Lebanon Bans Altneuland

I have to admit not having paid a great deal of attention to the 2011 World Press Photo before today.  I almost always go and see the show when it comes in London, and it is due at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall from 10 November – 29 November 2011.  But although I always find some work of interest, the overwhelming impression is always one of déjà vu. Yet more blood and though it is vital that photographers document such things and that they appear in newspapers, magazines, TV and on-line, I’m often uneasy about treating such images as aesthetic objects on oversize display on a gallery wall.

But there are always some images, some projects that stand out, and one that I will certainly be looking for in November is by Israeli photographer Amit Sha’al, brought to my (and the world’s) attention by being banned in Lebanon – with the result that the WPP show there closed early.

You can of course see his work in the winners gallery at World Press Photo – it took third place in the Arts & Entertainment stories category. I find it slightly annoying that in the larger slide-show view there I can’t find a way to read the captions, which I think are essential.

On Sha’al’s own web site, you get a little more of the story behind the project Altneuland which these images are a part of.  The idea came from the novel Altneuland, written in 1902 by Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian journalist who is widely regarded as one of the founders of modern political zionism and thus a father figure of the state of Israel, although he died in 1904.  In 1896 he published Der Judenstaat, a pamphlet advocating the restoration of a Jewish state in their historic homeland of Palestine, and the utopian novel Altneuland six years later set out the great advances this could acheive – for both Jews and Arabs – over the course of a generation, with two travellers revisiting the new state after a period of twenty years and noting the changes.

The English translation, published in the same year was entitled The Old New Land, a straightforward translation from the orginal German, but the Hebrew version of the book came out with the title ‘Tel-Aviv’, later adopted for a new city now Israel’s second largest.

Herzl’s vision of a Zionist state was very different to modern Israel. His vision was one of a nation where everyone (men and women) would have equal rights, where Hebrew would be one of many languages and Judaism one among other religions without special status. It was essentially of a humanist and mutualist state and he wrote: “It would be immoral if we would exclude anyone, whatever his origin, his descent, or his religion, from participating in our achievements.”

Sha’al collected black and white photos taken in Israel from 1926 to 1979and found the exact locations where the pictures were taken. He then photographed the pictures in these locations, holding the prints in his hand (resting on a tripod out of shot to keep it still) fitting them back exactly into their place in a wider scene. He writes on his web site:

The photos portray 3 different times: the old black and white photos, the present colored photos and the time that has passed between capturing both photos.

The third time mentioned is not a visual one, but a mental and emotional dimension, filled in by the knowledge we have of the dramatic changes that have occurred between the two times.

The pictures were on show in Lebanon for a week as a part of the WPP display there before anyone apparently noticed that Sha’al was an Israeli photographer and the Lebanese censors demanded that they be taken down as Lebanon and Israel are still “in a state of war.” To their credit  World Press Photo refused to comply with this ridiculous and unacceptable request, and instead closed the whole show ten days early.

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