Taking a Stand

Photographer Miki Kratsman has been one of the leading chroniclers of Palestinian life in the territories. Increasing acclaim and recognition for his work won't lessen his focus on injustice.

For three decades, Miki Kratsman has been documenting the occupied territories. His photographs consistently uncover personal stories and simultaneously bring into harsh focus the violent mechanisms of Israel's occupation regime. His images have become the visual aspect of the political and moral discourse that has emerged in Israeli print journalism, in academe and in culture. In the same way as this discourse both coined and instilled into the collective Israeli consciousness terms such as nakba - meaning "catastrophe" in Arabic, the Palestinians' term for their experience in 1948 - Kratsman's photographs have become a language, a visual reservoir of concepts. It is both surprising and an occasion for rejoicing that he is one of the recipients of the 2011 Emet Prize (for excellence in science, art and culture ) under the auspices of the prime minister.

Kratsman, who heads the photography department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, was informed on July 31 that he was being awarded the Emet Prize in the category of culture and art (together with Prof. Hanan Laskin, the scholar and historian of photography). The prize carries a total cash award of $1 million (to be divided among eight recipients ) and is funded by the A.M.N. Foundation, which, according to the Emet website, "was founded in 1999 by a group of Latin American friends of Israel." Not only is this the first time the prize - which has been awarded since 2002 - is going to a photographer, but the previous winners have mainly been figures rooted in the establishment. Kratsman will receive the award at a ceremony in November.

Miki Kratsman - David Bachar
David Bachar

"I myself am extremely surprised," the 52-year-old photographer says. "At a time when there is a cabinet minister like [Avigdor] Lieberman here and there are people who understand his logic and no one goes into the streets to demonstrate against the terrible things he is doing, I am suddenly getting a prize. I still haven't been able to fathom the mechanism that makes this possible," he admits, his astonishment tempered with happiness. The prize committee consisted of Israel Museum photography curator Nissan Perez; his counterpart from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Nili Goren; and the head of the photography department at Camera Obscura School of Art, Ariel Yannay-Shani.

This has been a hugely significant year in Kratsman's career, both locally and internationally. Before the Emet Prize announcement, he was informed that he was this year's recipient of the prestigious Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography by the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. And next January his work will be exhibited at MUSAC, the museum of contemporary art in Leon, Spain.

"I feel like I have a split personality," he says, referring to the various different projects he is working on. As part of the Peabody fellowship, Kratsman is producing three series of photographs. He is continuing to work on the "Targeted Killing" series, in which he photographs the Palestinian village of Issawiya from Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, using the same type of lens with which remotely-piloted aircraft (drones ) are equipped. He is returning to photographs he took in 2007 in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, asking the subjects to indicate who among the figures in the photos has since been killed. And he is photographing a series of shahids (martyrs ), including posters of them and objects related to the event in which they died - a project he likens to the work of the police criminal investigation department.

In Spain, he will show one of his most riveting and ambitious projects, which deals with an attempt to examine the archival dimension of his work. "I have been creating a body of work for 26 years," he explains, "but what actually turns it into an archive? What selection can I come up with?"

The project had its genesis in Kratsman's search for a way to interweave the private and public aspects of his work. To this end, he frequented the Beit Ariela library in Tel Aviv and photographed from the newspapers the photos he himself had taken, but without the captions or the context in which they were published.

"I realized that the point at which I lost control of the image was interesting: what the graphic artist did with the photo, the size in which it was published, the interpretation it received from the offset technician and so on."

To date he has accumulated some 4,000 photographs of this kind, which will be exhibited in the museum in Spain alongside other series. The archive will be shown in three simultaneous screenings, with each frame appearing for 15 seconds. "This is a project which I know from the outset will not be able to be seen in its entirety," he admits.

An act of suicide

Kratsman has been head of the photography department at the Bezalel Academy for the past five years. His appointment took many people by surprise, for a variety of reasons. First, for many years he was labeled a press photographer. Second, in contrast to most of his professional colleagues, Kratsman is not a graduate of the usual tracks and had never taught at Bezalel. In addition, his social and political worldview, which is reflected in his work, is generally incompatible with the prevailing mood in the major Israeli institutions.

Would you say that between the Bezalel appointment and the Emet Prize, the establishment came to terms with your existence?

"I believe that everything happened despite and not because of my approach. People might say, and justly, that it's fashionable to be a political artist, but the important question is: Political in what way? Take the tent protest movement. It's terrific to identify with them, there is no one who can't identify with them. I speak the truth exactly as others do; the question is what we will agree on. Most people do not agree with what I say. People have a problem talking about what threatens them, and I am happy that this preoccupation has not blocked my path. That too says something about our society."

Of the current social protest, Kratsman adds, "I am ambivalent about what is happening. On the one hand, it makes me very happy that people are going into the streets with thoughts that are not concentrated on themselves alone, that the discussion goes beyond each person's budget, that they are talking about changing the system. That is all very positive. On the other hand, the desire for everyone to take part closes the door to me. I cannot demonstrate for social causes together with people who live across the Green Line."

