Ground Zero

12:00 Jul 8 2011 Eyal checkpoint, near Qalqiliya

By Tal Niv, for Haaretz

This worker, who has crossed the Eyal checkpoint near Qalqilyah, is sleeping on a stone in a field before starting his workday in Israel. The Nike logo is prominent on his black shoes. His pants are white. He is not young: his hair is thinning. He is lying amid dry toothpick-like plants that grow in the summer, on the edges of fields that have been sprayed with insecticides and look like wild carrots but have no taste or smell. In the background is a tilled field and behind it houses enclosed by a fence. In this photograph, Nir Elias, who has worked for Reuters since 2001 - and whose photographs taken during his years in China are a study of the color red and a look at people crushed by totalitarianism - tells a basic story. A biblical story. Here is Jacob lying on a stone.

The revolving gate at Eyal turns every morning. A few hundred Palestinian workers with permits, from around 33,000 - only 33,000 - enter Israel officially and return in the evening, so they will not become "illegally present." People are neither shot nor crushed at Eyal checkpoint - their children do not see them being classified. They are only checked and rechecked and pass through the revolving gate. Slowly. There's no way to know how long it will take. Maybe half an hour, maybe an hour and a half. If they manage to get through early, the workers lie down to rest by the roadside until the transportation arrives. This, then, is a photograph of a man resting but with no harmony, tranquillity or relaxation. It is a photograph depicting a man in "nature," but it contains more dryness, weeds and electricity poles, more fences and garbage than budding, growth or freedom.

The action takes place in the photograph's bottom third, at the height of the white marking on the iron pole at the left. Here is the pole, the man, the black plastic bag between his legs, the white garbage between the bushes in the center - possibly a plastic bag, possibly torn clothing - here are the heat-battered stalks and a piece of tin scrap on the right.

This photograph talks about ugliness. About the man in his good clothes who is lying close to the earth, but the earth is dirty and the field is not his. This is a photograph that stirs memory and ethos, and from the moment its basic story appears, even in a flash, even only approximately, irony too is created - a reversal of roles, brute force and tragedy emerge, and it is absolutely possible to see how "he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep."

In Jacob's dream angels ascend and descend, and atop the ladder is a divine promise: "The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth." There is also an awakening and the marking of the stone and its consecration. But this worker on the stone cannot allow himself to dream dreams. He cannot mark his place. And, to judge by the angle of his head, he is not actually sleeping. He is looking at the photographer. He is utterly spent.
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