Josef Koudelka and the Use of Captions in Wall

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst 1944

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst 1944

I cannot say at what point Koudelka decided on incorporating text into Wall. His other work has not used captions in the same way but in Wall they play a major role. Koudelka didn’t write the captions or the other blocks of text that are included within Wall, they were written by Ray Dolphin, a researcher and writer who has prepared several reports about the, so called, Separation Barrier, for the UN and who wrote Unmaking Palestine. Give his status as a leading and internationally recognised photographer we must assume that Koudelka sanctioned the book being designed in this way.

The captions are often factual. Where, how, when, and at times are quite neutral, for example the caption “Structures from the British Mandate (1922-48) and Jordanian era (1948-67) remain in the West Bank” accompanies a photograph of a derelict building. We are left to decide whether the building is from the British or Jordanian era so the caption is not acting as if it is part of a news story, it is not filling in detail or completing a story, it is not even explaining the original purpose of the structure. It is contextualising the photograph; we see a bleak landscape including a long security fence through the glassless window and damaged wall of a deserted building that we now know was built before the Israeli’s occupied this land. If we consider the gross amount of information on the page most of it is being communicated by the photograph and a small proportion comes from the caption but even when combined we are not presented with completeness. There are plenty of questions left unanswered, there is opportunity for interpretation and the audience can be drawn into the picture to consider small details and wonder how they impact the story and, neither the photograph nor the caption express a strong opinion.

However, the factual captions are frequently loaded with a political agenda. For example a photograph of another abandoned building, but this time the interior of a house, is captioned with “More than two hundred Syrian villages, including the old town of Queitra, were abandoned by their inhabitants in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War; many were later demolished by the Israeli authorities.”

Some captions express the opinions of third parties. “Most Israeli citizens attribute the lack of suicide bombings in Israel in recent years to the success of the wall in preventing infiltration from the West Bank.” We are not told in words whether Koudelka or Dolphin subscribe to this view, nor whether they believe it is justified. The accompanying photograph shows two lines of “defences”, the Wall at this point is large, dominant, ugly, medieval in texture and scale so we are left to make up our own mind as to whether this was the only or appropriate way to address, what was, a serious threat to the safety and well being of Israelis. The writer and photographer’s agenda is made reasonably clear by the choice of photograph. In other places we see the Wall as a fence or even as road blocks and this caption with those pictures would have suggested a more mild response to the threat. So, here we see the words and the pictures having a more equal relationship in terms of the amount of information or message being communicated.

And, some captions just express Dolphin’s opinion, even though it might be expressed in factual terms. “Thousands of olive tress in the West Bank have been cut down, uprooted or otherwise vandalised”. Take out the last two words and this is a factual statement, put them back and the text becomes subjective and opinionated.

To return to the question of why did the photographer want so many words in this presentation? Are his photographs not enough, would they not stand alone as a narrative of the Wall? Why deviate from the approach he used in his other work? Without the opportunity to question Koudelka or his editors there is no absolute answer to these questions but I sense that the answer lies in his history. Koudelka comes from a country that was held in thrall to the Russian empire, the USSR, he understands the sense of helplessness felt by Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Tibetans, and many others that have been in recent times been or still are under the yoke of a militaristic and ruthless neighbour. It is likely that he saw many similarities in the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians and recognised in the Wall was a symbol of that domination much as the Berlin wall was a symbol of the East West divide. In the spirit of the engaged observer or concerned documentary photographer he wanted to communicate the strongest possible message and felt that his photographs alone were not enough. He adopted the fundamental principles described by Evans and added enough text to contextualise the pictures and to develop, in his audience, a depth of understanding that would emotionally and intellectually engage them.

If, as Karin Becker Ohm says, the role of the documentary photographer is “to bring the attention of the audience to the subject of his or her work and, in many cases, to pave the way for social change” then Koudelka appears to believe that we must not only see the Wall, often disturbingly beautiful in his dark tonal compositions, but fully understand its context so there is limited opportunity for his audience to miss his point. Wall is unambiguous statement and much enhanced by the text.

Sources

Books

Koudelka, Josef. (2014) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Lanscape 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture.

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