The West Bank has been a subject of dispute for decades. However, most of what we see is usually presented by subjective media, which is why art created in the area is crucial to our understanding of the lives of its inhabitants. Cue ‘This Place,’ a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum that aims to portray the complexity of the lives of the West Bank’s inhabitants through the lens of twelve acclaimed photographers, one of them being Thomas Struth. Struth’s distinctive landscape work is particularly fitting for the collaborative exhibit, managing to capture the vibrant, yet desolate nature of the arid territory and enabling the land to speak for itself. The photographer sat down with us to discuss the effect the project had on him, the dangers of ambition, and the pressure of summertime.
NeueJournal: What was it that made you want to be part of the new exhibition This Place?
Thomas Struth: I had never been to Israel or Palestine, and I had been invited a few times for work or for group shows but it hadn’t felt safe. When I heard through my gallerist here in New York, Marian Goodman, that Frédéric Brenner had come to the gallery to invite me to this project, I just felt like it was the right time in my life for me to go to Israel and Palestine and check it out. I’m German, so the connection between Germany and Israel is very particular…I was born in 1954, not too long after the war, so for me to go to this part of the world had a different effect for me than for others.
Mount Bental, Golan Heights (2011) by Thomas Struth (copyright Thomas Struth)
NJ: Was your perspective about the issues in the West Bank affected in any way from seeing things firsthand?
TS: I think If you don’t have contact, everything is prejudiced, since everything is informed by media, or through other filters. So, it’s difficult to say. I traveled to the West Bank a lot and talked to many people, but I had much more contact with Israelis than with Palestinians. I was in Hebron several times and Ramallah, so I have some kind of impression, but because I have so much distance I have certain opinions. I feel more free to not be entangled in a way, so I can say something such as, in a place like Akoh where Israelis and Arabs are living together, and it’s a rightfully peaceful situation, you think, “What the hell is going on? Both your cultures are such an interesting and positive mix, and you used to live there together a long time ago.” I know people would say that’s naïve, but you can’t stay entangled in a problem forever.
NJ: It’s definitely an issue that has been discussed back and forth for years by so many people.
TS: Yeah, it’s been in the news media enough during my entire lifetime. You heard and saw news about it almost every single week. You would see Ken David, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton…I mean I’m 61 years old. I have an Israeli assistant in Berlin who I’m extremely fond of. Very nice man. I know his family, his wife…so Israelis have become an everyday presence at the studio. He started working with me around the time I started the project for This Place, somehow by fate, by intuition, or by God.
NJ: You began your artistic career doing painting before changing your medium to photography. What is it about this medium that seduced you to make the change?
TS: There were some pictures I saw somewhere that gave me a particular sort of composition idea for a painting. I used some elements of the picture, but that all happened during the time I was in high school, when I had been drawing and painting already for a number of years. Then, when I was in the middle of studying art in the Academy of Düsseldorf, it just felt like it wasn’t a hobby anymore, so I made a more adult decision. I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t use photographs of other people. I should do everything myself.”
So I started to photograph and paint at the same time. Then I went to study with Gerhard Richter and found photography was more directly relateded to the outside and to public issues, as opposed to being a private activity in my private realm. And it was quicker. I had been painting since I was 13 or so, and I was 21 by then, so it was almost half my life where I was studying and looking at paintings and sculpture. I thought, “Is there anything to do for me there?” I felt I was not such a good painter. I had lost my naïvety. I had lost my youthful fantasy and drama and passion.
Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth (2014) by Thomas Struth (copyright Thomas Struth)
NJ: If you had the opportunity to alter any event in your life, would you take the opportunity? If so, what would you change?
TS: Most people say, “No I wouldn’t.” I don’t know…I’ve transformed myself quite a lot in my life because of proactively looking at life and thinking, “I need to do this and that and overcome this and that.” One thing I would choose differently, I would have maybe had children earlier. We have a son who’s almost six, so I’m a very old father. I’m young at heart, but I’m not 35. So if I would have changed one thing that would be it, but I don’t regret it because there is no regret. It’s my life. I love our son. He’s a fantastic boy. So I’m very happy.
NJ: What is your favorite season on the year, and why?
TS: Normally I would say spring, but I suffer from pollen allergies. When everybody’s happy, I have a problem, which is awful. But I like winter. I like snow and I don’t mind the cold. I’m not such a fan of summer, actually. It’s sort of too warm, too sunny. People desire for vacation but I love working. Since I was very young, Sunday was the most depressing day because I couldn’t do anything, which I hated…
NJ: During summer, there’s a lot of pressure to go and have the most fun day of your life.
TS: Exactly. You have to be happy. You have to be outgoing and sexy. All the expectations…I like summer when you have a deeply satisfying and incredibly fulfilling day, but in general I find it somewhat stressful.
NJ: What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
TS: That’s a good question. Ambition. Ambition is necessary, because if you’re not ambitious you don’t move, but I think it also has occasions where it turns into something distractive. You’re not completely thoughtless, but you don’t think through to the end what effect decisions can have. People who are overly ambitious mostly means they’re interested in power, and power is mostly connected with something negative.
NJ: What is your most treasured possession?
TS: Best thing I have is my family, but that’s not a possession – I don’t possess them. So… I don’t know. What is very important is my archive, my work. It’s a lot of stuff; a lot of work I’ve done so far. Right now I’m in a strange transition of feeling older. When I turned 60 a year and a half ago, there was a peculiar change. Always when a decade is over, life feels very particular. Forty, then fifty, then sixty…it’s like maybe you only have one more third of your life. It’s a very different feeling. I feel now that different things matter and my perspective has changed.
NJ: Having said that, what is your idea of happiness?
TS: My idea of happiness is silence and being still.
Portrait Photography: Harris Mizrahi for NeueJournal
Featured Image: Har Homa, East Jerusalem (2009) by Thomas Struth (copyright Thomas Struth)