Vignettes from a Contested Land: An American Photographer in the West Bank

Adam Golfer
Adam Golfer
Generations (Surda)
A photograph in a house in Surda displays a Palestinian man of the pre-1948 generation with his nephew and son.

An Israeli-government appointed committee ruled July 9 that the West Bank was not “occupied” land, something Palestinians who live there — and, indeed, much of the international community — consider it to be ever since Israeli troops seized control of the territory in 1967. The report reaffirms the longstanding view of the Israeli government, particularly the right-wing-led coalition currently in power, and pushes for a number of measures further supporting the presence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It’s news that can only deepen the sense of outrage and dispossession harbored by Palestinians, who have cause to feel exasperated with the current state of affairs: the peace process with Israel has gone moribund; the Palestinian leadership’s feeble attempt to unilaterally bid for statehood at the U.N. was brushed aside last year, all the while as Israeli settlements further entrench themselves on West Bank soil under the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Every May 15, Palestinians commemorate Nakba day, which marks the “catastrophe” that was the creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent loss of their homeland. In the weeks leading up to Nakba day this year, hundreds of Palestinians in jail had gone on a mass coordinated hunger strike in protest of Israeli detention laws. Scores took to the streets once again, clashing with Israeli security forces. As ever, images of burning tires and stone throwers were beamed around the world.

But American photographer Adam Golfer’s images of the West Bank look beyond the hurly burly of one of the world’s intractable conflicts, past what he terms “the theater of war” and the almost “ritualized” scenes of violence that seem to shape the outsider’s view of the Middle East. Golfer, who is Jewish, has an art background and does not consider himself a photojournalist. He spent three weeks roaming the West Bank last November and five more this February. The resulting photographs are, as he puts it, “not a documentary, but rather something far more personal,” tied to his own meanderings across a land over which “every aspect is disputed.”

Golfer’s photos, he says, “are vignettes of an experience.” They are bathed in a painterly glow, dwelling over terrain that is at once stark and desolate but suffused with centuries of accrued history and memory. In one, three foreign journalists stand atop the stony earth, at the center of the narrative they seek to tell. In another, an Israeli  “Center for Tolerance and Human Dignity”—built despite local protests and appeals—emerges from what is the site of a 7th century Muslim cemetery. A gnarled tree rises out of the foreground, its leafless branches pointing limply at the new construction.

A photo poised on a kitchen counter shows three men whose ties date back to this land well before 1948. “It’s a mixture of nostalgia and also a proof of life,” says Golfer. “I don’t want to sound dramatic, but not long ago Newt Gingrich was saying there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people. Here we have a portrait of a family, a sense of roots, a sense of place.”

That idea of place and of a moment interests Golfer, who hopes to expand his work with field recordings and other media. He says he’s not keen on “running into the line of fire.” Too often, says Golfer, our vision of this region gets represented by a “tableau of violence.”  Instead, he is curious about “how the Palestinian way of life has taken shape”: families negotiate real and imagined boundaries; a line of gorgeous woven rugs airs out in the early evening half-light. “There is a quiet about a lot of the stuff I was looking at,” says Golfer. If so, it’s a silence full of meaning.

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