Adam Szymczyk, 2007
Trackers is a series of 85 color and black-and-white photographs by Ahlam Shibli. Taken between January and July 2005, these photographs were presented for the first time in their entirety at Kunsthalle Basel from January to February 2006. Arranged in several narrative groups, the pictures are published here with four indepth essays that deal with the politics of images and the broader historical and socio-political context for Shibli's series.
Trackers constitutes a coherent record about the military training of young Palestinians who volunteer in the so-called Tracker Unit of the Israeli Defense Forces. Trackers are recruited among Palestinians of Bedouin descent and deployed in the occupied Palestinian territories and in the border zone. Their tasks vary between patrolling the border and tracking those who trespass. Palestinian volunteers consider their service in the Israeli army as the only opportunity to improve their status and their recognition in the Israeli society. As a result of their service they are given incentives which might go as far as to help them buy a piece of land suitable for building a house.
Ahlam Shibli presents her protagonists in an utterly non-heroic fashion. The artist focuses on the mundaneness of the soldiers' life. She provides insight into the functioning of the camp: we see soldiers cleaning their weapons or tents, taking a rest, sleeping or waiting for the training to begin or end. These seemingly meaningless events in the daily routine, indistinguishable from one another, culminate in a moment of transformation when the recruits swear an oath of allegiance to the Israeli army and to the state of Israel on the Koran—thus becoming official soldiers of the IDF. The artist also followed the soldiers while on leave, inquiring into their cultural and social backgrounds. She observed everyday life in the villages from where the trackers came and to which they will return: recording their family relationships, the interiors of their houses, a local bar as well as half-destroyed or half-built houses, the basic infrastructure of the villages. In the process, she also photographed a cemetery with the graves of Palestinians who were killed in action fighting for Israel side by side Palestinians killed fighting against Israel. The trackers' oath of allegiance to the state of Israel is perceived differently in the dispersed Palestinian communities: some consider the trackers traitors while others envy their improved economic situation.
The realization of the Trackers series was possible only through Ahlam Shibli's intensive research and preparatory work on location as well as through her numerous conversations with villagers, soldiers and researchers in the field in Israel and elsewhere. Shibli's endeavor demanded a personal engagement with the subject and an extensive gathering of knowledge from many, often conflicting, sources. Trackers is the result of this research and is published here in book form for the first time.
Director of Kunsthalle Basel
This essay was published in:
Ahlam Shibli: Trackers. Edited by Adam Szymczyk. Exh. cat. Kunsthalle Basel. Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2007. (Essays by: John Berger, Jean-François Chevrier, Okwui Enwezor, Rhoda Kanaaneh, and Adam Szymczyk.)