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It was an ambitious plan - send a dozen acclaimed photographers to Israel in the West Bank, and over the course of several years, let them shoot whatever inspired them. Images, not politics, were to be their guide. The result is the exhibition called "This Place," which reveals a diverse and fragmented land. But to slay it together, the photographs tell a complex story. NPR's Emily Harris explores what the photographers saw.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Even the exhibit creator was surprised by his experience. French photographer Frederic Brenner is perhaps best known for his documentation of the Jewish Diaspora, everywhere. As this new project started he, by chance, found himself in a scene he'd shot before - an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family sitting down to their Sabbath meal.
FREDERIC BRENNER: This, you know, iconic image, you know, tableau. And I'd never seen a table so large.
HARRIS: The family's portrait is in the exhibit, but an enormous dining room table isn't, alone, what Brenner was after. He wanted to shake images of here out of the familiar Israeli-Palestinian narrative.
BRENNER: An attempt to look beyond the binary paradigm - for Israel; against Israel - victim perpetrator. An attempt to look beyond the political narrative and basically to invite those artists to question those constructs in which we are trapped and in which we force people to be trapped.
HARRIS: He recruited 11 other photographers, paired them with local assistants, introduced them to diverse people, then let them run free. For one Israeli, the result was at least some images of Israel she had never imagined. Where did you go, this exhibit visitor asked photographer Martin Kollar, during a panel discussion, to take photos of a sheep with a hole in its stomach and people with tubes attached to their faces.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's very weird. It looks like Israel is like a freak - kind of freak industrial place. Military inside - it's, like, very weird.
HARRIS: Kollar, from Slovakia, said he spent a lot of time at Israeli scientific institutes. Another photographer, American Wendy Ewald, gave cameras to people from a dozen distinct communities. She began with Arab-Israeli middle school kids from Nazareth and, through them, saw things she, too, had never seen before.
WENDY EWALD: First of all, I had no idea about Arab-Israelis, really; I mean, other than they existed. But I guess the kitsch of the culture, for one thing, and also the sense of playfulness - I think the images I had seen had been really focused on the idea of what the conflict was.
HARRIS: But when those Arab-Israeli students came to the Tel Aviv Art Museum to see their work in the exhibit, Ewald asked them to pick a picture that especially interested them. A photo of two Palestinian boys confronting Israeli soldiers stood out to Adi Bahdra.
ADI BAHDRA: And they have nothing and the Jewish soldier have guns and everything. It's brave to be in front of them.
HARRIS: Ewald also gave cameras to Israeli military recruits, high-tech workers and Palestinian women. In the exhibition, she never mixed images from one community with those from another.
EWALD: To acknowledge that all of us have distinct cultures and distinct ways of seeing the world is important.
HARRIS: American photographer Fazal Sheikh interviewed old combatants from both sides, photographed Israelis and Palestinians born each year since 1948, when Israel was created and got in a plane to document the changed landscape since then. What he saw was painful divides.
FAZAL SHEIKH: This collective wound that has been rendered on both communities; you kind of feel that wherever you go. If you're at all sensitive, you feel that there's some forbidding, something unresolved and something sort of still festering.
HARRIS: That may not be new insights to this well-documented place, but in his aerial shots, especially, it's not clear at first what you're seeing. That's what this exhibit is aiming for overall - something familiar seen differently. Emily Harris, NPR News, Tel Aviv.
NEARY: The exhibit "This Place" will travel to the United States this fall.
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