Shooting Israel / Stranger in a Strange Land

Martin Kollar is the youngest of the artists participating in the photographic project organized by Frederic Brenner. His stay here was just one more chapter of a life in perpetual motion.

The photographic subjects of Martin Kollar, the angle at which he captures them, and the manner in which he puts them in the frame - all are aimed at capturing the moment and telling the story. The results are generally pictures of the kind that make us raise an eyebrow, laugh or fidget uncomfortably.

The photograph presented here was taken at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, one of Kollar's favorite locations during the nine months he spent working in Israel as part of the international photography project "Shooting Israel."

Kollar - Martin Kollar - January 2012
Martin Kollar.

"The Weizmann Institute is a special place that is in a special land. When you enter there you feel like on another planet," he said this week in a telephone conversation from the Czech Republic.

"I found situations there that seemed completely normal in the eyes of the staff, but to the outside observer are strange and special," he added. "This is what I try to do in pictures: to get people to look, to start to think, to try and understand 'what is it supposed to be,' and to create a new story each time. I always try to reference science fiction movies - to combine reality with abnormal situations, in order to create a picture that anyone can take in any possible direction."

Last week we published in this spot a photograph by the American photographer Rosalind Solomon, 81, who was the eldest participant in the project. Kollar, who turns 41 this year, was the youngest. Working with famous super-photographers was also an opportunity for him to learn a thing or two.

"I was familiar with them from books about the history of photography. People like Josef Koudelka, Jeff Wall, Stephen Shore and Thomas Struth. And suddenly I got to meet them, work alongside them on the same project, and participate in discussions with them. The big names soon turned into people, and I learned from them not only on a professional level, but also on a human one," he said. "It is a different generation. To spend time with them was a bonus for me. In general, in the history of photography, there have been only a handful of projects of this sort."

The differences are evident not only in their ages, but also in their work methods. Whereas Solomon photographs only in black-and-white and prints her photos in a darkroom at her studio, Kollar works exclusively with a digital camera.

"I like working with the current technology. In 2011, I use technology from 2011. The outcome reflects the digital way of looking at the world," he said.

In the iPhone and Facebook age anyone can photograph anything and display his wares for the entire world to see within seconds. Does that intimidate you as a digital photographer?

"That debate exists, of course, but by the same degree I can say that everyone knows how to read and write today. Does that make anyone a writer? No. The same goes for photography. You can shoot, but that still doesn't make you a photographer. It's very simple."

He likens the digital revolution to the political revolution he experienced in person. "I was 18 when communism fell. I was born and lived in Czechoslovakia - a country that doesn't exist anymore. In general, all my life I experienced transitional periods. The same thing happened to me with photography. I grew up on black-and-white, and then I began working with color. After that, came video and digital photography. I am never stuck with just one technology."

In the late 1990s, after working as a cameraman on several movies, he began working on his first photography project: documenting Eastern European countries during an era of change: "Communism collapsed, Western values tried to find their way into the Eastern part. It was a beautiful and interesting period," he recalled.

For four years he skipped back and forth from his home in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia.

"I photographed people during their leisure time. I wanted to see what they do when they don't have to do anything. How they pass the time. How they entertain themselves," Kollar explained.

The result of his investigation was a book called "Nothing Special," which was published as a book in France and Germany in 2007. Perusing the photos, which are also posted on his website ( ) makes the irony of the title immediately apparent: On the face of it, there really is nothing special, but in actuality, everything is special.

Kollar likens the process that took place in the countries released from the yoke of communism to a water bottle that has been given a good shake: At first it is hard to see the water inside through the glass, because everything is in motion. Then there is a period of fermentation, which creates something new. In the end the water settles, becomes translucent and returns to a normal state.

"I photographed these people at a time when they had already begun returning to normalcy, but everything was still in motion. Nothing was static," he said.

Is that how you felt in Israel too?

"Exactly. Like everything else, Israel is not a finished thing, but rather an organism that is in constant change. The Israel of today is completely different from the one of the '80s, and the one that will be in 20 years. By the way, I come from a small country, too, but whereas Israel has great influence in the world and everyone hears about it in the news every day, nobody knows where Slovakia is. That's impressive, no?"

Kollar's life, like his photographs, is in perpetual motion. He has no fixed abode. "I am in an ongoing transition period," he said on the phone. "I was living in Berlin until the end of the year. Now I am about to move to Paris. I'm not in one spot." Another project he has been working on for the past few years is documenting the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg.

"It's an enormous complex, like a spaceship, that is isolated from the outside world, but its decisions directly affect my life," he said. "I was amazed to discover that even though we are talking about a place that we all know, I had no picture of it in my head from the inside. I had never seen what it looks like inside," he added.

And what did you find?

"That it is very boring there. Nothing is going on there visually, only mentally."

A glance at some of the pictures that Kollar's lens has produced suggests that his last statement deserves to be taken with a grain of salt.