A friend once called him the “paparazzi of unimportant people.” Erez Kaganovitz corrected her. “I told her I was actually the paparazzi of the most important people,” he recalls.
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Kaganovitz is the creator “Humans of Tel Aviv,” a photo blog on Facebook that has gained quite a following in recent months – both in Israel and abroad. Like others of the genre, it was inspired by the wildly popular “Humans of New York” photo blog – now a New York Times bestselling book – which features portraits of ordinary and not-so-ordinary locals, accompanied by revealing tidbits about them.
Launched in April 2012, Kaganovitz’s blog has more than 20,500 “likes” today, with followers in Iran, Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt, among other places. Just for the sake of proportion, at last count, “Humans of New York” had more than two million followers on Facebook. But when Al Jazeera broadcast a feature on “Humans of New York” last week, one of the other “Humans” offshoots it spotlighted was Kaganovitz’s Tel Aviv edition.
It’s an idea, says the 32-year-old, that was brewing in his head for years. “I’ve done lots of traveling around the world, and one of the things that always bothered me was how people reacted abroad when I told them I was from Israel,” he relates. “There are so many misconceptions about this place, and we always tend to get lumped together with the other bad countries, like Iran and North Korea. I wanted to be able to show people a different side of Israel – its multiculturalism, its diversity, its very active civil society, all its complexity. But without any whitewashing or pinkwashing.”
Providing a platform for the people of Tel Aviv, he felt, was the best way to make his point. “Contrary to what many people may think, Tel Aviv is not a bubble. It has everything – Hassidim, gays, rich, poor, refugees, homeless and hipsters.”
So one day, when a photo from the “Humans of New York” blog appeared on his Facebook feed, Kaganovitz says he knew he had found his calling.
Besides a passion for photography and a knack for connecting with people on the street and getting them to bare their souls, it turns out that Kaganovitz shares another trait with the southern-born-and-bred Brandon Stanton who created “Humans of New York”: He is not a hometown boy. Kaganovitz grew up in Haifa and found his way to Tel Aviv after completing his studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Today, he lives in the hip south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentine with his wife, Reut, and their four-month-old baby boy.
To date, Kaganovitz has posted roughly 500 photos on “Humans of Tel Aviv,” two of which, he’s proud to report, have been shared on “Humans of New York,” where they naturally went viral. While he does all the shooting and interviewing himself, he says his wife is always there to help him identify potential characters in the street and select photos. Since the project doesn’t bring in any money, he does it in his spare time, when he’s not working crazy shifts as an editor at i24news, the new Israeli-based international television channel.
“I used to be able to devote about two days a week to this, but now with the baby and my new job, I’m lucky if I can take off for a few hours on Friday afternoons,” he laments. But just in case he happens to notice anyone interesting on his way to or from work or in between errands, he makes sure to carry his camera with him wherever he goes.
Since he began approaching strangers in the street a little more than a year-and-a-half ago and asking them to pose for him while answering his often invasive questions, Kaganovitz says he’s gained a newfound appreciation for women. “I’d say this work has turned me into a feminist,” he reflects, “because I’ve seen how women open up so much more readily.”
Something else he’s learned on the job is that his followers don’t necessarily share his own discerning taste. “On Purim, I took this photo of someone dressed up in a monkey costume hanging from a tree on Rothschild Boulevard,” he says. “I didn’t think it was a great photo. In fact, I thought it was kind of stupid. So I was pretty shocked when it got shared like crazy.”