‘Heterotopia: The Promised Land’ at Head On

Greek freelance photographer Demetris Koilalous looks at what has been accomplished in contemporary Israel in his new series

Head On is Australia’s biggest, and one of the world’s most prestigious, photography festivals and it has returned to Sydney with over 100 exhibitions at several venues showcasing the works of established visual artists.

Since it began in 2010, the festival has evolved to include a wide range of stunning exhibitions from world-renowned photographers, innovative workshops run by international professionals and critically acclaimed mentors, not to mention community events aimed at everyone from enthusiasts to devout collectors. Head On kicked off last weekend exhibiting works from over 700 photographers from 22 countries.

One of the main exhibitions is dedicated to Greek photographer Demetris Koilalous and his latest body of work ‘Heterotopia: The Promised Land’ which attempts to raise questions about relationships of culture, power and authority.

‘Heterotopia’ looks at what has been accomplished in contemporary Israel in the name of the Promised Land.

The transformation and the domestication of the hostile Palestinian desert has not only been a major physical achievement, it has also been a philosophical and political accomplishment, where memory, history and religion, as well as the institutions which sustain them (like museums, synagogues, cemeteries, schools, army camps, public feasts, etc) have been playing a major role in the creation, the reproduction and the consolidation of national and political identity, in a system where Israel stands opposite the Land of Promise as its mirror image – or vice versa, towards an understanding of the evolution of contemporary Israel.

Neos Kosmos spoke to the Greek creative about what led him to Israel and how what’s happening in that part of the world becomes a mirror of globalism.

Ein Gedi Kibbutz: Manufactured ‘Hieronymus Bosch’ Landscape.

What led you to Israel? Why did you choose to portray that part of the world?
A year and a half before I started photographing in Israel I was commissioned by the Museum of Photography of Thessaloniki – Greece’s only state photography museum – to photograph contemporary Lebanon as part of a project about the Middle East and also a sphere of cultural influence for Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece, once a tri-ethnic region, with prominent Turkish and Jewish communities.

Lebanon itself is a very interesting region with very distinct ideological, social and ethnic conflicts, which is an issue that has always fascinated me. The context of a conflict [in] my opinion is always a very interesting condition for photography. You see, when I look at the world I find it very interesting to unfold the various layers of reality hiding behind a seemingly simple situation. For instance, a derelict church, apart from its actual status as a ruin, has at the same time been in the past a place of worship, prayer, faith etc. However, it was also a place which was used as a rampart during the civil war – only a few years earlier – and at the same time it was an enclosed environment with wild and parasitic vegetation – like a decadent paradise. So as a photographer I cannot neglect all these different identities and different realities. [In] my opinion contemporary photography is not about images; it is all about ideas. So it is a question how these ideas can be articulated with images.

Immediately after the completion of that commission, there was this idea – also encouraged by a friend from the Jewish community of Greece – to photograph in Israel. This was a very tempting proposal. Israel is a country which in a way was analogous to Lebanon.

In a similar way, the notions of national, ethnic and, of course, religious identity are crucial in order to understand contemporary Israel. One other element that I found very interesting is that everything in Israel seemed to have an ancient root. It felt that almost about everything there is a cellular memory, which travels intact in time.

So these were the first ideas that stimulated my attention and my imagination. After going to Israel, a whole new world of ideas and images came into the equation, and made things even more complex – something that of course I found extremely interesting! For instance I discovered how important memory is, not only at a personal level but also towards the formulation of a national identity.

Here, I need to mention that from the very beginning – before I first visited Israel – I had decided unquestioningly to leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of my project.

I have been criticised a lot about this, since most people do not want to disconnect it from contemporary Israeli history. In historic terms I do not disconnect it either, but for my photography this was a very evident and simplistic way that would charge very decisively the course my project aesthetically, emotionally and in terms of the narrative.

I don’t like my photography to give answers; I prefer to speak about the cause of things. For instance to my understanding, a clash or a war is the outcome of something deeper, hidden largely in the idiosyncrasy of those involved; I prefer to talk about that instead. It is a little like in psychoanalysis. I am not always interested in an action per se, but more into what is causing this action.

Untitled: Har Homa Settlement.

