The Moral And Intellectual Cowardice Of Josef Koudelka

I wanted to give this post a gentler title. I wanted to do that because I have been an admirer of Koudelka’s work for years, considering his book Gypsies to be one of the most important influences in pushing me to become a photographer. For me he has always been the photographer famous for his independence of thought, his personal moral and political integrity and his public reputation as a man whose works embody a moral and social conscience. So it was shocking to read his recent interview in the New York Times Lens blog about his work on the Israeli wall that scars the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza (Koudelka only documented as far as I know the wall as it exists in the West Bank). To find that this otherwise intelligent individual, with enough intellectual and emotional independence to come to an honest conclusion about what is taking place in the West Bank, choses to hide behind an apolitical and frankly cowardly language of ‘environment’ and ‘its too complex’ was staggering to confront. It was down right shameful to read.

Koudelka copy

But it wasn’t just that in this interview Koudelka refuses to speak unequivocally about the reality of the wall, and that it is a core part of the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, but also that he uses a vague and obfuscating language to avoid admitting to what he really saw and experienced. One can only guess at the reasons this odd – perhaps he does not want to offend the people in Israeli who were his hosts and supporters, or that he knows well that a critical looks at the devastating impact of the wall on Palestinian life and reality would not go over well in an post-9/11 paranoid American, or that he fears the consequences visited on all those who have dared to take a stand against the Israeli occupation and its associated brutalities? I can only guess because Koudelka’s responses to the otherwise intelligent and probing questions by James Estrin, who does push him (surprisingly!) to offer more political insights in his answers and not the mealy-mouthed ones he is giving, are contradictory and intentionally vague.

Koudelka begins by immediately distancing himself from any controversy by arguing rather bizarrely that he was reluctant to do anything in the region :

…I don’t want to get mixed up with Israel because it’s very, very complicated…

but then immediately proceeds to tell us that if he wanted to know more about Israel (he never mentions the West Bank or Gaza, constantly referring to the Wall as if it exists within Israel when in fact it weaves its way mostly through the occupied territories!) found something that he could relate to then he would do it under the right circumstances. And what could he relate to? It turns out that it was something that he calls ‘the landscape’. Or more precisely…

I had never been in Israel, and I wanted to know what Israel was about, so I said O.K…For 25 years, and this is my longest photographic project, I have been interested in how contemporary man influences the landscape. I have made 10 books on it…Then I discovered the wall. I grew up behind a wall so I knew what it was. …I found that the destruction of the landscape is very bad. This is the landscape that had something to do with me.

In one of the greatest acts of dissociation I can recall, Koudelka walks into the bantustans of the West Bank – a region teeming with a few million imprisoned and brutalised human beings, and is moved by the destruction of the landscape! That is, he choses one of the greatest physical structures  of political, cultural, historical and social segregation and negation concocted in modern history and reproduces it in his images as an apolitical statement about the environment. In fact, he gloats about it when he explains:

What is interesting for me is that I showed these books in Israel and everyone told me this book is not a political book — that this is about man and the place. This book is not about conflict — of course you can take it as you want.

I wonder if Mr. Koudelka thought about showing this book in Palestine and to Palestinians? I suspect not because there he would have had to deal with the inconvenient truth about the real meaning of the wall. And that it is in fact very much about a conflict! But no matter how much Koudeka tries to dodge the meaning and brutal realities he refuses to speak about in the interview, or in the book (the book lacks text – see my post Offering Silence To The Oppressed Or How Photography Can Become A Weapon Of Repression on this issue!), he can’t help but reveal something tremendously insidious

We all see through our experiences. So because of my experiences, essentially the wall is about not being able to go to the other side.

Every day that I was there I didn’t see anything else but the wall, and I can tell you I couldn’t stand it longer than three weeks. I was so depressed that I needed to go away.

Clearly Koudelka could not just have seen the wall. It is impossible to just see the wall. Anyone standing along any length of the wall can’t help but see the inhumanity and brutality of it. And clearly, since he couldn’t stand it longer than three weeks he saw a lot of the human consequences not just of the wall, but of the illegal and brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Koudelka’s explanations very quickly veer into the pathetic and cowardly, constructing a ‘moral outrage’ against the destruction of the landscape, and a crass, inhumane, clownish equivalence between crimes against humanity and crimes against the landscape. As he argues:

We have a divided country and each of two groups of people tries to defend themselves. The one that can’t defend itself is the landscape. I call what is going on in this most holy landscape, which is most holy for a big part of humanity, is the crime against the landscape. As there exists crimes against humanity there should exist the crime against the landscape.

I am principally against destruction — and what’s going on is a crime against the landscape that is enormous in one of the most important landscapes in the world.

Yes, similarly, the problem with Guantanamo Bay, or the Soweto ghettos was that they ruined the beautiful Cuban water front and the pristine Johannesburg hills respectively! Aushwitz was an architectural blot on the beautiful Polish country landscape! To say nothing about the fact that it is not a divided country but in fact an illegal military occupation! 

It is difficult to fathom the cowardice that underpins Koudelka’s prioritisation of a mythical holy landscape over a real human one. It takes a tremendous amount of ignorance, or an equally large amount of hypocrisy to make such a claim. I find it unbelievable that this otherwise intelligent man spent at least 3 weeks on multiple trips over 4 years amongst the dispossessed, harassed, humiliated, imprisoned, brutalised, demean, denigrated, violated, trapped and helpless Palestinian population, and came back with an ‘apolitical outrage’ about the landscape. But Koudelka must have seen it all. He just chose not to say anything about it, to turn his eyes away from it, to erase his moral conscience about it. He saw it all, but he chose not to include it in the photos, or in the text. And now not even in his interview. But he saw it all. He saw the same things that the International Criminal Court saw in the wall:


Koudelka never explains why he could not stand it for more than three weeks.  But we know why because it is impossible not to see it all. Anyone who has been anywhere near the West Bank will experience and see the brutality of the Israeli occupation and the daily humiliations it compels the Palestinians to live under. Anyone working anywhere near that region can see the obvious, such as:


or even something like this:


And so much more.

By refusing to acknowledge this human reality, and by insisting on a manufactured and artificially apolitical ‘environmental’ stance, Koudelka reveals a mind not quite as independent as he would like us to believe. It remains a mind that forgoes experience for expediency, veiling its fear behind a completely specious language that reeks of narcissism and intentional ignorance. For after all, the refusal to acknowledge the meaning of the wall, its consequences, its political motives, and objectives, its human victims, its illegality, and its consequences for the future of few million people who are trapped inside it, is to collaborate in a project of cultural propaganda that not only denies the victims their reality, but assists the perpetrators of this horror their desire to keep the consequences of their actions ‘invisible’.

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