January 4, 2013 7:39 pm

Conflict zones

The Berlin Wall showed us that peace begins where walls fall – not where they are erected. But many barriers still separate countries and communities around the world
A section of the Israeli-built West Bank Barrier in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Abu Dis. Occupied Palestinian territories, March 2004©Kai Wiedenhöfer

A section of the Israeli-built West Bank Barrier in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Abu Dis. Occupied Palestinian territories, March 2004

In 1989, as a first-year university student, I photographed the fall of the Berlin Wall in my hometown. It was the most exciting and positive political event I’ve ever witnessed, the symbol of the downfall of the USSR as a superpower and the end of a world order that had shaped our lives for almost half a century.

During that time most people believed, as I did, that this would be the end of walls as a political instrument. Twenty years later I have been proved wrong. Walls have had a big comeback. In the aftermath of political, economic, religious and ethnic conflicts, border barriers have gone up again in the US, Europe and the Middle East. People have to arrange their lives around them.

Between 2003 and 2006, I photographed the erection of the separation barrier in the occupied Palestinian territories (published in my book Wall). After this, I expanded the theme into a comprehensive project about borders worldwide in order to stress that walls and border fences are no solution to today’s global political and economic problems. The Berlin Wall was proof of this – peace begins where walls fall, not where they are erected.

The simplest reaction to a perceived problem is to build a barrier, to separate oneself, to cut oneself off from the others. A barrier is the proof of human weaknesses and error, the inability of human beings to communicate with each other. Where communication is restricted, a solution to the conflict becomes impossible, because behind walls the assumptions and beliefs of an enemy can grow out of all proportion.

Human beings are not made for a life in border situations. Borders mean stress, even fear: “I’m here. You are there.” Borders allocate us to places; warn us to stay away. They remind me of jewellers with their electronically protected display windows showing enticing riches that for most of us are beyond reach.

Man-made borders run between ideologies, between rich and poor, religion and race. Their significance is not just geographic, it operates in our minds. This is the worst aspect of a barrier, that people develop the attitude of border defenders: those on the outside are bad; those on the inside are good. One can be far away from the border; it is enough to have it internalised and to follow the logic and rules it imposes. As Churchill put it: “First we shape our buildings and then the buildings start to shape us.”

Globalisation promised us the dissolution of borders. But globalisation is deceptive: it enlarges markets but also insecurity in the world. While capital moves freely, people do not. Many have been unable to participate in the benefits of economic globalisation, and the gap between rich and poor is widening.

I want to show the conflict that is inherent in borders. On the one hand, we long for unconditional boundlessness, perhaps because the major world religions describe paradise this way, perhaps because economic globalisation (our de facto religion) demands it. On the other, we feel lost in the boundlessness, and want to separate, distinguish ourselves, our culture, our community. While we may admire charity, we are not ready to share our wealth.

Though fundamentally documentary in character, this project aims to illuminate the psychology of borders, to raise questions and probe our experiences. Many of us feel we are mere spectators. This project intends to reveal us as participants, sometimes unwilling, but participants nonetheless. While barriers are a protection, they are also a cage; while being shields, they are also traps. This is an appeal to talk more and try to understand the people on the other side. It even extends to our own lives, where we often build little walls in our surroundings and personal relationships and fail to look outside. Let us practise the slogan of the Berlin demonstrators from 1989 in our everyday lives: “Die Mauer muss weg – the wall has to go.”

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Valerio Vincenza: Borderlines

Gary Knight: Homeland security

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