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Life’s A Blast is a personal meditation on Israel and Palestine as seen through the lens of a young Swedish visitor. Linda Forsell visited Israel, Gaza and the West Bank several times between 2008 and 2010. She returned with a selection of images that read like a journal.

I first became aware of Forsell’s work when Life’s A Blast was shortlisted for the 2010 Magnum Expressions Award. I’m a big fan. I, therefore, did not hesitate to write a foreword when invited to do so by Linda. Below, punctuated by Linda’s images, is the I essay I wrote the new-release book Life’s A Blast.

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“He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.”

— Cormac McCarthy, The Road

It’s fair to speculate that all photography surfacing from Israel and Palestine is about land. Knowing what we do about land disputes, settlements and segregation in the region, it’s difficult not to ascribe images a political position favoring the land claims of either the Israelis or Palestinians. This is understandable in a climate of contemporary opinion that has roundly rejected the idea of photography and photographer as objective agents.

Linda Forsell’s photographs are not landscape photographs in the traditional sense. However, the beguiling vignettes within the pages of this book do return us to issues of land, and to the discomfiting realisation that no one in Israel or Palestine has a grounded or reliable relationship to the land.

In considering the surety of land-claims – claims backed with violence – in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, it may seem absurd to describe peoples’ connections to land as without root. Perhaps, the word ‘ambiguous’ more faithfully describes the disconnect. Between the certainty of established political positions and the uncertainty of physical existence in the region there exists a vast gulf of ambiguity.

Life’s A Blast is a challenge to convention and photographic authority, a sustained and deliberate visual wobble.

Within a photograph of an older man teetering atop a wall, the wobble is literal. In the photographs of children wielding weapons and playing among destroyed buildings, the imbalance is allegorical. Men, women and children in Forsell’s work maintain relationships among themselves, but struggle to find their feet.

The tropes of photography – particularly photojournalism – in Israel and Palestine are well known; the checkpoint; the rock-slinging youth; the huddled mother; the wall; the distant settlements on a desert hillside; the coffin raised high at a funeral; and  – perhaps with most appearances on international newspaper front pages – the flag. The flag is often accompanied by some billowing smoke.

These tropes persist because, within the boundaries of a news story, these scenes are the illustrative of the quote/unquote action. As consumers of images, we must keep at the forefront of our minds that living in Israel and Palestine goes on outside the boundaries of news column inches.

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We have begun to see a small but noticeable response by contemporary photographers who have consciously moved away from “crisis photography” – I’m thinking here of recent work and publications by Irina Rozovsky and Yael Ben Zion – toward subtler observations of subtler gestures.

Forsell’s concern for the individual is noticeably different to the drawn back and almost cartographical response by celebrated photographers such as Sophie Ristelbuehler, Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright, Simon Norfolk and Richard Mosse. Of this group, curator and critic Charlotte Cotton says:

“Rather than being caught up in the chaotic midst of an event, or at close quarters to individual pain and suffering, photographers choose instead to represent what is left behind in the wake of such tragedies, often doing so with styles that purpose a qualifying perspective.” [1]

Equally committed to ideas of scarification and dislocation, Forsell, by contrast, takes us closer to people, not further away. In so doing, we encounter the personal and psychological; a soldier who doesn’t want to be there, an old man perplexed by border-point paperwork, the laughter of military-men, a side-street pat down and the confused glances of children. There’s vanity amid the daze and haze, too, in the form of rock-throwing demonstrators that look like they’re dressed for a violent-chic photoshoot. It’s only disconcerting if you accept there are no easy answers for the people of Israel and Palestine.

Too often, repeated news images provide us the excuse to think that events don’t change and can’t change. Worse still, is the trap to think that Israelis and Palestinians are different from us. Such thinking allows us to rationalise ongoing abuses. In discussing atrocities generally, lawyer and feminist scholar Catherine McKinnon characterises attitudes:

“If the events are socially considered unusual, the fact that they happened is denied in specific instances; if they are regarded as usual the fact that they are violating is denied; if it is happening, it’s not so bad, and if it’s really bad, it isn’t happening,” [2]

McKinnon describes the trap and illogic of apathy. The exit door from denial is to first see the victims of abuse as humans. To identify common emotions and thus ourselves in Forsell’s subjects is our responsibility to them … and her gift to us. Turning these pages is to shake the foundations of our excusatory logic.

