What Hurts, Hurts

How photographers have captured grief.

Tal Niv
Tal Niv
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Ofir Youna, 'Preparations for Independence Day Eve, Ramat Yishai,' 2009, inkjet.
Ofir Youna, 'Preparations for Independence Day Eve, Ramat Yishai,' 2009, inkjet.
Tal Niv
Tal Niv

1. Memorial Day ceremonies. Rows of chairs in waiting for people to come back from a memorial service at the cemetery. Here in the square, like everywhere, a chorus will sing songs of the blessed country and its glory in the evening. In his photograph, Ofir Youna is looking at the towers of chairs, lines, rows. The rows are like trenches, like what’s left after strip mining. I see the palm tree close to the lighting pole has been dealt with. Trimmed. After all, who plants palms? People who are not afraid of being pricked by their fronds.

Youna is a 31-year-old former combat engineer from Ramat Yishai, outside Haifa. A graduate of the Neri Bloomfield/WIZO Haifa Academy of Design and Education and a gifted photographer. This particular frame, shot from his house, signifies his work, yet unlike the rest of it, shows no men. No people. It is not just another Israeli landscape photograph, of places devoid of people – bus stops, dirt trails, army patrol paths, houses, fields, roads – dusty places fraught with vestiges of activity, delineating, perhaps, a map of the Israeli psyche.

Those kinds of images, such as can be seen currently in a large exhibition of works by Sharon Ya’ari at the Tel Aviv Museum, gaze at the Israeli landscape as an arena that arouses fear and despair. Youna’s photograph is not like that, because it is not analytical and because it does not reference Israeli art. It’s a spontaneous shot.

It’s a photo taken by a person for whom Independence Day – when grief turns into celebration – is very important. But someone who also understands that he can, wants to and should observe their effect on him; that he needs to understand what their meaning is and what they exact from him, in comparison to others. Accordingly, he photographs the annual ceremony during which Memorial Day ends and the celebration is announced. This signifier, of empty chairs. Everyone is now in the cemetery and will be back with dirt-stained shoes, and will sit down and sing. But can he come back with them?

While looking at this photograph, I hear the words of Haim Gouri: “Behold, our bodies are laid out in a long, long line” (translation: L.V. Snowman). I’ve only now noticed that he reiterates the injunction “Re’eh” (“Behold,” or “Look”) five times in this well-known poem, which describes the battle in January 1948 in which 35 Israeli soldiers were killed in an ambush – a poem that is read at every memorial ceremony in Israel. I don’t know who will behold, but I hear in my head, “Our faces have altered, death looks from our eyes, we do not breathe.” When I spoke to Youna about the photograph on the phone, I learned that in fact he loves this one best of all. He has it on the wall, framed.

2. Youna told me that in his photography, he address the issue of fathers and sons. His works are now on view – at an exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv called “Forging the Melting Pot,” of works by WIZO Haifa graduates. It a group exhibition, but Youna’s works form an emblematic group of their own.

He attended a regional high school in Moshav Nahalal, similar to one I attended in the Jordan Valley, and where I was once pricked by a frond. He painted as a teenager and was a combat soldier who saw action in the Second Lebanon War in 2006; he then went on to study photography in Haifa. My father was also in a combat engineering battalion; his last war was the first Lebanon war of 1982. I told Youna this and laughed over the phone. Soldiers in those units always count their fingers. To make sure they’re all there, not blown away.

He told me that while he had always painted, he took to photography only after the war. At school he went through the occasional photos he took while serving – and realized he could enhance, show, frame them. Youna shoots a great deal from afar, as with the bathers in Lake Kinneret which appears in the Beit Hatefutsot exhibition. He also shoots people from the back. In a photo he did not even take, two are men looking through a telescope in a hotel room; he tells me that he found it in a roll of film on the street, while walking with his wife. He developed it and now it’s a work by him.

Youna took the picture of the soldiers showering during his army service. It’s an interesting, intimate shot, simultaneously heartwarming, documentary and coarse. Neorealism. It’s a shot that precedes the knowledge he now possesses about this photographic style. It also precedes the general intellectual consensus among scholars that the leading Israeli photographers today are operating within an ongoing trauma: depicting, both in content and style, a wounded, shattered existence. Immersed in mourning.

Youna’s photography is connected to his mode of thought, but unlike the coldly pondering Ya’ari, he is invested. There is nothing alienated in his point of view. His photograph from his time in the Israel Defense Forces was taken literally from within his world. Behold: The weapons in the photo in question are visible, on the left; they are leaning on the wall, in waiting. The lights are covered.

And I remember that Gouri’s poem was instrumental in creating the kernel of the myth of the dead, who hear the living and whose sacrifice was not in vain. “There was no betrayal, our guns are still strapped to us empty of bullets. / They tell of our fight till the end, their barrels are still aflame, / And our blood spattered the path with every step we took.”

From every point of view – ideological as well as moral – the tendency today is to reappraise this poetry as being part of an indoctrination process. But what hurts, hurts.

3. I behold the face of Nariman Tamimi, from Nabi Saleh, in Abbas Momani’s photograph from December 2011, while she was receiving condolence calls after the death of a relative; he had taken a direct hit from a tear-gas canister fired at close range from a jeep at which he was throwing stones. This is the Gouri in Momani’s photograph. Her perfectly rounded face, the soft facial features. Her tear is crystalline. I don’t think about who is suffering more today. Or less. What hurts, hurts.

The exhibition “Forging the Melting Pot,” on through May 30, is a joint project of the Neri Bloomfield/WIZO School of Design and Education in Haifa, and Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv. Curators: Amit Zoller, Yaakov Israel

Abbas Momani, 'Nariman Tamimi from Nebi Saleh Receiving Condolences,' December 2011.
'Youth,' 2011, inkjet (from the Beit Hatefutsot exhibition).
'Army Shower,' color photo, 2006, BAAD Collection (courtesy of the artist).