What words would you use to describe contemporary Israel?
I think that this is a very tricky question. Especially in places which have such a great complexity and cultural diversity. I think that the first word that comes to mind is complexity. If you have not been [to] Israel you cannot understand what Israel is really about. At the same time it can be arid and fertile, democratic, tolerant and authoritative, offensive and defensive, philosophical and pragmatistic, understanding and ruthless, very hospitable and suspicious!

In this sense the words that also come to mind are antithetical, contradictory, and multifaceted. This means that contemporary Israel potentially combines all these very diverse layers, which – in this sense – also may denote tolerance, but then again one may wonder ‘tolerance for what?’ Which in its turn denotes a contradictory condition.

Another word that I think describes Israel very well is seductive. The desert can seduce you, even if it is dangerous. One can be seduced by the long history, the amazing accomplishments in the desert; its domestication and inhabitance, the incredible technical and scientific achievements, the feeling of safety. Maybe one of the biggest paradoxes is the feeling of safety no matter how turbulent the period might be. I am not saying that safety is true or not true (whether I was actually safe or not) I am just expressing how I felt.

An artificial garden in the desert or an oasis can also be seductive … it is something that takes your mind away. It is like a siren in Greek mythology! It is something between reality and fiction. When you are seduced, you do not think anything else BUT the beauty that is exhaled. At the same time it is so impressive that only a few years ago this was an arid and hostile land.

One last thing that impressed me was the feeling of communality. It is the feeling that everyone is working in a harmonious way – without interior conflicts and frictions – for a common cause. This is very evident in the kibbutz – the iconic desert villages/settlements which were very well known for their democratic structure and ‘socialist’ identity back in the 60s and 70s.

Did you find anything in common with the situation in Greece?
[At] first glance they seem that they are quite similar in terms of environment, or the way that people interact – mostly at the social level, etc.
However, being in Israel usually brings [to] mind what does not work well in Greece! In fact it would be easier to speak about differences rather than similarities!

For instance, whenever I get back to Greece after I return from Israel, I am thinking of lost opportunities waiting to be exploited! In Greece we take so many things for granted! Peace, first of all, great climate, very beautiful and clean seas, fertile land, fantastic products. In Israel, most of these did not exist until very recently. However, they were determined to achieve them and have succeeded. I admire this determination and positive thinking! Also there is an evident effort to work together for the common cause. I was impressed by the perception of communality and respect for the ‘collective’, something quite uncommon in Greece.

Burning Down An Aged Orange Grove Near Sderot.

Even though you specialise in portrait and theatre photography you opted to photograph landscapes and cityscapes giving off a derelict kind of vibe. How come?
I have photographed quite a few people but after a long thought, I decided not to show them. I feel that it is a more abstract proposition and the presence of people would make it more realistic and would distract attention. In ‘Heterotopia’ I am not documenting something specific. My photographs have a more abstract type of narration. Maybe in a different context or in a later time I will include these or other portraits as well.

However, I must say I don’t agree that overall I am giving a derelict kind of vibe. On the contrary I am showing achievements, new development, artificial recreational ponds, new housing, new potential, etc. Yes, in few cases there is a feeling of vanity, but NOT dereliction or desolation. You see this is exactly my point and my intention: to provoke people to project on the photograph their own feelings. This ambiguity is exactly my aim. While I was looking for some institutional support for my project, I showed my work to a diplomatic officer. In a few photographs he said, ‘here you are showing a group of soldiers who are guarding a West Bank settlement’! … or at another point he said ‘here you are showing a West Bank settlement!’. This was funny because the first photograph depicted four soldiers at a religious celebration (a mimuna) in the city of Ashdod enjoying themselves, and the second was about highrise housing in a very expensive district of Tel Aviv! So I answered ‘BUT this is what you expect (or you desire) to see . . . in fact what I am showing is something completely different. You project on my photographs something that it is NOT there! ‘

At some other point I am showing an artificial pond or an artificial garden. If you want to see it as a great achievement, in fact technically speaking it IS a great achievement, then it has a positive connotation. If you want to see vanity and supremacy over land, then it probably gains a more negative meaning.
In a photograph, a cityscape, of a settlement in West Bank one may recognise achievement, order, sharpness, rationality, but at the same time the image may look mysterious and sublime. For me it is ‘simply’ a cityscape of a colony town: a manufactured environment; ambiguous.

