Photographing a region as contentious as the West Bank would assumedly manifest as an attempt to document divisions between the many sides and ideologies defining the territory—from the Palestinians who have inhabited the land for thousands of years, to liberal Israelis hoping for a two-state solution, to more extreme individuals on either side of these divides. Photographer Michele I. Arazi, however, takes a very different approach in his most recent body of work, Homestead. In it, Arazi focuses less on identifying which side is "right," opting instead to produce a visual record of his experiences amongst a specific set of individuals: the conservative, committed, and self-described "nationalistic" Israelis occupying the Jewish settlements along the West Bank.
"Generally, it's not a media-friendly, journalist-friendly environment," Arazi tells Creators, referencing the widely-held sentiment that the media presents a biased image of settlers and their communities. "I was asking people for no small thing," he continues, "because I was asking to join them on their daily routine." Without a specific agenda, Arazi hoped to shadow these individuals, simply documenting what he witnessed.
In 2014, Arazi contacted roughly 30 people, asking them to consider being photographed for the work. "All of them said no. Every single one refused," he recalls. "And so my response to that was, 'Okay, I respect that. Would it be okay for me to fly over? I will drive to wherever you live, and I'll show you my work, and I'll explain to you what it is I'm interested in." Some of the people he contacted agreed to meet in person, and in 2015, Arazi organized a second trip to visit those who would eventually agree to be the subjects of Homestead.
One of his subjects was a farm owner who, after a rather accusatory and contentious first encounter, agreed to let Arazi visit and photograph his farm, under one condition: no photos were to be taken of him. The man's daughter, Sarah, showed Arazi around, and they invited him to stay with them on the farm for a few days.
"We're sitting, we're having dinner, and there has to be 40 people at the table," Arazi recalls of the communal meals the family and their farmhands shared each evening. "We're about to sit down and [Sarah] looks at me and she says, 'Michele, can I ask you a personal question?' And like a bad joke, the whole room goes quiet." When Arazi agreed, Sarah asked him who he voted for. "The room is dead [silent], and I tell her, 'Sarah, I haven't voted for ten years, because I don't live here. But the last time I did vote," he tells her that he cast his vote for a political party known for being fervently at odds with the ideologies surrounding him. Likening this party to Bernie Sanders, Arazi explains that he realized no one had ever crossed their paths who had voted that way.
After a moment, when the table livened once more, Arazi turned to Sarah and asked her whether he could ask a personal question, as well. "She says, 'Yeah, sure!' Silence again. I say, 'Did I misrepresent myself?' She looks at me, and she says, 'No, no, absolutely not. You never said you were on our side… It's totally cool.'" Arazi says that avoiding misrepresentation is paramount to his practice as an artist, as well as being party to meaningful dialogue. "As long as you don't misrepresent yourself, there will be a conversation," he explains.
"This is what I took away from it: The biggest danger, in my opinion, is to denote whole sections of the population as people who are not a party to a conversation by the mere views they hold," Arazi continues. "If you speak with the other side, I'm of the firm belief […] that you will find shades of grey, that you will find potential common ground, and that you might be able to slowly develop ideas that are profoundly flawed, deeply imperfect, never offering you a safe sense of having a clear moral ground, but would [improve] the wellbeing of the very people you are looking to help."
While recounting his experiences in the West Bank, Arazi recalls advice given to him by friend and war correspondent Itai Anghel. "He says, 'When you go to see for yourself and you are genuinely open to form your impressions—you come open minded, you don't come with an agenda, you don't come to prove something, you really come to look and see—what do you see?'"
"It won't be the whole truth, but it will be a section of it. When you genuinely go to see for yourself, magical things happen. People don't respond in the way you think they would respond," Arazi says. Biases unfurl, each side's worldview can get a little bigger, and in the end, dialogue allows the art to become "a portrait or an artist's account of that experience," one which each side can recognize themselves in.
Homestead is part of an exhibition by the School of the International Center of Photography's graduating class. Arazi's work is on display without captions, deliberately mounted in an unstable manner, and will be on display until March 12. All of his photographs from the West Bank can be found here.