This soldier is not disguised as anything. He is camouflaged. But he looks like Alice Cooper. Like Gene Simmons from the rock band Kiss. Like a bird. Like a tribal dancer.
He looks outlandishly weird, even in comparison to the camouflage colors of some of the other soldiers. This is a distinctive soldier, possessing a personal imprint, with a Maori face and a strong, standout mask, its white stripes snaking into his nose. Unlike the other soldiers in the mixed-gender Caracal Battalion, photographed on February 14 on the 23-kilometer march that completed their training, he is looking at the camera. His eyes stare out from the black mask, his teeth are white, and protrude.
Two-thirds of the battalion’s soldiers are women. This image, then, does not necessarily depict the battalion, but portrays this particular soldier and his personality as it is captured here, notably an artistic bent that has led him to render white stripes precisely in order to create an optical illusion. And since this is a mainly female battalion, on his left a female soldier has also camouflaged her face in black and white, but with a stripe painted along her nose, her shiny hair collected under her cap, and a symbol painted on the back of her left hand.
In the past decade, soldiers have been a subject of endless observation in Israeli photography, mostly in two basic situations: when they are among themselves, operating in their peer groups, training, resting, sleeping, simulating battle conditions; and when they are outside their peer groups, confronting others, not in training, and in the presence of people against whom force is wielded. It’s not just what the soldier is doing that’s important, but the way the photographer looks at him, so that when the action is portrayed − for example, the way in which each soldier places his hand on the head of the soldier ahead of him, as part of a protocol − the question is who is looking and how.
When Pavel Wolberg observes that gesture − as in his 2002 shot of helmeted soldiers standing in a circle in the dark of night in Nablus, or his shot of soldiers sitting in a circle in their undershirts playing a social game on the northern border in 2006, he portrays set faces and expressions, arms and chest hair, generating alienation and unease amid childlike game-playing. He depicts intimacy alongside a lack of awareness, a search for connection and consolation juxtaposed with loneliness and ambiguity. It’s a dream-logic reality in which threatening and non-threatening “others” are present, albeit unseen, and it also tells the life stories of the soldiers themselves, from before they were in uniform. They are depicted like circles of dancers in modern art, but also like POWs in war photos − everything doubled and redoubled, complex, relative.
The work of Ziv Koren − who regularly photographs soldiers training in their units, as in his well-known “Paratroopers Near Gaza” series − offers a different gaze, and the values of the photographs are also different. These are heroes who have no story as such, only as part of a cooperative effort, from an organization that possesses might and coordination and uniformity, and is out to drill fearlessness, daring and momentum, based on the assumption that people know all along what the goal of their action is. He depicts people who embody an exalted image of “perfect” soldiers. They are not left each to his own anxieties, but appear satisfied, brimming with strength, pleased at taking part in a huge drill − and therefore always look large, quite large.
The shot here, taken by Darren Whiteside of Reuters, acts in the space between those two ways of observing soldiers. In any event, it appears to be divorced from the mindset that triggers emotional mechanisms of identity, love, guilt and responsibility, which arise while observing a soldier “of ours” in a photograph and in life. This is a simple photograph in the emotional sense: it does not aggrandize the soldier, but also does not truly examine the situation in which he finds himself. It shows a group of male and female soldiers from the battalion, focused on the trek, their heads bent, as a background to the fixed gaze-back of this soldier, who has also painted his upper lip black and thereby created a bared-teeth effect. Only the wrinkle beneath the black coloration of the masking suggests the tension that grips him, the effort. This soldier looks worried, stressed. But maybe that too is the mindset of the observer.