, I tend to drift in and out of places, and the connections I end up creating, or not creating depend on many variables. In many cases I am an outsider, and in others I am let in and accepted. I can definitely say that over these years of working on this project I mostly met and interacted with interesting and friendly people, but occasionally I came into contact with people that were somewhat aggressive.

From an editorial point of view of this book is set up differently from the previous one ‘The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey’. What were your main assumptions when thinking about this new book?

YI: When editing ‘The Quest for the man on the white donkey’ I was attempting to build a new type of visual grammar, one that connected different types of images together, I was aiming to narrate a fictional story which was based on many stories and using different types of images. ‘Legitimacy of Landscape’ is built on the idea of making the images in the same formal structure, it is not typological, but it does echo it faintly. The impact of seeing the same type of image after image after image generates a rhythm and moves the ideas into the viewer’s conciseness. Repetition was a strong motive in the making of this work and in the editing of this book.

© Yaakov Israel, L.O.L. #24, 2007, Artas and Bethlehem

What did you take away from this work? And what kind of reaction did the book received in general?

YI: In the process of this project I became aware of the amount of preconceptions and restraints, which didn’t even realize that I had. I keep looking with a critical eye at my surrounding, but in this project I had to turn this eye inwards and at the end of the day often laugh at myself. Regarding the reception of the book, overall it has been positive and encouraging, however there are conflicting reactions, especially in my local arena, where some find it too political for their own comfort.

© Yaakov Israel, L.O.L. #83, 2015, Akbara

Finally are you planning to exhibit this series? And what are you working on for the next future?

YI: I am in the process of searching for the right platforms to exhibit this body of work and hoping that the current unstable political climate does not deter possible partners. I am already in the midst of another project that is really a new step for me in the direction of a photographic novel, it is too early to say much more, but I hope it wont take me another 13 years to finish…


Book is available from the artist's website page.

Yaakov Israel