Beautiful Photos of Palestine's Hidden Past and Uncertain Future


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Beautiful Photos of Palestine's Hidden Past and Uncertain Future

The photographer James Morris captured the remains of villages destroyed in the 1948 Palestine War, some of which had, until now, been completely erased from history.

The Palestinian village Wadi Fukin in the foreground. The Israeli settlement Beitar Illit in the background

British photographer James Morris's book, Time and Remains of Palestine, published by Kehrer Verlag and out this March, offers an unsettling look at the often almost invisible monuments of the Nakba: the rubble, ghost towns, and paved-over Palestinian settlements erased in the 1948 Palestine War.

Yet, in spite of the book's highly charged political subject, it is a beautiful, eerie, and markedly unobtrusive document of Palestine's past and the West Bank's precarious present. I had a chat with James about the work.


VICE: Firstly, how do you think of yourself, in terms of photography?
James Morris: Definitions are always difficult because they feel restrictive and are usually applied by other people. However, I suppose I am a photographer intrigued in all sorts of ways by the evidence of human interaction with, and presence in, the landscape—man's impact and the layers of history evident there. I follow threads linking place and people, past and present.

How does Time and Remains of Palestine fit into your photographic approach and past work?
It could be seen as a tangent because it deals particularly with conflict, which I haven't done so directly before. However, it feels like a logical extension of my practice. The Israel-Palestine conflict has been present for all of my life and shows no sign of diminishing, so is a constant in my mental landscape. This is what drew me to look at the actual landscape. What I found—starting on the first day, in fact—was something I hadn't considered or expected: the absence of architecture, a demolished landscape, and a veiled history. So by following this particular line of enquiry, as with all projects, there is both continuity and variation.

Central Market, Old City, Hebron

How do you describe this project? I always think it's interesting to ask, especially in a case like this where you're at times documenting an absence more than "a thing."
I think of the project as exploring a part of both what happened to Palestine in 1948 and where it finds itself now, through looking at this very particular "man-altered landscape." It follows a historical trajectory that links past and present, starting, in part one, by probing the now historic Palestinian presence in much of Israel, documenting the sites of some of the 400 or so villages and numerous towns that were depopulated and in most cases razed as a consequence of the 1948 war and later conflicts.


Part two reflects on the concept of a would-be future Palestine that resulted from the Oslo Peace Accords but has failed to materialize in any meaningful form. It documents the fabric of occupation and conflict in the labyrinthine West Bank, a land zoned into multiple and convoluted "areas," divided by walls and fences, checkpoints and road blocks, and reduced by settlements. Rather than addressing the conflict as a whole, it considers the diminishing of Palestine.

The book is split into two distinct parts. The first deals with Nakba, the "disaster" that is a huge part of the Palestinian identity and history. How did this part of the project start?
Part one originated from a walk in a pine forest at the very start of my first visit to Israel, when I stumbled on the unexplained remains of some seemingly ancient structures. A plaque erected in 2004 by the Jewish National Fund declared the place an "oasis," "a recreation area, a place of water, of hope, of peace, of vision." Later that day, I found a film online depicting a recent visit to the same location by Israeli Palestinians. Elderly men recalled that, as children, those remains had been their village. They had been made internal refugees by the 1948 war, during what they called their Nakba—their village flattened, their right of return refused, a planned forest of imported pines veiling their former world.

What was strikingly evident was the huge gulf between these two perceptions of one place. Though I knew of the concept of Nakba, finding myself in such a place and then coming to understand this history was a powerful introduction to its reality—though the term specifically relates to the defeat and substantial depopulation of Palestine in 1948, the notion of "disaster" or "catastrophe" is one that strongly echoes still.


Anata village

In terms of research, I presume lots was required, as these locations are hardly signposted. What was the process there?
As you say, the sites of destroyed villages are very rarely signposted, and many are entirely flattened or built over. Even international guidebooks aimed at foreign tourists, who might well find this history of interest, almost completely ignore it. After my first visit I started research, mainly looking at the work of the so-called New Israeli Historians who emerged in the 1980s and began to question the more comfortable and accepted histories that were being taught.

The most significant text was Benny Morris's 600-page The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, which exhaustively trawls Israeli military and state archives from the 1948 war. But also the work of Meron Benvenisti, Walid Khalidi, and numerous other sources. When back in Israel, I searched out the village sites using old maps and the internet; some were easy to find, but many had virtually disappeared. It was always an unsettling experience to come across the remains of a village, possibly a pile of stones amid a forest or a solitary minaret in the middle a modern Israeli suburb, knowing already something of its charged history and its continuing significance to the diaspora. Before I started to photograph a place, I would sit and read more of its history from the books I carried with me. The notes I made evolved into the extended captions that work as a brief history of the site of each photograph in the book.


