On November 19 and 20 the New York Times website published a two-part interview (here and here) with Josef Koudelka, a renowned Czech photographer, in Lens, a section of the site dedicated to photography, video, and “visual journalism.” The occasion was the publication of a new book of Koudelka’s photos called “Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscapes,” a collection of black-and-white images of the Israeli “separation wall” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem taken between 2008 and 2012.
The interview immediately elicited a sharp rejoinder (“The Moral And Intellectual Cowardice Of Josef Koudelka”) from Asim Rafiqui, a U.S.-based photographer and blogger who began his scathing post by identifying himself as “an admirer of Koudelka’s work for years.” Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook, a friend of Rafiqui, followed up with a post called “A photographer who obscures the victims”, which echoes and quotes at length from Rafiqui’s criticism.
Their main point: in the interview Koudelka resolutely refuses to discuss the politics of the wall or its effects on the Palestinian people. Instead, he focuses exclusively on the environmental — and, implicitly, aesthetic — damage it has done: he told interviewer James Estrin, a Times photographer and co-editor of the Lens section, “I am principally against destruction — and what’s going on is a crime against the landscape that is enormous in one of the most important landscapes in the world.”
Here’s how Rafiqui responded:
In one of the greatest acts of dissociation I can recall, Koudelka walks into the bantustans of the West Bank – a region teeming with a few million imprisoned and brutalised human beings, and is moved by the destruction of the landscape! That is, he choses one of the greatest physical structures of political, cultural, historical and social segregation and negation concocted in modern history and reproduces it in his images as an apolitical statement about the environment.
It turns out that the book itself isn’t quite so offensive in this respect as the interview, in that the prose accompanying the pictures — a timeline at the beginning, brief captions under the images, and a “lexicon” at the end — includes a lot of the facts readers should know: that 85 percent of the wall lies within the West Bank, not on the Green Line; that it was for this reason declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004; that the wall effectively cuts off thousands of Palestinians from their neighbors, their lands, schools, medical services, etc.; that it is part of a larger system of checkpoints and roadblocks that restrictts the movement of Palestinians throughout the West Bank; and so on. But all of this is in a very low key and in pretty small type, and I have to wonder how many “readers” of the book will actually read it; most will probably just look at the pictures, and Koudelka managed to take scores of them without showing a single Palestinian — or Israeli — person, unless you count one picture that includes the visages of Marwan Barghouti and other leaders painted on the wall.
Without question, the issues raised by Rafiqui are the most serious and troubling about the interview and the book. I myself, though, got hung up on a small — though not unimportant, I’d argue — detail in Estrin’s introductions to the two interview installments: his third sentence described the subject of the book as “the Israeli-built wall that separates the Palestinian West Bank and Israel.” In fact, of course, it is amply documented — including in Koudelka’s small print — that description fits only small parts of the wall; 85 percent of it, being within the West Bank, ipso facto separates parts of the West Bank from other parts thereof.
As soon as I read the first installment, even before plowing through the actual interview, I submitted the following comment to the Times:
The wall in question does NOT separate Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Some 85% of the Barrier’s route runs inside the West Bank, rather than along the Green Line” (http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_barrier_factsheet_july_2013_english.pdf). The Israeli organization B’Tselem says the same (http://www.btselem.org/separation_barrier).
That’s it — strictly factual, not even political (except implicitly), and by no stretch of the imagination abusive or otherwise in violation of the Times’ guidelines on comments. But when I looked back later that evening, the comment had not been posted, even though several others submitted after mine had. At that point I looked up the address for requests for corrections — oddly, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org — and the required format, then sent a similar message there, adding only “To the best of my knowledge, the Israeli government does not dispute these statistics; I don’t see how they could, since it is obvious to anyone who visits the West Bank or just looks closely at a map of the wall that most of it is inside the West Bank.”
