|Ron Amir, L'Arbre de Bisharah et Anwar, 2015|
Ron Amir’s photographs and videos, Quelque part dans le desert currently on exhibition at the Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris make up the kind of work that if I had more time, I would be tempted to write an article about. The photographs are curiously documentary-like. I say, documentary-like, because their subject matter is so extraordinary, it’s difficult to believe that Amir hasn’t set up the shot with more manipulation than is made visible in the image. Which is to say, what results from Amir’s process are images that other photographers might spend hours, even days, looking for. But in the Negev desert surrounding Holot in Israel, the detention facility (that is, prison) for asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, the material presents itself over and over again. There is no need for manipulation.
|Ron Amir, Mosquée, 2016|
The inmates waiting for asylum processing are allowed to leave the facility during the day, but as Amir’s photographs show us, there is nowhere to go. They are in the vast, lifeless Negev desert bordering Jordan and Egypt. The tension between the two poles of freedom and captivity is one of many that animates Amir’s photographs and videos. The inmates are always being moved around the country by the Israeli government, while their time is spent waiting, waiting, waiting for visas and documents. They are stuck in the eternal nowhere land between bureaucratic hoops that they aren’t always sure if they are jumping through or not. Dichotomies that match this impossible state are repeated at every level of Amir’s images: still images placed next to moving ones, and in a video Don’t Move, 2014, a group of migrant men pose for a photograph as Amir sets up his box camera, tweaks the light, and so on. We feel their discomfort of standing still, their itching to move, and in between set ups, the freedom to move but again, with nowhere to go. Making the video becomes synonymous with acquiring legal status in Israel.
|Ron Amir, Don't Move, 2014|
The still photographs are also about time; they ask questions such as how long is time, what unfolds while waiting and watching the repetition of bureaucratic processes over which these people have absolutely no power. In the photographs we also see the engagement and interaction of the people with the photographer. In the video Don’t Move, we watch one of the asylum seekers turn off the camera, then taking photos of him as he continues to fiddle with the video camera.
|Ron Amir, Tiko's Kitchen, 2014|
There is also a pervasive sense of the desert space in the photographs, across which Amir shows how the migrants have articulated their presence, identity, belonging, community, security, and the human instinct for order and repetition. Rocks are carefully laid out on a sparse desert floor to stake ownership. Blankets are rolled up and placed carefully in the arms of a tree’s branches in a photograph entitled L’Arbre de Bisharah et Anwar (2015), thereby naming the objects and space, encircled by a ring of empty water bottles and stones, as belonging to Bisharah and Anwar. An image of a few poles, wire sheets and turned over buckets strewn through a clearing in the shrubbery is titled La Cuisine de Tiko (2015) and though we may wonder how Tiko cooks anything of substance in his kitchen, we are soon reassured by the carefully placed objects as an expression of his care for the space. That it belongs to Tiko is more important than what he makes in his kitchen.
|Ron Amir, Stall (Closed), 2014|
Another photograph Mosquée (2016) confirms that the stones on the sparse desert floor do not comprise a representation to be looked at, but a representation to be inhabited. We assume this simple space—that might otherwise be mistaken for some ancient message—will serve as a place of group worship in among the bushes and empty water bottles often strewn across this landscape. Like Tiko’s kitchen, the mosque and other spaces marked out in the photographs are filled with dignity, the spirit of community and care that the people have for each other.
|Ron Amir, Oven, 2015|
I found the exhibition moving, not only because of Amir’s skill in invoking the very human desire to belong, to identify, and create community. But also because here in Paris, the plight of the very same people may look different—they set up camp in densely populated metropolitan streets—but the problems are effectively the same. Always moved on by the authorities, looking to stake out a territory of their own as they wait for papers, visas and court dates, the Eritreans and Sudanese I see in their hastily built camps in the north of Paris face identical frustrations, and are ultimately searching for the same things as the rest of us.