‘What do you see?” asked the French-born photographer Frédéric Brenner while showing me his new book, “An Archeology of Fear and Desire,” during a recent interview in the Manhattan offices of one of his longtime funders, the Revson Foundation.
His photography books, among them 1996’s “Jews/America: A Representation” and 2003’s “Diaspora: Homelands in Exile,” with accompanying essays by Simon Schama, André Aciman and Jacques Derrida among others, are known for their provocative explorations of themes of identity.
Sometimes staging images that are edgy and unreal, such as one that shows visitors snapping shots against a blown up backdrop of the Western Wall at a Long Island arts festival, he’s been dubbed “the Jewish Christo ” by friends. Therefore, the question he poses is loaded, a challenge. It’s something more like, “What do you dare to see?”
In one photo titled “Ben Gurion Airport,” I see three observant men with black scarves over their eyes, under their black hats. Blinders on observant men? “I see an oxymoron,” I respond, “verbal and visual.”
“Yes,” says Brenner. “They come from a yeshiva where they are learning that it is dangerous to see. For me this is a metaphor for the religious world, for all ideological extremes.” Similarly, other images are dissonant or disturbing: men in keffiyeh , faces hidden, sit in a living room. They look like terrorists, but are actually undercover border police.
By contrast, in another image, four women converse animatedly on a couch. “They grew up in a kibbutz,” Brenner explains. “As children, they were allowed to be with their parents only one hour a day. Now they wonder, how could their parents give them up for this noble experiment, sacrifice them for this ideology?”
Another depicts a man looking straight ahead, his expression blank. The more I ask for the narratives, the more excited Brenner becomes. “A collaborator,” says Brenner, referring to Arabs who work for Israeli intelligence. “Can you imagine his conflict?” Or that of the woman seated at the edge of a bed in the facing shot, his Jewish girlfriend. “Why would he betray his people?” I ask. “For love — which community will love him more?” says Brenner. The more you look at the faces and barren landscapes in Brenner’s images, the lonely, wounded, disenfranchised, dislocated, betrayed, religious, secular, the more you understand: This place is Israel.
“I spent 25 years exploring the idea of portable identity, six months in 45 different countries, going back to find archaic places before they are calcified in ideologies,” Brenner says. His parents, whom he describes as “entrepreneurs, intellectuals, seekers, interested in transcendence,” were born in France; his grandparents came from Algeria, Ukraine, Russia and Romania. His parents endeavored to forget their past, and then, explains Brenner, the Six Day War became a wake-up call for Jews around the world. Slowly, his parents made their way back to Judaism. Brenner’s work grows out of that discontinuity: It is a quest to explore multiple identities, a quest for the “other.” “I put into light the typology of acculturation, how far the Jews came to the defining the ‘other’ in Europe and everywhere, and how far they remain themselves, defining the journey back and forth. This exploration led me to Israel. Without Israel at the center, there is no Diaspora,” he says.
What began in the particularities of his story is part of a larger design. Influenced by the French “Mission Héliographique” (1851), a photography project documenting France through the lenses of many artists, and the Farm Security Administration’s effort to photograph America during the Great Depression, Brenner developed an elaborate scheme involving a dozen world class art photographers. He invited each one to spend at least four months in Israel to learn the place firsthand from community leaders and archaeologists, to experience Israel fresh and without clichés, and make their own monographs. Martin Kollar’s “Field Work,” Josef Koudelka’s “Wall,” and Stephen Shore’s “From Galilee to the Negev” have already been published; the rest of the participants’ monographs are forthcoming. An exhibition of the collective work will travel starting in Prague in October 2014, to Tel Aviv, West Palm Beach, and New York in February 2016. (In New York, the show will be exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, where Brenner had an extensive show in 2003). The monographs will be available online, as Brenner’s is. A book will also accompany the exhibition. Brenner’s aim for the show is to engage people beyond the usual circle of documentary photo lovers and to alter the dialogue on Israel.
Initially called “Israel: Portrait of a Work in Progress,” the project’s name was changed to “This Place.” Brenner thought his journey’s title (‘Makom’ in Hebrew) could reflect the transition from portable identity to sovereignty, asking it means to go from minority to majority.
Noting the gaps between the promise of Israel and the lives people live, Brenner suggests that the promise of Israel has resulted in a burden, a disappointment and frustration for Jews in Israel and elsewhere. Israel, says Brenner, is the contemporary expression of redemption, the radical response to the Jewish apocalypse, the Shoah. Three religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — wrestle with each other for possession. All three miss the opportunity, the promise inherent in their narratives. “What have we done with this promise, and what has it done to us?” he asks. No one wants to step away from the fixed image, the roles ideologies impose, the clichés. The outcome is tragic: identities mired, in his words, in “longing, belonging and exclusion.”
Brenner’s photos examine the fault lines in the culture with the hope of opening a dialogue, eschewing any one agenda. The last photograph in the monograph depicts the modern city, Tel Aviv, on the day of Holocaust commemoration. Everything stops wherever you are for three minutes of silence. Cars dot a highway. People stand by their vehicles in a pattern. Silent and static, this parting shot poses the show’s question: Will this state survive?
On this matter, Frédéric Brenner invokes Genesis. “God gives the land to Abraham, with a promise: The land I will give you. He does not say to possess. God says, the land I will give you to see.”
Regina Weinreich is a co-producer and director of the documentary, “Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider,” and the author of “Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics.”