In “Hamed Alnil’s Bench,” a photograph taken by Ron Amir at the Holot Facility, a refugee camp in Israel that closed earlier this year, there are no humans visible. A long, thin piece of metal rests beneath a sparse, green tree in a desert-like surrounding. It may belong to Alnil – one of thousands of Africans who passed into Israel as asylum seekers via Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula – but he is nowhere to be seen.
Amir, an Israeli photographer who is known for his work with people living on society’s margins, visited the controversial, now-shuttered facility on numerous occasions between 2014 and 2016, photographing the center and its residents. The asylum seekers were men from Sudan and Eritrea, and, detained at the Israeli border, they had been sent to Holot in the unforgiving Negev Desert. Technically, they could come and go from the facility as they pleased, but they were required to check in and out with guards, forbidden to work, and were given few resources on which to live.
For Alnil, his bench was a rare piece of property. In another photograph taken by Amir, a shared oven is pictured alone outside; in another, stones are arranged on the ground as a way to carve out a space to be used as a mosque. In another, empty water bottles are pushed into the desert ground – the reason neither explained nor implied. Through Amir’s photographs, one sees Holot’s oppressive barrenness but also, like dandelions through concrete, the life that nonetheless managed to flourish.
Thirty large-scale photographs like these, along with six videos, compose “Somewhere in the Desert,” Amir’s exhibition that is on show at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art until December 2. Curated by Noam Gal, a professor of art history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Emmanuelle de l’Ecotais, the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art’s photography curator, a version of this exhibition was shown at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2016, where it shocked many viewers who either didn’t know about Holot or hadn’t realized the desperate lack of provisions for refugees there.
But while Amir’s intention was largely to make public the conditions there, it was also to show the human capacity for creating communities and a sense of home. Amir wanted to “open another channel of observation that enables developing broader connotations on these sites,” he said at the exhibition’s opening at the Israel Museum. Amir did not simply snap his photographs and leave. Rather, by making friends with many of the refugees, he imbricated himself within their attempts to create a sense of togetherness. The six videos in the exhibition are especially a testament to this.
“In Ron’s videos, nothing happens,” Gal said at the opening. “That’s just the point — you can see what’s happening at Holot only if you take [it] upon yourself to sit and kill time from your day, and understand that what happens to the people there is the same time as yours.”
Last November, the Israeli government finally decided to close the facility, perhaps partly in response to the exhibition, and, in March, the last remaining asylum seekers walked out its doors. Holot had been a Band-Aid solution, created as a way for the Israeli government to handle the roughly 42,000 refugees who had come in from Africa, especially as vocal members of the country’s political right believed that the mostly Muslim (and some Christian) refugees were “poisoning” Israel’s Jewish culture.
A group of international human rights organizations had written a joint letter to the Israeli government castigating the project. “Holot was an unnecessary and expensive jail whose declared purpose was to make the refugees’ lives miserable, to pressure them to give up their right to asylum and leave Israel,” they wrote. “This was an embarrassing display of pride by the state and the abuse of human life.” Even now, those who were released from Holot and are still allowed to apply for asylum are banned from living or working in most of Israel’s major cities.
Amir’s photographs show what was going on behind all of this political maneuvering – how thousands of men were being exploited and moved like political pawns. It is particularly appropriate that “Somewhere in the Desert” is now being shown in Paris, given France’s struggle with migrants. Although President Emmanuel Macron has proven relatively open to taking in migrants, in a recent Ifob poll, 54 percent of French voters said they do not want France to offer safe harbor to any more migrant ships.
What must be taken from the exhibition is Amir’s simple demonstration of the refugees’ humanity, amongst the desperate sociopolitical turmoil they face. To have a bench of one’s own is a simple act worth remembering, worth photographing. A place to sit, beneath a tree. A rare bit of shade in a merciless desert.
Founder: Louise Blouin