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June 11, 2014

Photographer Stephen Shore from Israel/Palestine: The Audacity of Puppies


(click for larger size)

If it’s one of the most significant photo projects of our time, it probably feels like it happened on the QT because it’s about Israel. Titled “This Place” and organized by photographer Frédéric Brenner, 12 heralded photographers spent six months in Israel and the West Bank in 2010 pursuing their own themes, aspects and choice of locale in grappling with the country and its political schisms. If the project is deserving of a much deeper and more thorough analysis, I wanted to reflect on this one image by photographer Stephen Shore from his part of the mission, and his new book, From Galilee to the Negev. It’s simply titled: “Beit Jala, January 11, 2010.” A set of the images are featured at Buzzfeed of all places.

Beit Jala is in the West Bank, south of Jerusalem and very close to Bethlehem. It has a mixed Muslim and Catholic population, the area one quarter under Palestinian administration, the remainder under Israeli control, and approximately 10% having been annexed to Jerusalem. If the photo isn’t curious enough already, it’s even more confounding to see it on Buzzfeed, which has not only bestowed puppy and kitten images their own genre but catapulted their popularity into the stratosphere. Accentuated by the online venue, the mundanity, and more specifically, the cuteness factor creates a disorienting, yet disarming contrast with the physical and political ambience: the rocky ground, the block building and the adjacent wall enclosing what seems like a garden on the other side of at least two stretches of barbed wire.

And what do we have in the West Bank but the dominating Israeli military and the Palestinians fighting and hating on each other, like dogs. With the situation as polarized as it is, biblically-polarized, the battle for moral ascendancy couldn’t be more black- (or brown-) and-white. And yet, is it possible — puppies as metaphor, and emotional suggestion — to conceive of the Israelis and the Palestinians engaging in a way that is softer, that expresses their commonality as Semites, as a common breed?

When you put it into words, it sounds remarkable silly, but such is the power of photography — and Shore’s response to the poison with such a cursory and domestic an analogy. What it leaves us with (beyond pups left to deal) is a sense of that much discrepancy between Israel and Palestinian and anything that could possibly melt hearts.

More Israel/West Bank photos at Shore’s website.

(photo: Stephen Shore/Phaidon. caption: Beit Jala, January 11, 2010.)

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