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Shooting the Holy Land

In a new documentary, Josef Koudelka turns to a divided landscape.

By David Levi Strauss

Josef Koudelka in Israel/Palestine. Still from Koudelka: Shooting Holy Land, 2015 © Gilad Baram

Josef Koudelka in Israel/Palestine. Still from Koudelka: Shooting Holy Land, 2015 © Gilad Baram

The genre of documentary films about documentary photographers has grown considerably and admirably over the last twenty-five years, including The Salt of the Earth (2014), about Sebastião Salgado, by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado; What Remains (2008) about Sally Mann, by Steven Cantor; War Photographer (2001), about James Nachtwey, by Christian Frei; and Pictures from a Revolution (1991), about Susan Meiselas, by Meiselas and Alfred Guzzetti, to name a few of the best.

To this list we can now add Koudelka Shooting Holy Land (2015), by the young Israeli photographer and filmmaker Gilad Baram. Baram was hired to assist Koudelka in Israel and the Palestinian territories by making travel arrangements and providing security, logistical support, and captions as the photographer worked on his epic project to document the wall being built by the Israelis in the West Bank, culminating in the book Wall: Israeli & Palestinian Landscape, 2008–2012, published by Aperture in 2013.

Josef Koudelka, Rachel’s Tomb, 2009 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka, born in 1938, is arguably one of the greatest living photographers. He burst onto the international stage in 1968, when he photographed the Russian invasion of his native Prague. His photographs were smuggled out of Prague to Magnum and published anonymously, but they were so distinctive that they refused to remain anonymous. His later books Gypsies (Aperture, 1975) and Exiles (Aperture, 1988) changed how people view documentary photography. More recently, his work has focused on panoramic landscapes.

Koudelka is part of a generation of documentary photographers who believe fervently that if you show people what is actually happening in the world, they will understand and be moved to demand change. Social documentary photography has always been defined by this passionate subjective belief in democracy and action. Without it, the practice devolves into self-involved sensationalistic pandering.

Josef Koudelka, A crusader map mural, Kalya Junction, Near the Dead Sea, 2009 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka, A crusader map mural, Kalya Junction, Near the Dead Sea, 2009 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

This makes the filmic documenting of documentarians a rather precarious process. If you shift the focus of your inquiry too completely to the photographer, and away from his or her subject, you risk the diminution of the subject and obscure the motive force of the work.

At first viewing, one might think that Gilad Baram has made a nature film, perhaps about a particular species of bird. Everything this creature does has one purpose: to make better images. Everything else is peripheral. So Baram lets the peripheral in. What is happening around the photographer becomes the filmmaker’s subject, and this periphery is loaded with meaning, because the social landscape impinging on the wall is an especially complex one: the enforced borders between the State of Israel and its Other within, the Palestinians of the occupied territories.

Josef Koudelka, Shu'fat Refugee camp, overlooking Al 'Isawiya, East Jerusalem, 2009 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka, Shu’fat Refugee camp, overlooking Al ‘Isawiya, East Jerusalem, 2009 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Koudelka continuously and relentlessly points his formidable and precise beak, a Fuji GX617 panoramic camera, into the crevices and fissures of this fraught de-facto “border,” and the official enforcers react with increasingly menacing warnings. As we watch Koudelka repeatedly violate these boundaries as he attempts to get into position to make the best photographs, we recall Magnum cofounder Robert Capa’s famous injunction: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” When Koudelka gets close, a disembodied voice from a loudspeaker barks, “Photographer, move away from the fence! Go back, photographer. Move back!”

Koudelka is not photographing war here, but the visible wounds of war in the form of walls built to control the movements of the enemy within. His movements reflect the preemptive violence of these walls that shatters lives on both sides of the divide. “One wall. Two jails.”

At one point, seventy-five-year-old Koudelka painstakingly slides on his back under and inside a mass of razor wire, trying to get into position to compose a shot, as the barbs tear his clothes. All that matters is the photographs, because they’re the only thing that will last. The characteristically laconic photographer says little about the situation, directly. “I hate the Wall. But, at the same time, it is pretty spectacular, this Wall.” He speaks at one point about the necessity “to keep the healthy anger; to keep it as long as possible.”

Josef Koudelka in Israel/Palestine. Still from Koudelka: Shooting Holy Land, 2015 © Gilad Baram

Josef Koudelka in Israel/Palestine. Still from Koudelka: Shooting Holy Land, 2015 © Gilad Baram

But mostly, he only talks about the pictures: “In this place there is a picture waiting for me.” There is a lot of waiting. Waiting for the picture, waiting for the weather to break, waiting to get into position. Watching, looking, moving, waiting. “Sometimes it happens. Sometimes not.”

Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem; Qalandiya Checkpoint in Ramallah; “Detroit” (Al Baladiya) Urban Warfare Training Facility near Tze’elim; Shab Al Dar in East Jerusalem; the Judean Desert; the memorial site for the Israeli Army’s 679th Armored Brigade in the Golan Heights; Mount Gerizim in Nablus. Four frames on a roll of 120mm film. One day = 20 rolls. Focus to infinity.

*This article was updated April 7, 2016.

David Levi Strauss is a writer and critic based in New York and the author, most recently, of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow: Essays on the Present and Future of Photography (2014).

Koudelka: Shooting Holy Land will be screened at Finale Plzen, April 15–21, 2016, the DOK.fest Munich, May 5–15, 2016, and Docaviv – The Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival, May 19–28, 2016.

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