More often than not, geography and politics are indivisible. Few places on Earth exemplify that idea better than Israel and Palestine, and the ways in which cartographical demarcation marks the lives of so many is at the heart of French photographer Clement Chapillon’s most recent work, Promise Me a Land.
“Before leaving for Israel, I spent six months reading about the Israeli-Palestinian territory, and continued to do so while actually working on the project,” Clement tells It’s Nice That. “I spent days and days looking at Google Maps to understand the topography of this strange territory, its borders, its natural and urban spaces. It’s a very complicated topic and I wanted to be very aware of not only the history and geopolitics, but also poetry, literature, painting and, of course, photography.”
Inspired by Israeli painter Reuven Rubin as much as he is the 12-strong photographic collective This Place – whose members include Joseph Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Stephen Shore, and whose aim is to explore the complexity of Israel and the West Bank, as place and metaphor – Clement set out to explore the idea of what happens when the promise of a promised land becomes compromised. “I tried to take a step back from the news level and focus on the individual people, their stories, their attachment to the territory,” he says.
The result is a series that blends landscape photography – all undulating semi-lunar sandbanks, and earthy aridity – with portraiture which seeks to show the lives that are lived in one one of the most contested territories on the planet. Wanting to gain a better understanding of those lives and how they are lived, Clement interviewed residents in cities, villages, settlements, and kibbutzim.
There’s a stillness to those portraits, a sense of uneasy timelessness, which Clement reasons by noting that “these men are like the trees of this earth: they are deep-rooted.” It goes some way to showing a different side to an area most of us in the West have war-torn preconceptions of.
Describing himself as “surprised” by how open his subjects were with him, he tells us that engendering a sense of ease is crucial to getting the kind of images that bring projects like Promise Me a Land to life. “When people feel that you aren’t just a journalist here for a week’s reporting about the conflict, when they understand you’re seeking something else, something more rooted in their day to day lives and emotions, that is when almost everyone opens not just the doors of their houses, but also of their spirits and their hearts.”
June 2017 marked the end of Clement’s time in the region.
“I stayed with a Palestinian who runs a farm in the West Bank, in Area C,” he says. “After a two hour interview, he told me that we had to return to the soil, to the grassroots, if we wanted to find a way to live together as Palestinians and Israelis. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘this land doesn’t belong to us; we belong to the land.’ It was a very powerful moment.”
A few days later, Clement found himself with a settler in the Israeli settlement of Tekoa, a “special man who fights day after day for peace with Palestine,” in an non-governmental organisation called Roots.
“We were in front of the Judean desert,” Clement recalls, “where he lived. He said the exact same sentence the Palestinian had used before. The exact same words.”
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