Mizpe Ramon Crater: overlooking Motorway 40. PHOTOS: Demetris Koilalous

What makes a good photo for you? What do you look to convey though your images?
I think that what intrigues me most in photography is ambiguity. A good photograph should penetrate reality and see behind it. There are many different worlds in a photograph. And therefore there are different layers of reading. To me a good photograph is one that can make you think and wonder. When I see a photograph or a project I always ask two questions: ‘what’ does the photographer try to say, ‘what’ is this about, and ‘why’. ‘Why’ is it so important that I, a little person of the universe, need to know about it? Maybe this is a European way of seeing things … needing to analyse the layers of reality, their historic relevance and significance, needing to comprehend how and why something has happened. At the end, all of these constitute political questions.

I think that literally everyone can take a ‘good photograph’. Anyone can make either a ‘good looking’ – an attractive – photograph, a spontaneous and agile snapshot with an interesting colour palette. All of this can be done almost automatically nowadays. So what makes a good image? Is it a question of who is closer to the field of action (as Robert Capa would say)? Or is it a question of how fast and how ingeniously precise and fast the photographer can be? Is this what photography is about?
To me [it] is neither of the two.

I remember Alec Soth wondering which is the difference between a recognisable ‘democratic’ photograph by William Eggleston and a random photograph taken by an amateur photographer (since photography IS democratic). The answer [in] my mind is the control that the photographer has over the meaning. The ability of the photographer to edit, to decode and analyse and then put back all the pieces, reframe, and make a statement. It is a dialectic relationship that the photographers develop with the content and the appearance. In other words it is all about the ability to articulate a complex meaning with photographs.

Of course this does not mean that ‘attractive’ photographs are not interesting to look at. Also, it does not mean that a beautiful photograph only conveys simple meanings.
I feel that nowadays photography is a very complex language that expands into other disciplines and exactly this is what makes it very interesting.

Regarding my work, I think that behind everything is the notion of human utopia. On one hand this world of aspirations and high hopes and on the other a fleeting feeling of vanity. I don’t believe that ‘Heterotopia’ is a ‘dark’ work. Ultimately, I am just anxious to ask questions about human identity.

Yad Mordechai Kibbutz: Battlefield Scene Reconstruction.

How do you feel knowing that your work has been selected to be showcased in one of the world’s most important photography festivals?
I am extremely honoured. Especially because of the fact that Moshe Rosenzveig, an experienced photographer himself and an Israeli, was the person who chose my work. This is a double honour. For me it is crucial that the person who looks at the photograph does not get the impression that I am either favouring Israel or being critical. Through my photographs I only try to pose questions. If you find yourself giving an answer, then it is the projection of your personal thoughts. I am not trying to force an answer! So, to me it is very important that my work is exposed to such an international and extended audience. In this sense, I also feel very lucky that I am given the opportunity to develop all these ideas and communicate them through the festival.

What is next for you?
Currently I am already trying to run two completed projects, which are both, quite big. ‘Heterotopia’ about contemporary Israel, which is exhibited here in the Head On Photo Festival in Sydney, and the previous one, named ‘Caesura’, which refers to identity issues raised during the refugee crisis in Greece. ‘Caesura’ is coming out as a book towards the first week of June from Kehrer Verlag, a prominent German editor, and I have been very busy with this too. It is my first book and the fact that Kehrer [is publishing] it, is a great honour, but at the same time it is a very demanding situation.

Regarding new plans, I am also trying to put together a new project about the notion of paradise. However, it is a little complicated, as one might expect! Paradise is everywhere, but at the same time is hard to find!

* Demetris Koilalous lives in Athens, where he has been working as a freelance photographer, specialising in portrait and theatre photography. His recent works ‘Lebanese Notebook; AntiParadise’, ‘Caesura’ The Duration of a Sigh’, and ‘Heterotopia: The Promised Land’, have been exhibited worldwide in Athens, Chios Island, Toulon, Montpellier, Dublin, Cardiff, New York, Tbilisi, Santa Fe, Kuala Lumpur, Vilnius and more, having won numerous awards between 2005 and 2017. His works are found in private collections and in the collection of the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography. 

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