The Land That Remains: Photographing Nostalgia and Existence

(Federico Busonero)

Italian photographer Federico Busonero recalls an allegorical moment:

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(Federico Busonero)

Traveling along the West Bank’s Route 60, he came across a Palestinian man sitting on a cement block on the side of the road apparently waiting for a ride. Next to him were three bags; from one protruded an old-fashioned black wall clock. The man spoke neither Italian nor English, and Busonero speaks no Arabic. The photographer signaled to the man that he would like to photograph him by pointing to his camera. The man agreed to Busonero’s request. For 15 minutes, Busonero relayed, the man sat there with “his hands crossed on his legs, pensive eyes looking at me. Everything was halted (…). The man did not move.” Neither, of course, did the clock.

For Busonero, the photograph of the motionless man and clock became, “a metaphor for the condition of all Palestinians: their time is frozen, they cannot move, they wait for a solution which only the external world can give them: the end of the occupation, the return to normality, the freedom to live and to cultivate their own land, the land that remains.”

It is this idea that animates Busonera’s latest photographic collection — entitled The Land That Remains. The photographs bear witness to the continuing Palestinian presence on the remaining traces of historic Palestine where Palestinians are imperiled by the continuing encroachment of Israeli settlements and simultaneously practice steadfastness (sumud) by remaining on the land.

Palestine Square recently spoke to Busonero about The Land That Remains.

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(Federico Busonero)

As an Italian living in the Pacific Northwest, with no previous forays into Palestine, how did you find yourself photographing remote villages in the West Bank?

In 2008, the Ramallah office of UNESCO [the UN’s cultural preservation organization] asked me to photograph the cultural landscapes of Palestine. I was honored to undertake this difficult task. For me, Palestine represents both the beginning and the permanence of time, space, and a history that we have forgotten.

As you embarked on your journey, did you have in mind what it was that you wanted to capture?

My purpose was to show the beauty and loneliness of the land of Palestine, a land that has been swept away and whose history has been broken by another’s reality. That land is the custodian and the repository of sacred desert cemeteries, wadis [valleys], towns, palaces, sanctuaries, and archaeological remains from other times. Spaces are not empty. They resonate with deep memories. The photographs I took preserve memory for a future time.

For those who have never visited Palestine, what would you like them to feel when they see your photographs?

I want them to feel the great beauty, the pain, and the invaluable importance of this wounded land. I visited and photographed places in the West Bank which are rarely seen and whose names have been too often erased. Of a landscape, we remember first its image: what is not seen is not remembered and thus is condemned to oblivion. Photographs are a mute tale that  makes the viewer imagine and remember what was, or could have been, in a place.

Do you see a political dimension to your work?

No. I see The Land That Remains (and more generally my photography) as an elegy, as a prayer, a form of nostalgia and affection for what exists, for what I see and might never see again. These photographs are not reportage of the conflict and the brutal Israeli occupation: they are concerned with the history of Palestine, its past and its present, including the dire consequences of the occupation on the landscape. Certainly, they could be seen as politicalphotographs are always taken and used by viewers in different contexts according to their own perceptions and needs.

But, of course, you had to confront the political reality. Did that restrict you?

It was not easy to travel around the West Bank and to cross the checkpoints, in particular in the Jordan Valley and in the vicinity of Hebron and Nablus. I was able to travel only because of my EU passport and the special working pass provided by the UN.

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When Busonero tries to broach the subject of what he calls “my human experience,” his eloquence escapes him; there are no words that would do justice to his time in Palestine, he says. He ends stating simply, “The land of Palestine will never leave me: it touched me to a depth I can hardly explain.”

Interview by Khelil Bouarrouj.

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