All Along the Watch Tower – Some Thoughts on Donovan Wylie’s and Taysir Batniji’s Watch Towers
“There must be some kind of way out of here,” said the joker to the thief (…) “No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke. “There are many here among us, who feel that life is but a joke.”
All along the watch tower, Jimi Hendrix.
The joker in the famous song by Jimi Hendrix is on a fool’s quest. The whole point of being under the watch tower’s gaze is that there is no escape. The thief has already realized this and has resigned himself to his fate. Nonetheless, the joker can still taunt the observers, still subvert their gaze. This seems to be the point of Taysir Batniji’s images of the Israeli watch towers in the Palestinian Territories. They were established by the Israeli army to observe and therefore control the movements of the Palestinian population. Inspired by the visual similarity with the German water towers depicted by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Batniji decided to record these military outposts in a similar way. Indeed, the pictures show the towers in black and white, they are photographed up front, and they completely fill the frame. As a result the location of the watch towers is completely unclear, as the surrounding landscape is almost entirely excluded from the composition. Presented adjacent to each other, the similarities and the differences between the various outposts become abundantly clear, just as with the water towers typologies. At first sight, Batniji’s images look as neutral as the photographs by the Bechers.
But here the similarity with the Bechers ends. Upon closer inspection, Batniji’s images look rushed. Most of them are out of focus, some are pixellated. They seem to be snatched at opportune moments, taken by a photographer who has managed to get close without getting noticed. They betray a point, shoot and run tactic. In fact, because of the restrictions on his movements, Batniji has had to ask another photographer to take the pictures in his stead. There could be no careful measuring of the distance to the towers, no time to set up lumbersome equipment, nor waiting for the right light. These pictures form no true typology. Indeed, Batniji’s working method seems to shout defiance. He is not concerned like the Bechers with salvage photography, he is not interested in capturing disappearing forms of architecture out of a sense of nostalgia. Instead, he wants to show the reality of living in the Palestinian Territories here and now.
Even though I recognised the initial visual similarities between the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher and this project by Batniji, my first thought instead was of Donovan Wylie’s work. Especially, his images of British watch towers sprung to mind. In a way, the two photographers have much in common. Both are interested in the architecture of conflict, in power and control, in how nations and borders shape people’s lives and identities. Both were born in areas that have been marked by violence as the result of a conflict between two parts of the population. Conflicts that are too complicated to be understood by a mere outsider like myself. In one way or another, both have tried to get away from that conflict. Batniji, the joker, has almost escaped for real: he currently divides his time between Gaza and Paris. However, many of his projects still deal with the ongoing struggle between the Israeli and the Palestinians and its impact on a personal level. Wylie stayed in Northern Ireland, but in the earlier stages of his career tried to focus on other projects and other topics. It was only when The Maze was about to be torn down that he decided to deal with The Troubles photographically. By having captured both The Maze and later on the British watch towers prior to their destruction, Wylie is really the thief of the two.
So unlike Batniji, Wylie has much more in common with the Bechers. His project was to record the watch towers that were built by the British army in Southern Armagh in the 1980s at the height of The Troubles. He embarked on this mission just before they were dismantled as part of the peace process during the early 2000s. Like the Bechers, Wylie is on a nostalgic quest, though his images are much more politically motivated. After all, he tries to record an important part of political history for future reference, not rescue a somehow aesthetically pleasing industrial heritage.
In many of Wylie’s pictures, the watch towers are seen from afar and at the same height as the outposts themselves. Being mostly located in rugged landscapes, they become almost invisible as they blend in with the surrounding rocks and undergrowth. The colours are muted, mostly green, grey and brown. The sky is always overcast. At first sight, the images seem to be rather bland and boring depictions of the Irish countryside. Even though Wylie’s vantage point is at the same level as the watch towers, it is almost as if he cannot not see them. Was this the intention of the British army as well when the outposts were built? If they were not visible, would the locals pretend that they were not really there?
By looking at the outposts at their own level, Wylie is also able to look down on the surrounding territory and the population that the towers controlled up until recently. The images have practically co-opted the viewpoint of the British army. Like the thief, Wylie seems to have resigned himself to the system. However, his pictures change radically in nature when they are taken in an urban setting. Here, he has to get much closer to the watch towers, and he has to look up to them more often. As a result, they become much more visible and difficult to ignore. Wylie has to really engage with what the towers represent: bleakness, menace, pain.
The function of both the watch towers in Northern Ireland as well as in the Palestinian territories is to observe and therefore control the population underneath its gaze. Interesting though is the complete lack of a human presence in both Wylie’s as well as Batniji’s photographs. If there are no people to look at, have the watch towers lost their purpose? Or have the jokers finally found a way out? Have the thieves escaped their fate by going into hiding?