Qisarya, district of Haifa

In part one, made up of these photos of the remains of settlements, some are in ruins, but to me the strangest examples are the parking lots or playgrounds, where the original settlement hasn't just been removed but emphatically built over. Which were the sites you found strangest to photograph?
Too many to say, really. The whole experience was intense, unsettling, and often deeply strange. There was a nervousness at not knowing how people would react to what I was doing, which in the end was largely unfounded because so few people seemed to register what it was I was looking at. Also, the weight of the knowledge that I was accumulating, an understanding of what had happened there and where the population had ended up. And then of course also knowing so much of the history of the European Jews who came to Israel hoping to find solace from their unimaginable horrors. Together, this made for a very charged atmosphere.

Kafr Bir'im is unsettling because so much of the village is still extant—you can walk through the lanes and look into collapsed and overgrown houses. In Imwas, there are picnic tables among the abandoned graves in the old cemetery, which at first sight does seem unbelievable. Ein Houd is now an artists' colony of pretty stone houses in one of the few un-demolished Palestinian villages. The atmosphere is outwardly bohemian, but one senses an odor of guilt.

Read on VICE News: In Photos—One Year in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


One notable thing in the book is the stillness and general absence of people. I assume that's intentional? Clearly, in part one, it adds to the feeling of desolation, but in part two, it continues to feel starkly empty.
As you observe, part one is concerned with an absence, and this is the atmosphere I wanted to project. But as a whole, the work is more concerned with historical developments than individuals. I wanted the landscape to reveal the stories, which I think it proved capable of. So apart from a few examples, the occasional figures who appear are not particularly recognizable as individuals—they are perhaps symbolic figures.

The lack of people in the book makes the observer feel invisible, too. During the project, how much did you interact with residents, Israelis, Palestinians, or authorities?
Actually not a lot—not in depth. I felt it was important to maintain some distance from those people affected by the politics on a daily basis to try to achieve some objectivity. I wanted it to be a very particular exploration of what I found, or was drawn to look for, and to avoid the effect of being embedded in either culture. So beyond everyday encounters with people in the street, it was quite a solitary experience. I was only once told to not photograph something, an old Palestinian building in Israel, but even then not with any real conviction.

Abu Zurayq, district of Haifa

How does looking at the current state of Palestinian life in part two contrast with, or inform, part one?
In portraying the West Bank, I am looking at the place that should be a future Palestine, according to the Oslo Accords, but which has failed to materialize in any meaningful form; it remains a virtual state under Israeli dominance. Each part could work as a piece in its own right; they are separated both in time and location. The intent is that they work like book ends of the period of time since the foundation of Israel, encapsulating something of the story of Palestine. Comprehending the history evident in part one helps understand how the landscape of the contemporary West Bank has evolved. It is perhaps like two small pieces in a complex puzzle, joined in the need to see more of the picture.

There are photos—of Beitar Illit, for example—where there's a sense of encroachment by new Israeli settlements on existing Palestinian ones. Is there a feeling of history repeating itself in these places?
I think that rather than repeating itself, it is perhaps a continuation in an evolved form. When I arrived in Israel for the first time, I was handed a "Touring Map of Israel" at the airport information desk. This officially-sanctioned image of Israel encompasses, without mentioning its name, the whole West Bank to the River Jordan, but makes no reference to Palestinian territories, using instead the terms Judea and Samaria. It doesn't mark the separation barrier or the 1949 green line, and it gives only slight mention to the five major Palestinian cities beyond Jerusalem, and none to the smaller towns. By comparison, even tiny Israeli settlements are recorded. It was explained as: "This is all Israel, you can go anywhere." I don't think it would be controversial to assume that many in Israel are attracted to this concept of a Greater Israel and would probably not be saddened if there were many fewer Palestinians in it. Settlement expansion can certainly give the impression of an ongoing encroachment into the viability of a Palestinian state, but whether there is a clearly defined goal I don't know.

The subject of the book itself seems to point to a political direction on your behalf, but do you see it as a political book?
I don't see the book as any kind of activist text, though the subject is of course political. Yes, the work is concerned almost entirely with the Palestinian story and does not attempt some notional sense of "balance" by exploring a parallel Israeli history. And that could be construed as political—but it's not a label that feels appropriate. It's interesting to note that the historian Benny Morris, whose work I most relied on, has more recently said that, in 1948, Israel did not go far enough and should have expelled many more Palestinians. So to reflect on this history does not need to imply a particular bias. Its intent is to express what has taken place, to encourage the viewer to look and think. In recognizing it is only pieces in a complex picture, it doesn't have the certainty of a political book. More importantly, I think, are the words of Raja Shehadeh in the book's introduction: "Without people acknowledging, truly seeing, the Nakba, there can be no peace in this region."

It is necessary, especially in conflict, that both history and the present are endlessly re-explored. My hope is that those who pick up this book will be more than capable of forming their own opinions.

See more of James's work at his website.