British photographer Nick Waplington captures the lives of Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories

In 2008, Nick Waplington began documenting the Occupied Territories' Jewish settlers and the landscape they have illegally made their own. He was embraced by some, but feared and attacked by others. Here, the British photographer shares his rare insights into one of the world's most closed communities

In Spring 2011, a Land Rover sped down the road that is all that remains of the abandoned Jewish settlement of Homesh, in the hills above the West Bank city of Jenin. The vehicle pulled up where British photographer Nick Waplington and his Israeli student-assistant Matan Ashkenazy were struggling to erect a tripod, and disgorged an angry crew of unkempt young men with automatic weapons.

The men were from Hilltop Youth, the hardline Jewish extremists responsible for provocative acts of anti-Palestinian violence across the West Bank (which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War). "They started pushing us around," Waplington recalls, back now in his London studio after five years in the Occupied Territories. "They were pretty manic, pumped up. They pointed their guns at us and said they were going to kill us." They accused Waplington of being a "left-winger", there to resist what the settlers regard as their God-given right to live in what right-wing Israelis call Judea and Samaria and what much of the rest of the world knows as the West Bank.

In Hebrew, Ashkenazy assured the men that Waplington was well known to the settler community. It brought a pause, long enough for them to take in Waplington's full beard, pale skin, plaid shirt and jeans. They lowered their guns.

Ashkenazy's assurances and the ambiguity of Waplington's appearance defused a volatile situation. That same ambiguity, as well as his increasingly familiar presence among the settlers, would help Waplington complete his remarkable photographic record of one of the world's most closed and guarded communities: the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

It is, perhaps, an unlikely project for a photographer so closely associated with the UK and with no previous links to Israel. Waplington first became known for his 1991 work "Living Room", based around life on a Nottingham housing estate. In the 1990s and early Noughties, he lived and worked in east London in and around the YBA set: a friend of Tracey Emin, he shared studios with the Chapman Brothers. A meticulous and thoughtful practitioner, Waplington received the prestigious ICP infinity award in 1993, represented the UK at the 2001 Venice Biennale and had his work collected by institutions such as the Guggenheim and Moma.

Yet, as the Noughties came to a close, Waplington was reconsidering his position. He had been through a difficult relationship break-up and east London was losing its allure. "I'd had a show that finished at the Whitechapel in early 2008, but I was rudderless and the financial crisis was starting to affect things. An opportunity came to get out and I took it."

That opportunity was an offer by the French Jewish photographer Frédéric Brenner. With benefactors including the Steven Spielberg Foundation, Brenner had established "This Place", an ambitious project seeking to explore the complexity of Israel. Brenner gathered some of the world's best-regarded photographers, including Josef Koudelka, Jeff Wall, Rosalind Solomon, Thomas Struth and Gilles Peress. Waplington was approached, said yes and, in December 2007, arrived in Israel. But he didn't intend to wander around Tel Aviv or the Galilee – he wanted to go to the settlements.

"Frédéric had never been on the West Bank. I think he envisaged people working in Israel, but I was drawn by the sense of otherness of the settlements, the notion that these were white, Western Europeans like me, living this kind of semi-autonomous outsider existence. I had to explore that."

 

According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2010, there were more than 500,000 Jewish settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – 311,000 across the wider West Bank, and more than 190,000 in the settlement blocs that virtually encircle Arab East Jerusalem, effectively cutting off the putative capital of a future Palestinian state from its hinterland. Their presence is illegal in international law but the Israeli government supports them. Some settlements are little more than fenced-in mobile homes, but blocs such as Gush Etzion, with its breweries, wineries and holiday parks, gathered around the north-south A60 settler artery between Jerusalem and Hebron, are well established.

It was Gush Etzion that was Waplington's starting point. In 2008, he met an assistant at Hebrew University with connections to the settlers there, who arranged for him to visit the sprawling settlement. Waplington chose one of its outposts, Bat Ayin, inhabited by settlers with a reputation for confrontation with the local Palestinians. "There had been tit-for-tat murders," Waplington says. "They would murder a Palestinian from a nearby village; the Palestinians murder one of them. It's heavy work in Bat Ayin as there is always the possibility that something will go off. It's laid-back and hippie but has a dark edge. The settlers ride bareback on horses and grow organic vegetables, yet they've all got Uzis."

Waplington's entry into this society was confirmed when footage of him at work in the West Bank appeared on the settlers' online TV channel. Although he was well aware of the political arguments around the settlers' presence in the Occupied Territories, Waplington was also attracted by the way they organised their communities around the family unit. "I wanted to photograph families," he says. "A lot of my work deals with core issues of art and one of the continuous themes in art history, from cave painting to Velasquez to David Hockney, is the family."

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'This is the Alon Road on Route 1 in the West Bank, not far from Jerusalem'

The problem now was what Waplington was to do about a perceived identity – non-Jewish, leftish member of the London art scene – that was likely to cause suspicion in right-wing settlers. His answer was to do nothing. "Everyone presumed I was Jewish, or I wouldn't have been doing the project. I didn't actively lie to people; whatever assumptions they made, they made on their own. Looking like the settlers was easy, because their uniform is clothes I wear anyway: k Birkenstocks, Levi's, plaid shirt, plain white T-shirt underneath and an old man's flat cap – I didn't look unlike them.

