Ahlam Shibli: Max Wigram Gallery

Article excerpt

In one black-and-white snapshot, Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli captures a seemingly prosaic handshake between an officer and a younger graduate during an Israeli military ceremony that concludes training camp. Fleetingly documentary rather than officially contrived, the photograph bears an oblique viewpoint that situates us behind the soldier, whose downward gaze falls deferentially--and perhaps insecurely--below the piercing confidence of his superior's. It is one of eighty-five photographs that comprise "Trackers," 2005, a series portraying the everyday life of young soldiers entering the Israel Defense Forces. The surprise hits when we learn that these men are not Jewish Israelis fulfilling their conscription, but voluntarily enlisted Palestinian Arabs of Bedouin descent.

Given the present conditions of political polarization, one might suspect that for Shibli, this phenomenon represents a double treachery--Bedouins betraying both their own ethnic group (also the artist's) and other Palestinians. But remarkably, the photographs do not overtly condemn or politicize. Instead, the artist's approach is documentary and neutral, elaborated with objective distance and through intimate close-ups of individuals. The resulting group of large-scale prints in color and black and white, thoroughly covering the gallery's walls, encourages a suspension of ethical judgment and presents a psychosocial study of a marginal culture.

That Shibli effectively teases out the complexity of her subjects' chosen path makes these images compelling. The series emphasizes nonheroic shots that humbly show soldiers during various exercises--learning to fire guns, apply camouflage makeup, hold grenades--and are free from scenes of conflict or of interactions with Israeli or Arab civilians. Portraying camaraderie among cadets, the photographs also grant access to their domestic lives during days off, depicting the young men riding horses--a longstanding Arab symbol of freedom--among hilltop villages. …