Rachel Cunningham’s photographs interrogate the political, cultural and religious tensions in Israel and Palestine. While representing the remnants of an eternally complex conflict, her work also questions the role of photography within this quickly shifting environment. Unlike photojournalists or photographers looking for ‘action’, Cunningham photographs are characterised by inaction, metaphorical silence, even vacuity.
In the series Quiet Transfer I & II, Cunningham photographed traces of Palestinian homes that were destroyed in the wake of settlement expansions in East Jerusalem. These traces, poignantly represented as individual pieces of debris, allude to a politics of division and separation in the Middle East. In other words, the debris signifies the tragic impossibility of leaving side by side as neighbours. Instead, one home makes space for another.
The debris is purposefully photographed in individual pieces, each piece occupying the centre of the image, and each image representing the destruction of a home. Lit by artificial light and photographed on a plain black or white background, the images evoke comparisons with a display of archaeological findings. Indeed, by applying the visual language of the museum, the format of the photographs also references the historical dimension in this body of work. The homes were not only destroyed to make way for settlements, but they were also destroyed by the heavy burden of conflicting histories.
Despite this formal approach to image-making, which aesthetically has much in common with a photographic typology, the images also refer to the human cost of the demolitions. Some pieces of debris eerily look like body parts: one piece in particular, Demolition 50, conjures an image a spine, painfully fragmented and twisted. The photographs thus not simply represent destruction, but also, they represent the human cost of the conflict. This reading is supported by the captions of the photographs which includes the names of the families who once occupied these homes.
Importantly, the debris was not photographed in situ, but rather, it was sent to the United Kingdom via mail thus further removing the subject from its original context. Here, Cunningham applies the methodology of famous institutions such as the British Museum, documenting, cataloguing and archiving their inventory for future generations. Reminiscent of contentious collections in the British Museum such as the Elgin Marbles, this process complicates the position of the artist who ‘takes’ an object from one cultural context to another.
By physically removing the pieces of debris and sending it to the UK, Cunningham references the fact that the conflicts in the Middle East are not simply a result of two cultures clashing with each other, but rather, they are a result of a series of complex geopolitical events which dates backs centuries and millennia. Indeed, British rule over Palestine for much of the early to mid 20th century, further implicates the West for the political events presently unfolding in the Middle East.
The still life images of debris are interspersed with four landscape photographs taken from the cardinal points of the old city of Jerusalem. With an emphasis on the formal and aesthetic structure of the land below, these photographs are strongly reminiscent of classical landscape painting, or more specifically, 19th century Orientalist painting. Here again, Cunningham incorporates a European gaze into her body of work as a commentary on the complex geopolitical power dynamics unfolding in this small strip of land.
Other landscape photographs are taken from Arab neighbourhoods, from the exact spots where houses have been demolished, looking outside towards the settlements that surround them. These landscape photographs help to delineate the urban developments, the borders and conflicts within the city itself. In other words, rather than becoming abstractions of a localized conflict, the landscape photographs help to contextualize the photographs of debris and rubble.
Considering the heavy weight of historical and political processes in Israel and Palestine, the debris, photographed in painful detail, turns into micro-monuments of an uncertain and unpredictable future.
All images from rachelcunningham.net.