Life’s A Blast is a significant contribution to the visual discourse of Israel and Palestine. It abandons literal depiction of the region and, instead, looks toward emotional territories.

It is the prior exploration of these emotional lands that will provide the most reliable base on which to stand for those who desire to debate the geopolitics of the region’s contested borders, laws and land.

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1. Charlotte Cotton, ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, p.167. Thames & Hudson, October, 2004.
2. Catharine McKinnon, ‘Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues’, p.3, Belknap Press, 2007.

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Life’s a Blast (106 pages) 10 x 13 inches.
Published by Premiss Förlag.
Printed by Elanders Fälth & Hässler.
ISBN: 9789186743055
Available at the Premiss Förlag website.

Life’s a Blast does not yet have U.S. distribution, so if you want to buy a copy in cold-hard-cash-dollars you’ll have to email Linda and ask nicely: linda@lindaforsell.com

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UPDATE 11.12.2010, 12.30pm PST: Forsell didn’t win. Announced 11.12.2010 in Bristol, UK Yvonne Venegas won for her portrayal of Maria Elvia de Hank, millionaire wife of an eccentric former mayor of Tijuana. Julian Roeder and Rob Hornstra also made the final three.

This will not put me off making predictions in the future. I’ll just have to adopt unpredictable criteria and decision making to mirror the many diverse jury panels. And I stand by everything I said about Forsell’s ‘Life’s a Blast’.

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© Linda Forsell

I’ll admit to being rather deflated after looking over the shortlisted photographers for this years Magnum Expressions Award. Many of the portfolios of 15 images had only one or two photographs that held my attention.

The Magnum Expressions Award is in reaction to the brave new world photographers face; new communities, new audiences, new distribution channels and bold ways of working. It is an award designed – so it says – to reward young photographers surfing the shifting sands beneath the industries footings.

It should be said that most of the 19 shortlisted artists have hunted down engaging subjects. Bepi Ghiotti‘s Sources is an enigmatic thesis on man and nature. Yvonne Venegas’ fly-off-the-wall study of Maria Elvia De Hank wife of an eccentric millionaire and former Tijuana mayor bristles with ambivalence toward the subject.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the presence of two photographers who’ve briefly pricked my attentions. Anastasia Taylor-Lind and Irina Rosovsky both deliver strong entries. (On PP, Taylor-Lind, here and Rosovsky here).

These would be my 3rd through 6th placed finalists, but who’s listening to me, eh?

In at second is Jenn Ackerman. This high finish has little to do with my interest in photography that exposes the shortcomings of the US prison system and everything to do with the excellent way Jenn portrays the daily battles and extreme stress of a prison operating as a makeshift and unsuitable lock-up for men with severe mental health disorders – Trapped: Mental Illness in America’s Prisons. (I’ve featured Jenn’s work here on PP before.)

© Linda Forsell

‘LIFE’S A BLAST‘ BLOWS THE COMPETITION AWAY

And, winning by a country mile is Linda Forsell. Gold star.

Forsell’s Life’s a Blast is the sweetest, never-escaping-bitter view of Palestine, Gaza & Israel I’ve ever clapped my eyes on. It’s about family more than ideology, but it is never glib. It is work as conscious of history as it is the mores of fashion photography. It’s a slow-ride through the lives of people associated by a larger conflict but not solely defined by it; a stunning presentation of gazes drenched in humanity.

Against all odds, Forsell forces the viewer to think on the stories of her subjects; on the seconds before the shutter snapped and the years yet to come. I have not seen a single project that so swiftly dismantles many of the entrenched tropes of conflict photography. Life’s a Blast shifts perceptions like only the very best of photography can.

© Linda Forsell

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