Arts and Culture

Pictures of the life between

Matthew Krouse

Caroline Suzman's exhibition Crossing Over is an attempt to portray what remains of everyday life amid the Middle East conflict.

In July 2006 photographer Caroline Suzman travelled to the Middle East to experience the fallout of Israel’s military operation, Summer Rain. The name, by implication, could have described an act of environmental redemption. Yet it was the name of the Israeli Defence Force’s latest incursion into Gaza where, it was claimed, the army acted to stop Qassam rockets flying over the border and to free captured soldier Gilad Shalit, then a prisoner for mere weeks.

Follow-up operations were given more evocative names, such as Operation Locked Garden, Operation Squeezed Fruit and Operation Autumn Clouds. Names like these are probably part of some broader Israeli public relations strategy to soften public and media attitudes to bloody military exploits.

But Suzman’s images of Israelis and Palestinians at that time, when she crossed from Israel into Gaza for four days, are far from gruesome. There was, on the part of the photographer, an obvious attempt to portray whatever remained of everyday life amid the conflict.

Her technique was to show her subjects interrupted in mid-activity on what one assumes was a normal day, albeit one fraught with the uncertainty of impending war.

In the collection, titled Crossing Over, showing at Studio 23 in downtown Jo’burg until December 15, there’s a premeditated stillness in the figures peering down from the walls. The collection of 14 photographs concentrates on the lives of Middle Eastern youths as they go about their daily activities. Looking at images of Palestinians, one is made aware of the pull of militancy overriding normalcy. In one photograph two young brothers are wrapped in a Palestinian flag, the older using the fabric to carry his brother away from the sound of Israeli jets.

Other images of Palestinian students show how political sloganeering on banners and traditional dress combine to produce a stereotypical idea of Islamic militancy, one outsiders often have a problem looking beyond.

Interesting, then, are the images of Palestinians enjoying recreational time on the beach, where, in some instances, one would be hard-pressed to distinguish them from their Jewish Israeli counterparts.

Two portraits of religious women—one from the ultraorthodox Jewish suburb of Mea She’arim, the other from the Islamic University in Gaza—pose questions about the extent to which women are allowed to go to express a personal female identity in the conservative Middle East.

Western fashion trends emulated in Israel and Islamic dress codes adopted in Palestine reflect the political divide and say much about allegiances in the conflict.

Suzman has printed her images large. The scale allows one an opportunity to engage with the sceptical, war-fatigued denizens of the area, who appear somewhat weary of news photographers on the prowl.

But the scale also allows one an opportunity to look behind the subjects, at the streets and the public amenities of coastal life. Suzman photographed on the Palestinian Sheikh Ajleen beach and the Israeli Herzlyia beach and it is here, in the background, that one sees café tables, children frolicking and lovers strolling.

If it weren’t for the fact that these people are continually living out the issues of engagement and disengagement in the public sphere, one might not be so curious about the nature of their existence.

After all, one looks at the people in the pictures to try to understand why they should matter above others.

Crossing Over shows at Studio 23, Arts on Main, 245 Main Street, Johannesburg, until December 15. Website: www.artsonmain.co.za. Tel: 083 2259 254. There will be a walkabout with the photographer on December 6 at 11.30am. For background information go to www.carolinesuzman.co.za


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