by Chad Levinson
Much of the world has shifted its attention to the events in Eastern Europe, but many in the Middle East are still working toward establishing peace between two long-standing rivals.
A conflict born between 50 and 2,000 years ago persists today, and has for the whole of the young lives of the artists featured in the current exhibition at the Puffin Room in Soho. "Beyond Borders: Photos by Israeli and Palestinian Teenagers" features both photographs and written text by 60 students and covers over two years of work.
More than a conventional art show, the exhibit represents the fruits of an intercultural effort in peace and tolerance. The photographs were not collected from independent artists; rather, the artists came together to discuss their experiences and plan the project. They were given a common goal and those who might have been enemies instead became collaborators.
As such, "Beyond Borders" has rightly earned the endorsement of many in the region, including the consulate general of Israel, the permanent observer mission of Palestine to the United Nations, former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban and the Palestinian American Congress USA, among others. Ofer Bronchtein, chairman of the People's International Institute for Peace and Democracy, hailed the artists as "peace heroes." Right he was.
Much of the work differs from professional photojournalism in that it shows not the violence of the conflict nor the official handshaking of international political leaders, but rather the everyday conditions of the people whose lives truly are at stake. We see the traditions, rituals and cultures that each side is struggling to preserve.
One photo depicts prayer at a mosque in Jerusalem, another
the Western Wall and still another a baptism in Bethlehem. We see not
the hatred that plagues the region, but the passionate reverence for the
various customs of the land.
The intent of the project is clear, and yet the innocence of some photographs is heartbreaking. Some appear almost casual, as if they were taken in Paris on a sunny day, only with a different cast of characters. The hope exists not only in a naïve fantasy or rhetorical promise, but in the living, breathing daily activity of people simply living their lives.
Hope, however, does not exist alone. "When we started," Bronchtein said, "we were innocent." But no one can avoid at least some disillusionment when attacking a monster such as the current political situation in Israel. The photos also show some of the monumental difficulties of living in a generations-old war zone. In them, we see the aftermath of terrorism and assassination, the squalor of the refugee camps on the Gaza Strip, and legacy of pain born from a life lived largely in fear.
In short, we see the wounds of the past, still bleeding, having been given little chance to heal. Another harrowing recognition in these photographs is the likelihood that fresh wounds are about to be inflicted. One photograph, by Avital Cohen, age 16, depicts a soldier holding three bullets in his hand, and is one of the few images of the military in the show. The soldier is safe for the moment, and he seems to be holding out the ammunition that we may relieve him of it. In all likelihood, however, those shells have been fired already, possibly killing someone whose children may grow up victims of a war much older than the subject of this photo.
This fear is great, but the greater one is that this current peace process is just a temporary concept. This sentiment is also a part of the show.
One image shows a child on the beach, drawing a mosque in the sand. Might a culture be deprived of its heritage if the tide shifts? Another photo depicts soap bubbles floating in the air, and the accompanying text describes the photographers, growing doubts about the possibility of achieving peace. This is not a prediction of failure, but rather an honest expression of fear.
Without fear, there would be no courage. These brave young photographers are, as Ambassador Sisso said, building "artistic bridges." And in the words of Dr. El-Khidwa, they are trying to turn "the concept of coexistence" into a lasting reality.