Documenting the scars of war: Josef Koudelka in Beirut

The photographer tells 'The National' about his new exhibition of striking images from Palestine and Lebanon

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"I am not a political man, but if you go to this part of the region, everything is political," Josef Koudelka says. The Czech photographer, 80, is standing in front of a panoramic strip of photographs showing the Israeli Separation Wall, which he photographed on a series of trips to Palestine between 2008 and 2012.

For the first time, the images are on show in Beirut, alongside photographs Koudelka took of the Lebanese capital in 1991, capturing the apocalyptic destruction of the city after more than 15 years of war.

Born in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1938, Koudelka first began taking photographs as a student in the 1950s, turning it into a full-time profession in 1967. This year marks 50 years since the Soviet invasion of Prague – and the photographs that would make the front pages of newspapers around the world. ­Koudelka would go on to work for Magnum Photos, winning dozens of awards.

For decades, Koudelka's work has focused on the damage wrought by humans on the natural landscape. In Wall, he explores the Israeli Separation Wall both as an ideological symbol and as a physical scar on the landscape.

Koudelka's photographs of the wall were taken as part of a project called This Place, initiated by French photographer Frederic Banner, who invited 11 internationally acclaimed photographers to explore different facets of Israeli life. Koudelka initially refused, and friends urged him not to undertake the project, but eventually Banner convinced him to make a single trip to Israel, then decide.

“I refused in the beginning, but then I saw the wall. It reminded me of the Iron Curtain and that any wall has something to do with me, because all my life I wanted to get on the other side of the wall, on the other side of borders,” Koudelka recalls.

Nevertheless, he was cautious about undertaking a project that he feared might be used as propaganda. He eventually agreed to participate only after four lawyers vetted a contract stipulating that he would have total control over his images, he says.

Between 2008 and 2012, he made seven trips to Palestine, travelling along the wall, an imposing barrier of steel, concrete, barbed wire and motion detectors, measuring nine metres tall and 700 kilometres long – almost three times as high and five times as long as the Berlin Wall.

On show at Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture in Beirut, Koudelka’s photographs of the wall are projected in sequence on an enormous screen. The black-and-white images are all panoramic, placing the viewer, as Koudelka puts it, “in the middle of the landscape”.

“Since I started photography, I photographed the landscape and I was never happy with the standard camera,” he says. “When I discovered the panoramic camera, I could get much closer to what I wanted.”

One incredible photograph has been shot from inside an enormous tangle of razor wire. Rings and coils of metal spiral out from the centre of the image, overlapping a view of a lowering sky and boxy buildings perched on an arid hillside.

Several photographs capture stretches of the wall adorned with graffiti. One has been daubed with a sleeping giant and another features a mural of Leila Khalid wrapped in a kaffiyeh, holding a Kalashnikov, opposite a mural of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Few of Koudelka's photographs include people, leaving the wall and graffiti that covers it to stand in for human activity, coming to symbolise oppression and rebellion – the imposition of control and the metaphorical rejection of power.

Many of the images focus on the wall from a distance, highlighting the way it cuts brutally through the landscape, following in the footsteps of projects that explore the damage done to the Earth by mining and other industrial projects.

“I’m interested in how contemporary humans deal with the landscape, and for me it was the extreme case of how the landscape is being destroyed – and not only any landscape, but the landscape which is the most holy for many people in this world,” he explains.

The exhibition is curated by Xavier Barral, a French publisher specialising in photography books who has produced five volumes of Koudelka's work. He has chosen to show the Wall photographs downstairs and exhibit Koudelka's photographs of Beirut upstairs, where the black-and-white images of buildings gutted by war hang opposite a glass window that frames a derelict, war-damaged mansion across the road from the gallery.

Koudelka’s photographs of Beirut are haunting. After more than 15 years of conflict, Downtown Beirut was a maze of gutted buildings and Swiss-cheese-esque walls, riddled with bullet holes and punched through with shell holes.

One striking image captures the bullet-riddled exterior of the modernist experimental cinema known as Le Dome, an egg-shaped building that still stands in Downtown Beirut. It is surrounded by an unfamiliar cityscape of scarred, windowless buildings that have long since been torn down and replaced with modern skyscrapers.

Koudelka, who returned to Lebanon some years ago as part of his decades-long mission to photograph Greek and Roman ruins around the Mediterranean, says he was surprised to see how Downtown had been rebuilt, erasing almost all the traces of war.

“Personally, I try to eliminate bad experiences in my life, forget about them, but I think there are certain things which it’s important that people don’t forget,” he says.

If Beirut documents the forgotten consequences of Lebanon's war, Wall documents the ongoing reality that many Israelis would rather was forgotten.

“Not many Israelis go to see the wall. They prefer not to see it – for them it doesn’t exist,” Koudelka says. “When I started to photograph the wall, there was one slogan [that said]: ‘One wall, two jails.’ I think in a way it’s true.”

The Wall / Beirut is on show at Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture in Beirut until December 22

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