Issue 20 - 2004
Steve Sabella was born in Jerusalem eight years after Israel annexed it. Though he continues to live in Jerusalem’s Old City, none of the photographs he submitted to the exhibition show any trace of it. One explanation for this may lie in the peculiar relationship that evolved over a century between the history of photography, Sabella’s medium, and the significance of his hometown to the outside world.
Photography was barely four years old whenWestern photographers rushed to try to capture Jerusalem on film, one of the first cities that interested them outside Europe. While most Western photographers recording Jerusalem focused on biblical sites and historical monuments, with native figures appearing either as a means of indicating scale, in the staging of biblical scenes, or to document ethnic or folkloric customs, the artistic interests of the Arab photographers born in the city seemed to lie elsewhere. Khalil Ra’ad, the first native-born professional to establish his studio in the city, in 1890, is an illustrious example.21 Ra’ad’s Jerusalem photographs, both in and outside the city, focused not on monuments but on the daily life of ordinary people at their various pursuits. At a time when Reinhold Niebuhr’s slogan “land without a people for a people without a land” was being diffused throughout a world ruled by colonialism, Ra’ad was photographing dense street scenes, people basking in the sun, craftspeople before their wheels, factory workers stacking Nablus soap bars, villagers pruning their olive trees, and farmers cultivating their fields. As for the iconic images that represented the cultural appropriation of Jerusalem even before the birth of the Jewish state, it is interesting to note that the Zionist movement popularized the image of a sixteenth-century minaret presented as the “Tower of David.”22 Since Israel’s 1967 annexation of Jerusalem’s Old City and its environs, photographic images of every stone and monument within the city walls has been reduced to some form of clich´e to serve nationalist ends. Even images of the Dome of the Rock, the 1,300-year-old Islamic monument, has been appropriated for Israeli tourist posters. As a visual artist growing up in Jerusalem, Sabella seems to have been intuitively aware of the pitfalls of photographing it. Sensing how photography has been used to contribute to the mythmaking around him, this internal exilegoes out into the open, beyond the city walls, to find his freedom between the rocks and the sky.
Here, from a hilltop we see a dirt road winding across a burned-out field leading into a ridge of rocks dissolving into darkness; there, from below a tree, we see a ladder leaning against bare branches and pointing into the sky. Elsewhere we see a heavy cloud hovering in midair over a rock-ribbed hill; at the end of an arid stretch of land, a mountain of pure limestone perches against the deep blue of the sky. From closer up, we see a mount of bare and craggy rocks aging as it were among wild bushes; above a slope, we see four identical cubical dwellings that dot the horizon sharply splitting sky from earth. The city that from time immemorial was considered a bridge between heaven and earth may be absent in Sabella’s photographs, but everything in them indicates how, in solitude, the native photographer rebuilt his own Jerusalem. Just as Ra’ad’s photographs could appear to an outsider to resemble those of ethnically oriented photographers of his time, Sabella’s crisp works of sky and rocks could to an outsider appear to be thework of a professional photographer from anywhere in the world. And yet, it is in Sabella’s conscious avoidance of photographing Jerusalem that he was able to recreate the universality of the place. Indeed, his search for his true self may be likened to those monks who, drawn to Jerusalem from distant lands, ended up living out the rest of their lives in those desolate landscapes. Only in such landscapes did Sabella find his own Jerusalem. From among the rocks of the Palestinian wilderness, theJerusalem photographer defines his own identification with the pristine state of his ancestral land. Through the way he lets us see these ancient rocks, Sabella reminds us that it was around a rock that his own city of birth was once founded.