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JERUSALEM — The portrait photographer’s vocabulary is peppered with familiar platitudes: the jolly old standby “Say cheese!”; the child-friendly “Watch the birdie…”; and perhaps the most straightforward, “Don’t move.” Gently spoken, “don’t move” might inspire quiet confidence in its subject; sternly commanded, it could result in self-conscious uncertainty before the lens.
Israeli photographer Ron Amir’s “don’t move” doesn’t really fall into either category. Uttered in a distracted way, it’s an empty order: he seems to simply be going through the portrait photographer motions. His handling of the phrase, and the artist-subject relationship, are laid bare in his 22-minute video work of the same name.
Armed with a large-format film camera in the middle of an Israeli desert, Amir grows more and more anxious as night closes in — anxious that he’s losing the light, anxious that his film canisters get properly labelled, anxious at the amount of time he has left with his subjects. The seven men in front of him, bored and posing patiently in front of a white sedan, are asylum seekers from Africa (presumably Sudan, though we’re never told). Once the sun sets, they are due back at the Holot Detention Facility. Amir wants to get his shot, but his “don’t move” is disconnected from the men who pose for him; he’s the self-conscious one in this transaction, perhaps because he doesn’t seem to remember their names.
Amir’s short video functions as the introduction to Doing Time in Holot, the photographer’s first solo exhibition at the Israel Museum. Curated by Noam Gal, head of the museum’s photography department, the show brings together 26 large-scale color photographs and five video works that Amir made over three years in the sparse landscape surrounding the Holot Detention Facility. The series aims, in the words of the museum, to depict “the lives of more than 3,500 refugees from Sudan and Eritrea” who are currently held in the facility.
Holot is something of a mystery to the average Israeli. The detention center, set up in 2013, is not far from Israel’s southern border with Egypt — or from the border wall erected in 2012 to keep asylum seekers from entering the country. Israelis don’t tend to visit. In the three years that Amir worked on his series, the facility filled to capacity with asylum seekers who were sent there by the government, which cannot legally deport them under the UN Refugee Convention of 1951.
Doing Time in Holot could be a timely and informative comment on the large population of African asylum seekers in Israel — estimated at nearly 46,000, with 92% from Eritrea and Sudan — that the right-wing government has mistreated, restricted , and repeatedly referred to as “infiltrators.” What better way to acquaint Israeli museumgoers with the realities faced by their unseen neighbors than an exhibition that communicates the impossible decisions asylum seekers are forced to make? These decisions include, but aren’t limited to, returning to the dangers of their home countries; leaving Holot and facing imprisonment; and accepting monetary incentives to relocate to a third country — usually Rwanda or Uganda — where their legal status cannot be guaranteed. But visitors to the exhibition won’t come away with any of this information, unless they buy the catalogue.
The large, color photographs that make up Doing Time in Holot are devoid of refugees, focusing instead focus on the landscape that surrounds the facility, where detainees pass their days. Allowed to leave Holot during the day, they are required to check in at certain times and return by a strict evening curfew. The nearest city, Be’er Sheva, is 37 miles away, so the detainees have created their own little enclaves in the desert: makeshift kitchens, coffee stands, beds, ovens. Amir photographs these traces of life without their creators, who are stuck inside Holot.
The photographs are rendered in desert tones: tans, corals, and browns quietly animate the voyeuristic stills. In “Stall (Closed)” (2014), a tree wrapped in dusty, sun-bleached Persian rugs functions as a sculpture not far from barbed-wire security fences. “Aboud’s Bed” (2014) is a look into someone’s personal space: A raised bed, with a mattress of twigs, seems like an extension of the tree which forms its canopy; littered around the bed are signs of life — a prayer rug dangling from the twigs, a makeshift barbell comprised of milk powder cans. In another photograph, rocks outline a provisional mosque on the ground, a floor plan without walls, complete with a semi-circular niche gesturing towards Mecca beyond the vast scrubland.
Where are the men who built these temporary shelters, the ones who posed by the white sedan in “Don’t Move”? From the outset, the exhibition is at pains to classify Amir as a politically minded art photographer, or, as Gal writes in the catalogue essay, an “involved” documentary photographer. In establishing Amir’s use of large-format film as something to be admired, Gal posits that the primary subject here is not the refugees, but rather, the photographer himself: “This is not a document about the situation of the asylum seekers in the Holot facility – it is a deconstruction of everything that such a report is expected to contain.” When the stakes are this high, from a human rights perspective, should that be the case? Amir’s people-less photographs are jarring — they suggest absent voices but fall short of connecting the viewer to the everyday realities of those doing time in Holot.
The video works are the show’s saving grace, offering glimpses of the lives of detainees like Butra, who, in one, describes the significance of Amir’s small prints in broken Hebrew. Butra and other asylum seekers are filmed in and around their makeshift structures, animating their creations and the desert landscape, informing the viewer of the long, boring, uncertain days they’re forced to endure. The videos are positioned in the exhibition as supplemental but end up leaving more of an impression than the “accurate staged” photographs at the center of Amir’s practice.
Amir clearly forms relationships with his subjects, which, as “Don’t Move” demonstrates, can be fraught with tension. In Israel, where refugees have become victims of the right-wing government’s political vitriol, his time spent with members of this marginalized community is to be commended. But one walks away from the exhibition knowing more about the photographer than the asylum seekers who remain stranded in Israel’s physical and bureaucratic limbo. That is a real missed opportunity.
Ron Amir: Doing Time in Holot continues at the Israel Museum (Derech Ruppin 11, opposite the Knesset, Jerusalem) through April 22.