After years of intensive work as a press photographer in the service of Associated Press (AP), which documents arenas of uprising, armed struggles, demonstrations and conflicts on a daily basis – for which he also won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography in 2007 – Oded Balilty (b. 1979) found himself in the grip of a vague emotional block that prevented him from returning to these places.
The works on display at the exhibition “Front” were shot entirely in the past two years, as part of a project whose parameters Balilty carefully established for himself, as a way of dealing with this block. The work plan that he created for himself forced him to overcome the emotional difficulty and to return to specific places where he had previously covered news events as a press photographer: a bus stop in the West Bank settlement of Ariel; a guard post at the Nitzanim basic training base; concrete barriers along the Gaza border at Netiv Ha’asara and Nahal Oz; and a barbed-wire fence in the Palestinian village of Kharbatha Bani Harith. He set himself a strict work regime that echoes objective typological photography. This involved a strict protocol whose effectiveness required meticulous planning and preparation – including site visits to select the location, mark it, and suspend at the site itself a professional white backdrop of the type used in photography studios, thereby isolating the element photographed from its surroundings. The chosen scene was always shot from a full frontal angle, with no post-production digital editing and processing – that is to say, the image cropping and capturing were done in situ, in front of the stretched backdrop, deliberately cutting out the hubbub of life surrounding it.
Since the decisions behind this photo-therapeutic project were entirely self-imposed, Balilty allowed himself occasionally to diverge from the strict framework that he set himself. Consequently, the final series also features people, animals, and places that, while photographed in accordance with the strict aesthetic parameters that he had stipulated, were chosen for their relation to a more general memory or to feelings sparked within him during his work in recent years, when he found himself seeing the potential vulnerability in every group of innocent people.
The dual sense of the exhibition title – Front – underscores the “campaign” that the photographer is waging in the face of photographed reality and the “background” made evident by the photographs’ titles (and concealed in the image itself), while also pointing to the elements in the foreground of the photograph, which come across as personal commemoration images.
In addition to the direct victims of violence, the horror takes a toll on those holding the camera, as well. In this series of photographs, Oded Balilty revisits the crime scene in a different manner – one that seeks to demonstrate the camera’s dual ability to hurt and to heal. The white backdrop that he sets up not only conceals the setting but also focuses the observer’s gaze. Interpretation lies in absence and detachment, in revealing and concealing. In effect, Balilty invokes the specter of memory by manifesting a defense mechanism that works by detaching and erasing.