The next day (Nov. 20), when part two of the interview and a different introduction repeating the same error appeared on a new page, I went through the same routine all over again: I submitted my comment, it wasn’t posted, and I again filed a request for a correction. I got no response until Saturday, Nov. 23, when I received e-mail from Estrin quoting my comment and saying only “Thanks for writing. I will check with the appropriate Times editors.” I didn’t reply until the following Tuesday, when I sent this:
Got a response yet, James, or are you guys just going to stall this to death? It’s already been a week since the first part of the interview appeared. I’m not sure anyone would even see a correction at this point, but I still insist you correct the factual error.
Aside from the question of a correction, can you explain why the comments I submitted on both the Nov. 19 and the Nov. 20 installments were never posted? I can – it’s a clear-cut case of political censorship, since the comments were totally factual, with nothing even arguably abusive.
I’m going to get the public editor on the case, for what that’s worth.
Later that day I followed through, sending a letter to the Times’ “Public Editor,” Margaret Sullivan, laying out the above sequence of (mostly non-) events and adding a bit of commentary, including some references to the book, since I had by then received a copy:
Although there is obviously intense disagreement about the status and future of the West Bank, the facts about the location of the wall are not in dispute. The West Bank territory on the Israeli side of the wall encompasses Jewish settlements and other land and resources Israel wants to control, but that does not make it Israel.
You probably don’t have the book, but presumably Estrin did when he wrote the introduction, so it is perhaps worth noting that Koudelka himself acknowledges that the wall is largely within the West Bank in the timeline at the beginning of the book and in the captions he supplied for many of his photos – for example, under photos no. 2, 14, 18, 21, and 30. [At that point I hadn’t yet noticed the “lexicon” at the end, which is actually more detailed and explicit about the realities of the wall than the parts I cited.]
By refusing to post my two comments and prompt corrections to the two installments, the Times is doing a disservice to its readers. Since I can’t imagine any other reason why, I can only conclude that this is a straightforward case of political censorship: whoever is making these decisions is apparently unwilling to allow readers to learn this little bit of truth.
P.S. In case you’re curious, I’m Jewish, but I have spent more than six months in the occupied Palestinian territories over the last decade. That includes five weeks in 2003 monitoring how the wall devastated the West Bank village of Jayyous, where it had just been built – entirely on Palestinian land, separating villagers not from Israel but from their own olive trees, citrus groves, hothouses, and all seven of the village’s wells.
Except for a boilerplate reply from the Public Editor’s computer, I got no response for a couple more days. Then, at 10:54 p.m. EST on Thanksgiving evening, came the following e-mail from Estrin:
Thank you for pointing our mistake out. After a great deal of consultation we have corrected it and also posted a correction as well. Sorry for the delay.
I appreciate your comment.
I promptly checked the interview pages and found the “the Israeli-built wall that separates the Palestinian West Bank and Israel” replaced by “the barrier that Israel has built over the past decade with the stated purpose of controlling Palestinian access from the West Bank into Israel.”
In addition, my comment had finally been posted on each page, more than nine days after I first submitted it and 10 minutes before Estrin’s e-mail, and the following correction had been noted at the top of each page and posted at the bottom:
Correction: This post originally referred to “the Israeli-built wall that separates the Palestinian West Bank and Israel”. It should have referred to the barrier that Israel has built over the past decade with the stated purpose of controlling Palestinian access from the West Bank into Israel. But rather than running along the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank, much of it cuts through West Bank territory.
I sent the following reply to Estrin:
Thanks, Jim. Care to explain what the “great deal of consultation” was about? Or, in particular, why it took nine days to get my comment posted, even though it was completely factual and in no way abusive.
No response so far, but when you read the labored, obviously committee-written wording of the correction and the revised introduction, you can just imagine how that “great deal of consultation” must have gone down.
Will anyone except readers of this post ever see that belated correction? Probably only a handful of people, and who knows whether and how it will change their understanding of the wall and the other injustices it represents? But at least I have the satisfaction of having compelled our “newspaper of record” to set the facts a little straighter.