"Some people were suspicious, some were friendly," he adds. Yet, not everyone was taken in by Waplington's appearance as he visited more than 350 outposts over five years. "A couple of people constantly tried to catch me out, expose me as a left-wing agitator. They didn't have any success. When I was on a settlement I didn't say anything that could be construed as anti-settler. Away from the settlements, I didn't attend Israeli public meetings or events that could seem left-wing. When the Turkish Gaza flotilla was brought into Ashdod in 2010, I didn't go to see that. If I came back to London, I wouldn't go to Palestinian rallies. I was careful that there was nothing online to suggest I was anti-settler or anti-Israel.

"I believe emphatically," he says, "that everybody should be allowed to go where they want on this planet. It's a Utopian position, but in that context, I agree that the settlers can be there – though what I don't agree with is that they can forcibly remove everyone else."

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'This is Bat Ayin; the wooden structure the family are standing in front of is for the Sukkot festival: for seven days the family must eat outside' (Nick Waplington)

The trust that most placed in Waplington is clear from the family portraits. Some relaxed, others more formal, they feature both archetypical Orthodox settlers and younger families. There are children everywhere, a result of Judaism's exhortation to reproduce, and the settlers' desire to populate the land. Sofas are crammed with offspring, toddlers dangle from parents' arms, recalcitrant teenagers are made to stand still, nine-year-olds are called in from the playground.

In the picture used on the cover of Waplington's new book Settlement, three generations of a family gather around a sapling that stands in raked, weed-free mulch. Behind them, in softening focus, spread the ageless hills of the West Bank, littered with limestone rocks. "They planted that tree," says Waplington. "It's a European deciduous, not indigenous to the region. The space on the other side is representative of the Palestinians. This, for me, is the point of that picture. This family, one of the few Israeli-born families I encountered, believed they were reclaiming the land of the Bible."

He didn't include the names of anyone in the project, "in case they didn't like the book or didn't want to be named. I also thought they are quite obviously family groups and they don't need names as such. If I started naming them [one by one], it would start spiralling, and I wanted to keep it simple."

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'A long Israeli flag hangs on a house called Beit Yonatan [the five-storey structure right of centre, halfway up], which is occupied by settlers. It is an illegal building in the Arab district of Silwan; the settler families in there are protected by the army and the police' (Nick Waplington)

Working on the settlements by day and living in Arab East Jerusalem by night, Waplington inevitably eventually attracted the attention of the Israeli authorities. "I wasn't driving around the West Bank for five years with this enormous camera, photographing everything, without the state being aware of what I was doing. My apartment was gone through constantly; I presumed it was by [Israel's internal security service] Shin Bet. I'd set little things up to know when my computer was being checked, whether people had been through my stuff. I could tell when they had been."

The body of work Waplington produced is split between family portraits and landscapes, settling its gaze on both the settlers and the Promised Land they are developing. "I'd look at a beautiful hillside with a settler and he'd happily say, 'This time next year it will be covered in houses and we will be closer to the Messiah coming.' He had a completely different view of the land to me. So I wanted to have a record of it now in a factual way." This is also why Waplington refers to these landscapes only by their co-ordinates in his book. "It means people can go back and find the exact location where the picture was taken. That gives it another possible meaning in the future, depending on whether [the landscapes] get built on.

"Others shoot this landscape in high-contrast black-and-white and put an aesthetic on it," he adds. "I used large-format camera photography to catch it as it is in colour. Everything in it can be [magnified] and seen, so it becomes a recording, not just a piece of art."

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'This family are at Alon. The father is from Los Angeles and they have a picture of Nina Simone on the wall. Alon is split 50/50 between secular and orthodox' (Nick Waplington)

Waplington took his final settlement pictures in July 2013. Now the 49-year-old spreads his time between New York and London, and is preparing for upcoming exhibitions at Tate Modern and Tate Britain. (The Tate Britain event, Alexander McQueen, will be the first ever solo show by a living photographer in the gallery's main space.)

But what of the settlers he left behind – what do they think of his work? "The thing about the settlements is that almost all of them have their own particular identity," he says. "That can be anything from hippies growing weed who live somewhere without any soldiers and do projects with the local Bedouins, through to places where they are basically taking pot shots at Palestinians all day. So I'm expecting different reactions. But many settlers live very isolated lives. I think I'll hear from them in a bigger way when 'This Place' goes to Tel Aviv next year."

And did Waplington become the left-winger the Hilltop Youth took him for at Homesh? "In 2007, I wondered whether going to Israel was the right thing to do. I decided it was OK to be there as long as you were dealing with the issues. My understanding of the issues changed dramatically over time. At first I believed in a two-state solution but I realised that's just a game the Israelis play for Western consumption so they can maintain the status quo. I am now hopeful of a one-man, one-vote, single-state solution where everyone, Jews and Arabs, are citizens in one country.

"I actually think the settlers' desire to remain in the West Bank makes that more possible. Under a two-state solution, many of them would have to leave Palestine; in a one- state solution, they would get to stay. And the thing about the settlers is, they really want to stay."

'Settlement' by Nick Waplington is published by Mack, priced £50

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