The unresolved conflict in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians has been the chosen subject of many a photographer in recent years. Following on from the classical journalistic approach employed by Don McCullin and Jonathan Dimbleby in their 1970s’ book The Palestinians and the highly acclaimed Gaza and Then Palestine by photographer Larry Towell, young photojournalists are increasingly choosing to depict the conflict and suffering of Palestinians in personal terms.
Far from being a descriptive tool for greater understanding or an attempt to add constructive argument to the debate, photographers-a-plenty are today producing books that record an almost lyrical perspective of the violence they choose to witness. While the raging debate over Palestine and Israeli control of the territories is undoubtedly the most pressing issue in Palestinian life, it is not the sole definer of being Palestinian.
In the two years 2000-02 that Ilkka Uimonen travelled to Gaza and the West Bank it appears that he has focused almost entirely on acts of violence, violation and horror. Arriving in the region to work on a personal project about Jerusalem, he was drawn to the outbreak of a new Intifada that accompanied Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The frequent recurrence of conflict in the shape of bombs, incursions and occupation that he has documented are brought to us as punctuation marks in a never- ending cycle of events. Indeed in his choice of title Uimonen alludes to this repetition of events, a state of affairs that he as a photographer has plunged into head-first without providing a structure with which to read and understand them. For Uimonen the cycle is the event and the events are instances that demand no analysis.
As with many books published by Trolley, a great deal of thought seems to have gone into its design, or should I say non-design. Printed without a separate cover the small paperback opens up straight into the story with a double page image of a chair at the Western wall in Jerusalem. This is followed swiftly by scenes of uprising, martyrdom and grieving. Words are entirely relegated to the back pages and even there the brief one word names of towns as captions… Jenin, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Ramallah, Gaza, Jerusalem… seem superfluous. The result is a cleverly constructed understated, unargumentative book. With its white paper cover, easily marked and scuffed, the book feels delicate and not inviting to handle yet the content matter is far from frail. The images are printed full bleed across every double spread drawing the reader in to a fast and furious portrayal of the cycle. It would appear that Uimonen did not shoot one vertical image, or think to include it. While this is not remarkable in itself it becomes troubling when one considers whether the edit has been ruled by ease of design considerations.
Knowing Israel and Palestine may well help the reader distinguish between Israeli and Palestinian victims, but it is not necessary to gaining an overall impression of claustrophobia. Uimonen’s photography is close, perhaps closer than one has been before, in its attempt to bring the reader right into the battle. He makes us feel fear as we sneak a look through the bombed-out hole in a wall to glimpse Israeli soldiers chasing a suspect; or feel shock as we witness soldiers and civilians alike cowering from an explosion; or feel revulsion at the sight of a woman, clothes torn from the blast of a bomb staring ghost-like into the mayhem. Beyond all else he makes us feel helpless and hopeless as the cycle plays itself out only to begin again, as emotion and reason melt into one.