Johannesburg-born artist Adam Broomberg, 53, took photographs of olive trees to his mother just before she died in December last year. She had been an ardent supporter of the state of Israel and a firm Zionist. Like many people in South Africa’s Jewish community, her family were Holocaust survivors. Both her parents lost 90% of their family in that pogrom.
Broomberg has been taking pictures of ancient olive trees in Palestine for the past 18 months — most of them were planted more than a thousand years ago. The oldest one, called the Al-Badawi tree, is over 4 500 years old. Every two years this tree still yields 800kg of olives. It is nearly 20m high and has a circumference of 25m.
“There is the sweetest man who lives there; at night he sleeps underneath the Al-Badawi tree just to protect it,” Broomberg tells me on a Zoom call from Berlin, where he is now based. The expression on his face and the tone of his voice is of someone talking about family.
“I was meant to go on 23 October, to take seven of my students to Palestine to go and pick olives from the Al-Badawi tree, because it is olive-picking season.”
But the Israeli war — many describe it as a genocide — on Gaza, about 75km away, has put a firm brake on that plan.
“It’s heart-breaking not to be able to go there,” Broomberg says. He pauses and closes his eyes.
Since 1967 more than 800 000 of these trees have been either uprooted or burnt to the ground by Israeli authorities or by illegal Jewish settlers under the supervision of the military. Between August 2020 and 2021, more than 9 300 olive trees were destroyed in the West Bank, according to The Art Newspaper.
Olive trees are of cultural, totemic and economic importance to the Palestinian community. About 100 000 families rely on the olive harvest, which takes place yearly between October and November, for their income. This includes more than 15% of working women, according to Al Jazeera.
The Palestine Trade Centre says the sector is worth between $160 million and $191 million in good years.
Broomberg resumes: “When my mother saw the images of those trees, she understood what it meant, and she changed her mind.
“Anyone, it doesn’t matter what their ideological beliefs are, would conclude that nobody who loves a land would willingly destroy its oldest indigenous inhabitants. Only when that someone is led by hate.”
Broomberg’s activist work includes having developed Artists + Allies x Hebron (AHH) which he co-directs alongside the Palestinian human rights defender Issa Amro.
The interrupted project, Anchor in the Landscape, is an analogue survey of olive trees in Palestine on 8 x 10 film. It also involves training AI to read high-resolution satellite imagery of Palestinian and Israeli agricultural landscapes. The result will be published as a book in April 2024 by Mack Books.
It has taken four months to print these large images of the olive trees. During this period four of the trees were destroyed by settlers.
“Some of these trees you know intimately because to take one of these pictures you must go up with a light meter,” Broomberg says. “You have to touch the tree; you have to spend time with it because it takes an hour to take a picture.”
He explains why there is outrage when people hear of the destruction of the olive trees. “There’s a reason why many people plant a tree in somebody’s memory or there’s that famous saying that people plant a tree to give their children or their grandchildren shade,” he says.
“It’s something that you don’t do for yourself: it’s a selfless thing and I think respect for trees and the love of trees is something so embedded in us.
“So, my question is, what could possibly motivate people to act in the opposite way to want to willingly destroy something that is so benign and so beautiful?”
A few months ago, Broomberg brought some of the prints of the trees home and showed his 10-year-old son, Marlowe.
“He spent a good half an hour with these prints,” Broomberg says. “Looking slowly, he said to me, ‘They’re very beautiful’ and I said to him, ‘Thank you, Marlowe.’
“But he replied, ‘No, I meant the trees.’” This made Broomberg think.
“These photographs are not about the photograph because if they were I would be behaving just like many artists, which is using a kind of extraction.
“I go to Palestine, I take a picture of this tree. I then bring it back to the West where I show it in a fancy gallery. I then charge a fortune of money and it becomes about the art of the photograph, the art of selling the photograph and the art market.”
This is different.
“What Marlowe said cut through all that bullshit. He said, ‘My God, those trees are beautiful’ and I think the only role of this project is to bring those trees into people’s lives and into their minds. Because it doesn’t matter what your politics is: you look at this tree, these trees, and you’re like, ‘These are magnificent’.”
AHH’s previous project, Counter Surveillance, zoomed in on the olive groves of the city of Hebron in the Palestinian occupied territory.
Described as one of the most surveilled places on Earth by The Art Newspaper, Israeli-owned security cameras dot the landscape about 90m apart.
These cameras use sophisticated facial recognition to capture the faces of the West Bank’s occupants.
But arch subversive Broomberg and AHH went one better in September last year. They installed their own illicit cameras in the Hebron olive groves, livestreaming to several European art galleries “revealing to their audiences the realities of life in the West Bank”.
Counter Surveillance will be resumed in April next year during the Venice Biennale in collaboration with the Palestinian art space, Dar Jacir.
“We are doing it in the hope that with the art world watching, it will give a little bit more protection to the trees and people,” says Broomberg.
“But you know, these guys don’t give a fuck, they don’t give a fuck, man.”
I ask him what role an artist can play in these turbulent times.
“I think to carry on making work, even if you’re painting watercolours of flowers. I think that’s a political act. Just to keep on being generative, making work and making beauty despite this,” he says.