Thursday, March 8, 2007

Two Frenchmen Photographing for Peace

Portraits of Israelis and Palestinians adorn a 26-foot-tall cement wall, part of the barrier Israel is building to separate the outskirts of Jerusalem from the West Bank. The images are part of an exhibit called "Face to Face." (Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo)

Two Frenchmen Photographing for Peace
The Security Fence Between Israel and the Palestinian Territories Has Morphed Into an Art Gallery
CASEY SCHWARTZ ABC News March 8, 2006

The posters command attention — a series of photographs in black and white, blown up to enormous proportions, of Israelis and Palestinians.

Side by side, it is impossible to tell who is who, and that is exactly the point. Since Monday, the images, some as tall as 23 feet, have appeared in startlingly visible locations throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Ninety percent of the people they asked agreed to pose for them.

Both Marco and JR seem continually surprised by how successful they have been so far, not only at getting people to pose but at getting consent to display the posters on the sides of buildings, on the walls of businesses.

"No one thought that a Palestinian would put up a picture of an Israeli or the other way around," JR said.

Wednesday, Marco and JR pasted their posters on the Israeli side of the security wall, in full view of an army checkpoint. Then they managed to persuade an Israeli army captain to pose for JR's camera in front of the new display. "We've not been arrested, or even harassed," Marco said. "The only thing that's happened is we're sunburned."

It is exactly this idea that JR and Marco hope to convey — that what seems impossible might not be.

"We want to move the frontier of what is possible," Marco said, "because the current one is too limited."

JR and Marco have a few more stops left on their itinerary. After they finish in Jerusalem, they plan to move on to Haifa and Beer Sheva. Already, they say, they've gotten a large response.

Maya Chasson, an Israeli woman who saw the posters on the security wall in Abu Dis said, "It seems like a colonialist approach, trying to tell us here what we have to think and feel about each other. We know what we think of each other, and unfortunately, the pictures won't do anything to change that."

A common response, JR said, is for people to "play the who's who game," and try to guess which person in each pair is Israeli, and which is Palestinian. Often, they guess wrong.

"In Tel Aviv, people came up and they were trying to guess," JR said, "And I said, 'Look, we were in Ramallah yesterday and they were saying the same thing!'" This is the Face2Face project, created by JR and Marco, the two Frenchmen who this week pasted the photographs on buildings and billboards across Ramallah, Hebron, Jericho, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

They also managed to plaster their posters onto both sides of the security wall that divides the West Bank. So far, to their surprise, no one has stopped them.

JR, who goes by his initials to maintain anonymity, describes himself as an underground photographer, "around 25 years old." Energetic and ebullient, he is the artistic force behind Face2Face.

The posters are made from photo portraits he took of ordinary Palestinians and Israelis in December 2006. JR acknowledges that what he and Marco are doing is "probably illegal," since they did not seek any government authorization out of fear that an official stamp of approval would alter the way in which people responded to the work.

Marco, 45, is on sabbatical from his career in information technology. He is in charge of the organizational side of Face2Face. This particular campaign was his idea.

Marco had been following JR's work in France, which included an unauthorized poster campaign on the streets of Paris in 2004.

JR displayed the images of young people in the housing estates near Clichy-sous-Bois, just north of the city, the starting point of the suburban riots that broke out that year in France. JR wanted Parisians to see how their views of people on the outskirts of the city had become stereotyped.

"In the end, the people in Paris started laughing when they saw these faces. It was no more 'the crazy monster from the ghetto,'" JR said.

Marco had spent time working in and around Israel and the Palestinian territories. He thought that the standstill hostility there made the region the perfect place for JR's next campaign.

The two men met in 2005, discussed the idea over glasses of wine, and decided to travel to the area to see if it could work. "We met all these people, just the ordinary people on both sides of the wall. They work the same, they eat the same, they drive crazy on both sides," JR said.

"We saw when we arrived that things were easy — windows were open and we could jump in and start talking to people," Marco said.

They returned in December 2006 for JR to take the photographs. For his subjects, he chose 19 pairs of Israelis and Palestinians who work in the same profession. The pairs include taxi drivers, farmers, security guards and hairdressers.

"When I take portraits, I am shooting people who are not models, and I ask them to give me the strongest feeling they have. I shoot 36 pictures of each, and some of them get really crazy, but by the end they all give some part of themselves that they would never show," JR said.

The series also includes a pair of actors. "The actors — I love this one," Marco said. "It was kind of a game, a rivalry. We played with them and said, 'Will you be able to do a face as well as the guy on the other side?'"

Each pair of portraits is displayed together. After they have finished in each location, JR and Marco move on to the next, leaving the fate of the posters to chance. "The work is ephemeral," JR said, "but that's the beauty of it. This week, when we left the pictures behind us, we left 20 people in the street talking about what this means."

Marco and JR said that they do not have a political bias toward one side or the other. They were careful to make clear their political views to every person they asked to pose. "We told them, we are in favor of a two-state solution," Marco said. "We are in favor of the peace plans already on the table."