April 26, 2007
Books: Witness to horrors
At first glance, "Testimony" (Aperture, $40) looks like an innocent-enough coffee table book of Israel-themed photographs. Thumb through the first few pages and you'll see examples of photographer Gillian Laub's excellent portraiture. Each color image is accompanied by a simple enough quote from the subject, an Arab or Jew sharing the same bit of the Holy Land.|
But the drama builds.
Soon, the simpler images give way to unimaginably more difficult ones: of former Israeli beauties mutilated by the effects of a suicide bomber; of Palestinian children missing limbs as a result of an Israeli settler's attack.
The pace soon becomes relentless: Arab and Jew, wounded, suffering, trying to regain life and hope after enduring brutalizing, life-scarring violence. And in each case, Laub lets her subjects have the last word.
"Many times I try to imagine what happened was a dream," said a Palestinian father of his son Mohammed, who at age 9 was rendered mute and paralyzed for life by a stray Israeli army bullet. "In war, everyone pays a price."
Michal, whom Laub photographs lying on her bed, missing both legs as a result of a suicide bomber in a pizza restaurant, is one of many young Israelis in the book.
"Maybe a day will come where I will arrive where I want to be," she writes. "And that is to go back to a normal life."
And so on. By the book's end, I was in tears. No kidding.
Laub composed the book to struggle with her fascination regarding Israel. The 20-something New York-based photographer began traveling to and around Israel in 2002, set on exploring her own Jewish questions.
"I was trying to focus on identity issues," she said in a telephone interview, "then there was a bombing and I couldn't be photographing in Israel and not address what was going on."
She used assignments from clients like Time magazine (for whom she photographed then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the Man of the Year cover) and The New York Times to get her to Israel. One person led to another, one story to the next. The theme of the book emerged when she came face to face with Kinneret. A friend described her as "one of the prettiest girls in Tel Aviv," before a suicide bombing attack left her with burns covering 70 percent of her body. Laub's photo of Kinneret shows the shocking wounds as well as a defiant, strong young woman's face.
"She was really hard to look at," Laub said. "When I first saw her she was oozing out of her eyes. But she was so sweet and had this huge smile. What do you say to somebody like that? I was amazed she had this energy. She was given a 3 percent chance to live. What makes people like her go on and why? I saw pictures of her and her boyfriend before the bombing and she was gorgeous. If this person can smile after her life was turned upside down, there's something to be said for that. I knew from then I was totally changed."
For a document on political violence, "Testimony" is strangely apolitical. Laub knew that approach had its dangers.
"There's no moral equivalence to a bomber," she said. "But I just wanted to show the suffering of innocent people."
No doubt that will offend some people's sense of political correctness -- a Palestinian photographer pulled out of a joint exhibit with Laub, attacking her pictures as too sympathetic to Israeli Jews.
But "Testimony" ultimately bears witness to the strengths that average Jews and Arabs demonstrate as humans, and to the human cost of the conflict in which they are locked.