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Book of the Week: Selected by Arturo Soto

Book Review The Settlements Photographs by Ken Taranto Reviewed by Arturo Soto "Photobooks often double as didactic devices that introduce us to unfamiliar places. Such is the case with Ken Taranto’s The Settlements, which documents the houses, roads and general infrastructure in the Israeli-occupied territories..."

The Settlements by Ken Taranto.
The Settlements
Photographs by Ken Taranto

GOST BOOKS, London, England, 2021. 112 pp., 53 photographs, 9x12¼".

Photobooks often double as didactic devices that introduce us to unfamiliar places. Such is the case with Ken Taranto’s The Settlements, which documents the houses, roads and general infrastructure in the Israeli-occupied territories. Taranto’s series constructs an “architectural portrait of the settlements from a broad sampling of all types, sizes, densities, ages and regions” to know what these communities “actually looked like and how it felt to be there.” His intention is laudable since the topographies in question have a troubled history that’s difficult to capture. The pictures suggest the arduous human labor responsible for these structures in communities surrounded by a vast emptiness. But while the hasty transformation of some of these territories may be recent, the political, historical and theological grounds on which they are disputed constitute one of our age’s most controversial subjects. 

The sociological characteristics of the land are conveyed in spectacular foldout panoramas that, on the one hand, give us a sense of the scale of these urbanistic operations and, on the other, break the rhythm of an image sequence composed almost exclusively of deadpan pictures. The tonal range achieved during exposure is masterfully replicated in the printing, offering incredible detail in the shadows, where Taranto often places essential information. Take, for instance, the panorama showing a barbed-wire fence in the foreground and the settlement a few hundred meters in the background, with the elevated perspective rendering the in-between space as a source of political debate. The place of this panorama in the sequence is significant, between frontal images of unadorned houses, suggesting that we shouldn’t judge these structures on their architectural merits alone. 

The book eschews a comparative approach, which keeps us from seeing how Israeli communities differ regarding materials, design and planning from their Palestinian counterparts, as if Taranto wanted the occupied territories to tell the whole story. The dissatisfaction that ensues can be taken as a metaphor for our unending desire for photography to explain the world, presenting us with an opportunity to reflect on the nature of documentary work. Is it even possible to make impartial photographs of this (or any) topic, or should we demand that they explain — with words or sounds — one of the most multifaceted conflicts in history? What do we make of all those things that Taranto’s proposition leaves out? It’s unclear if, by not including certain kinds of pictures, viewers will look at The Settlements with admiration, indignation or indifference.

While it’s true that each photograph carries with it an aesthetic, moral and political position, artists can hide their views using specific combinations of tools and techniques. The problem of reading moral values in images of the landscape reminds me of the negative response some visitors had to the landmark exhibition The New Topographics (1975), perceiving the works on view as dull and concluding they were meaningless. For these visitors, the combination of a particular subject matter (urban landscapes devoid of people) and a ‘way of seeing’ (detailed prints of deadpan views made from large negatives) passed as banal and styleless. Only the ulterior success of the exhibition legitimized this way of working and accustomed us to its advantages.   

In the case of politically divisive places where controversy seems unavoidable, how much signposting should a project include? Is Taranto’s attempt to avoid offending politically negligent, or is he a victim of self-censorship? Critics like Ariella Azoulay would likely condemn Taranto’s approach as morally suspect. Since the conclusions one arrives at will depend entirely on one’s political beliefs and moral compass, The Settlements is a good starting point to discuss ideas about the role of political art and whether it needs to be accompanied by activism. Taranto’s detached stance, which reads like an aspiration of neutrality, sharply contrasts with that of fiction writers like Adania Shibli, for whom writing about Israel seems intrinsically linked to addressing the conflict with Palestine (as she does in her novel Minor Detail, linking the foundation of the Israeli state with the ongoing oppression of minorities in two devastating stories). 

The difficulty of representing these landscapes is that they mean different things to different people, with their current context always enmeshed with considerations of justice and human rights as much as fanatic patriotism. The Settlements is far from neutral, but its ambivalence will probably not please either committed faction. The images don’t emphasize Judaism in the way some might desire, nor do they show the repercussions of these constructions on Palestinian life. However, Taranto’s willingness to focus solely on the landscape to extract its secrets is undoubtedly welcomed, even if it comes in a visual manner that’s exceptionally challenging to interpret. 

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Arturo Soto is a Mexican photographer and writer. He has published the photobooks In the Heat (2018) and A Certain Logic of Expectations (2021). Soto holds a PhD in Fine Art from the University of Oxford, and postgraduate degrees in photography and art history from the School of Visual Arts in New York and University College London.