Ahlam Shibli


In her photographs, the artist Ahlam Shibli (*1970, Arab al-Shibli, Palestine) deals with today’s living conditions of the Palestinian population living in Israel and with the various consequences arising from living together in a state of permanent conflict.

Shibli shows these specific power relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians in photographs that can’t be subsumed under a certain unity of photographic style or choice of detail. She mixes black and white photographs with colour photographs, combines central perspectives and distanced camera positions with intimate closeups.

The images’ coherence isn’t due to a consistent method of representation but it can be found especially in the situations interrelating to each other and to the fact that the artist, as a photographer, responds to them differently each time.

The artist’s intention to show the everyday life of the Palestinian population entails intensive research on location, interviews with the villagers and the subtle observation of the rural and the urban environment. As such Shibli documented the life of the Palestinian of Bedouin descent in the Beer-Sheba-region of the Negev in the project ‘Goter’ (October 2002–February 2003), on display at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, in 2003 among other series. They are living in towns that the State of Israel has built specially for them, but also in so-called ‘unrecognized’ villages that are not drawn in the official Israeli map. In her series Shibli shows both locations with views of backyards, squares where the villagers gather as well as unpopulated swathes of land. Yet the images of makeshift houses do not only focus on the poverty but rather tell us something about the uprootedness of people who lost their home.

When we watch them, any empathy with the people depicted is forestalled by the distanced attitude Ahlam Shibli takes up with her camera. She does not present them as victims but rather shows them unsentimentally and dramatically charged in their relationship to their everyday environment. The adequate distance of Shibli’s presentation of the Palestinian population’s circumstances denies any pretense of a general or direct political statement: This is what makes her photographs fundamentally distinguishable from journalistic press photographs, whose aim is usually to shooting the most attractive and sensational pictures for a mass audience.

For the first time Ahlam Shibli presents her complete series ‘Trackers’, 2005, that was taken between January and July 2005 and consists of 85 photographs, in the Oberlichtsaal of the Kunsthalle Basel. In this latest series she documents the everyday life of young Palestinians volunteering in the Israeli army, in the so-called Tracker Units. This unit has been brought into being by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) especially for the Palestinian of Bedouin descent. There they are trained to become trackers, who are deployed in the occupied Palestinian territories and at the borders.

Most of them are young uneducated Palestinians who see the service in the Israeli army as their opportunity to acquire some social power or buy a piece of land suitable for building.

Shibli’s images focus on the banal and unheroic aspects of the soldiers’ life. We don’t see the soldiers so much involved in military training but rather in the everyday situations in the camp, when they are taking a rest or when they are waiting for something. Alongside the pictures from the camp, the villages where the trackers come from and to which they will return, are also on display: we see the men with their families, in local clubs; this juxtaposed to sceneries with destroyed houses and decayed infrastructures — as well as pictures of cemeteries where you find the graves of Palestinians who died fighting against the State of Israel beside the ones of those who fought on behalf of it.

In her series ‘Trackers’, 2005, Shibli approaches the people in a personal way and portrays them as individuals in a very personal manner. The artist gives us an understanding of the Palestinian youth, shows them in intimate situations and gives them dignity. At the same time Shibli touches a sore spot of the Palestinian society — the adopted loyalty to the state Israel that divide the Palestinian community — and pointing to what it means for the young men to serve in the Israeli army.

‘I am trying to show the price a minority is forced to pay to the majority to be accepted, even if it costs a change in identity, perhaps to survive, or maybe more than this.’ (Ahlam Shibli)

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