The central theme of James Morris’s book Time and Remains of Palestine is the word ‘Nakba’ or ‘catastrophe’, which has become synonymous with the displacement of Palestinians following the 1948 war. Morris’s photographs and narrative captions examine, in great detail, the violence and trauma witnessed by the land whereby thousands of homes were destroyed and, in many cases, entire villages wiped off the map.
The first half of the book surveys sites of destroyed villages, settlements and, where possible, architectural relics of these former places, which mostly consist of mosques and graveyards. Morris’s approach of researching and photographing the sites, and the impact, of violence in the landscape bring the phrase ‘landmarks’ to mind: a word that encapsulates the concerns of a number of practitioners working with the land and its histories, such as Susan Meiselas, Paul Seawright and Marc Wilson.
The irony of this word is of course the binary connotation of the celebrated touristic ‘landmark’ as a space for enjoyment and relaxation – places that are clearly defined on the map and guided towards by road signs. (With that said, it would be remiss to neglect to acknowledge the phenomenon of ‘dark tourism’, which has, for example, been explored in recent years extensively by photographer Ambroise Tezenas.)
In Morris’s images however, this phrase is equally fitting: many of the decimated villages have since been transformed into leisure spaces, such as recreational spaces and nature reserves filled with fast growing pine trees. Picnic benches can be found where houses once stood; mosques have even been turned into restaurants… pain is glossed over with playtime.
The in-depth and authoritative captions that accompany each image, with detailed narratives drawn from numerous sources, re-iterate the various methods of colonization and oppression – topics that the book does not shy away from. This is extended in other ways, such as the book’s dust jacket, which reproduces an extract of an 1880 Ordnance Survey map that was, Morris suggests, commissioned speculatively, in case an opportunity should present itself for British Imperialism, which turned out to be the case following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, leading to Britain’s mandate over Palestine.
The straightforward, almost album-like, layout of each of Morris’s pictures resonates with certain celebrated nineteenth-century topographic projects conducted through a colonial gaze, which would have been made with a not entirely different technical approach, such as Auguste Salzmann’s studies of Jerusalem published in 1856 and Maxime du Camp’s photographs from Palestine, Egypt and Syria (1852). One of Morris’s images in particular, Towards the Jordan Valley, from the Judean Hills, which flirts outrageously with its much more traditional evocation of sublime landscape depiction, recalls something of the melodrama of one of John Martin’s Biblical scenes. The photograph could even be taken as an exaggeration of a plate from Francis Frith’s photographically illustrated Holy Bible, published in 1860.
This image is very different to the majority of Morris’s photographs, which are typically much more visually modest, finely balanced between forensic documentation and pensive contemplation: the sublime that is evoked through the suggestion of hidden dangers, and unspoken atrocities. Very few figures are present, and when they are their forms are obscured due to the longer exposure times required of the large format camera lens. Figures are therefore rendered apparition-like, re-enacting the lost and displaced.
The images in the second half of the book, which focuses on settlements in the West Bank, are inevitably a lot more populated in contrast to the first section. But again it is the architecture, including dwellings and extensive defensive structures that dominate the narrative. It is a contrasting visual story to the quietness of the first half of the book: dense urban housing chokes the frame while to the suburbs, odd little terraces seem isolated amidst open dry land. And throughout; wire, fences and cages of all description convey a sense of constant containment and unease.
Examining the subject of the conflict in the Middle East in any medium is a demanding task, not least because of the globally polarised perspectives on Palestinian and Israeli claims to the land, but because of the sheer complexities of the historical narratives and the ongoing disputes and their broader ramifications. James Morris makes a sincere, robust and venerable attempt at this in Time and Remains of Palestine – a substantial photobook and narrative of the conflict from the humble perspective of the land, which is so bitterly and bloodily contested.
– reviewed by Jesse Alexander
James Morris, Time and Remains of Palestine, with an introduction by Raja Shehadeh, was published by Kehrer Verlag 2016