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Testimony consists in 47 brilliant portraits of Jews and Arabs living in Israel, all of whom have been affected in some way--frequently with horrific injury--by Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Arab violence. In many of these images we see young people with missing limbs, grotesquely scarred stumps exposed, forever confined to wheelchairs, looking straight at the camera with an unblinking gaze, grabbing our attention by the throat, making it impossible to look away. The immediacy of these real people leaps off the page.
In addition to the images, Laub contributes an introductory text, explaining why and how she came to make the series. (Two provocative essays by other authors round out the book.) Laub spent five years on the project, locating her subjects and carefully posing them in their familiar surroundings. Though the subject matter is current and political, it was not recorded by spontaneous photojournalism: the portraits were carefully staged, and the subjects responded to preliminary Polaroid studies by writing brief statements about themselves; these are reproduced in the book next to the relevant photographs. The subjects' statements tell individual stories of pre- and post-trauma change and continuity, of discouragement and determination. Universally, they express a desire for peace and a longing for an end to the violence of which they and their loved ones have been the victims. None of the subjects expresses hatred toward their perpetrators or a desire for revenge. The immediacy of the testimony of the images of injury to individual human beings brings home the exorbitant, unjustifiable human cost of using violent means to achieve political ends. The book in its visual and textual entirely is a testimony to peace.
But Testimony is more than a rhetorical argument for peace. Despite their political content, the fact remains that the images are also aesthetic objects. They are unfailingly, overwhelmingly beautiful, and as such they produce intense aesthetic delight in abstraction from their content. Especially in the exterior shots, the dry air and desert light combine to yield images of extraordinary graphic sharpness and vibrant color. Furthermore, Laub has an unfailing eye for effective composition. In "Masadi with her daughter," the mother appears inside her house at the doorway, partly in shadow and almost completely covered in dull-colored traditional clothing, including head scarf, while her teenaged daughter is posed just outside in full sunlight, bare-headed, wearing blue jeans and a bright orange tee shirt. In "Vared with her family," the young, mini-skirted mother, combining the vibrancy of barely contained sexuality in her body with yearning concern in her face, is compellingly foregrounded in full sunlight, while her family, including her partner, who awaits his call to active duty, is distributed in peripheral shadow. And in "Muhammad," the brain-injured primary subject, unable to move or talk, is foregrounded in his wheelchair, while a younger boy wobbles through the periphery on the bicycle he is just learning to ride, beginning a representative activity Muhammad will never engage in.
A measure of Laub's skill is that the beauty of the images never makes us forget the suffering they portray. The human beings in the images are never objectified merely as beautiful: when we first see them, they are already gazing at us, so they do not let us turn them into objects of any kind.
But the beauty of the images and the aesthetic delight they engender produces a special kind of tension and transcendence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the cover image of an achingly beautiful young Israeli woman, wearing perfect make-up and a loose-fitting drab brown army uniform, kneeling at a memorial service and making eye-contact with the camera, while surrounded by the disembodied, army-booted legs of her standing comrades and the barrels of their rifles. The tension of her beauty and the sinister ugliness of the military instruments of violence and death is repeated over and over again in beautiful images of grotesque injury.
Nevertheless, the aesthetic delight we take in the beauty of the images yields a kind of transcendence of the immediacy of the suffering they portray. The tension of aesthetic transcendence and the individual immediacy of the photographic images lifts them above the level of merely forensic reporting and produces in their aching juxtaposition of the beautiful and the horrible a more powerful yearning for peace than verbal exhortation ever could.
© 2007 Robert Kimball
Robert Kimball, University of Louisville