Review: The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey by Yaakov Israel


Book Reviews, Photobooks




When we think of photography and place, not all places are equal. Some places are culturally or politically loaded in ways that makes approaching them or their depictions tricky (by depiction I here mean any kind of depiction, incl. non-visual ones). I wrote about Appalachia, but you might as well take the American West, or Israel/Palestine. There are different things at play in these places that make dealing with them complex. So how do you go about photography in such places? (more)

As I argued before, an objective depiction of any place is impossible to attain. The more loaded a place (in terms of it being weighted down by its cultural and/or political condition), the more impossible it will be to get anything remotely objective. And what good would an objective depiction be anyway? What exactly would we gain from having that? Would we then suddenly throw our own stereotypes and prejudices and biases away and look and judge objectively? Might we not instead simply admit that when we ask for a more objective depiction of a place we really only want to see is something that conforms more with what we are thinking?

Yaakov Israel’s The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey clearly is not too concerned with anything other than the artist’s depiction of the place, the land, and the people. As viewers we want to engage with it in just the same way these photographs were created - being open to the possibilities, and listening to this particular artist’s story. When Israel writes that “part of my identity as an Israeli is to question everything, not to take anything for granted, to show the tensions that constantly exist, to convey the truth behind the reality” there is only one thing I’d object to here: I think that its anyone’s identity to do that, regardless of where you were born, regardless of what your passport tells the world who you are from. Photography and place - too often that centers on taking things for granted.

The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey features photographs of Israel/Palestine, taken with a view camera. Mixing landscapes and portraits, the photograph - at least for me - establish a general feeling of discomfort, a feeling of encountering promises and then seeing those promises broken. The book is filled with images of barriers, literal and metaphorical ones. The people seem stuck in an odd sort of paradise, where bliss is to be had, but something else - possibly violence - always seems to be lurking right around the corner. I just finished reading Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, and Israel’s photographs reminded me a bit of the idea of the zone from Stalker, the place that might or might not exist, where your ultimate dream will be fulfilled.

The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey, photographs by Yaakov Israel, essay by Bill Kouwenhoven, 144 pages, Schilt Publishing, 2012