What did you think when you took up your post at Bezalel?

"The viewpoint is very different on the inside and the outside - suddenly there is no connection between the two. I admit that I was fixated in my view that Bezalel clones artists, but I don't accept that now."

And after five years in the department?

"I think that for a few years the sphere of photography in general, and in the context of Bezalel more particularly, has been in a place of unsatisfied curiosity. There is an ongoing examination. I see how it's impossible to satisfy the students; they are always looking for something else, they rebel over questions of exhibits, of what and how they study. It's part of the postmodern thrust, but more in its sense as a form of action rather than an ideology."

Kratsman has far-reaching plans for the department, but institutions like this are known for their ponderous mechanisms and bureaucracies. The first thing he declared at the start of our meeting was, "From now on, only women will be accepted as lecturers in the department, no more men." Before his arrival, there was a flagrant absence of women in the department, but he has gradually brought in the photographers Ilit Azoulay and Anna Yam along with the poet and editor Yaara Shehori.

He also thinks that the photography students have too many class hours. "In the respected institutions of Europe, from which the most interesting photography has come for a long time, the class load is 15 to 20 percent less than ours," he notes.

It can be argued that the profile of the Israeli student differs from that of his European counterpart.

"That's true," Kratsman agrees. "Here, the students come from the army, some of them get married during their studies, there are cultural gaps and the accessibility to art is different. After all, the study of art in high schools has just been abolished, a move which I see as an act of suicide by the state." Some of his ambitions have come to fruition, but he would be happy to add more. An example is a joint course with students from East Jerusalem, in which students go to the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood or to the abandoned village of Lifta in order to take pictures.

Where I stand

Kratsman has been interested in photography since his adolescence. After his army service he attended the Kiryat Ono College of Photography. His first job as a photographer was at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv. He then joined the staff of the (now defunct ) newspaper Hadashot. "I came to press photography from a place that is totally activist and political," he says. "At first, photography interested me as a means to make a statement. My love of photography as a medium, as a tool, as life, as a universe worth venturing into and not only to use as substance, developed in the course of my photographic activity."

Following the closure of Hadashot in 1993, Kratsman became a photographer for Haaretz and Gideon Levy's associate for the weekly Twilight Zone column, which is their joint product. In addition, Kratsman worked for the weekly Tel Aviv newspaper Ha'ir and taught at Camera Obscura, the College of Geographic Photography and in Tel Aviv University's art department. Comparing his press work and his artistic endeavors, Kratsman says, "I am happy to have the option to publish photographs in the paper. I enjoy the cheap distribution of these products. In the gallery I enjoy the way it removes things from their context. The difference is that as soon as a photo gets into a newspaper, it appears within a context."

As for the technological transformations in his field of work, he notes, "I photograph with film for my work and use digital photography for the newspaper. I like the interpretation of film more, I like to hold the film in my hand, I like the fact that there are not many frames in every roll and I like the fact that it costs money."

One of the benchmarks in the development of Kratsman's awareness of the complexity of the act of photography can be dated to 1994, in his first solo show, held at the Bograshov Gallery in Tel Aviv. "It was there that I saw for the first time what had developed earlier, and at the same time my awareness of a thrust of investigation within the world of photography arose following encounters with people like the photographer Daniel Morzinsky and with scholars such as Ariella Azoulay and Haim Lusky, who suddenly offered a different reading to mine for images I had created. They confronted me with questions that had never concerned me until that moment - suddenly a new world opened up."

That world is in effect a fusion of the two worlds he had dichotomized for years; now he received legitimization to integrate them. "From an early age I read a great deal of philosophy, but I had never connected the world of photography to that," he says. "From a certain stage, that first world became a test case that was applied in regard to every significant aspect of life and photography. Suddenly the question of where I stood when taking a photograph did not stem from what would benefit the picture, but functioned at the moral level."

The result was that his attitude toward photography became more complex, perhaps more conflicted. A case in point is the series of photographs he took on Route 443 - which connects the center of the country to Jerusalem via the West Bank - around the year 2000. "I found myself facing mounds of rocks that blocked the entrance to a Palestinian village along the road and I asked myself, 'Rabak, where I am supposed to take the shots from? From the place of those that close people in, or from the place of those who are closed in?' That decision is not aesthetic, but ethical."

Similarly, in the course of his newspaper work he was preoccupied by questions of what was or was not fit to be photographed and whether the subjects of the photos were being exploited.

Don't all the limitations and parameters that precede the act of photography create an obstacle?

"Things get complicated. It all comes down to resolutions. I took the picture, a negative or a file has to be exhibited - how do I go about it? How do I emerge in an orderly way from the process that creates the object, from this item that had a particular source? How do I go about hanging it on the wall, deciding the number of copies, creating a text for it and fixing a price? All this is part of the package that is the DNA of the photograph, which you meet the first time you held a camera.

"In this sense, photography is very different from the other arts. It's a bastard. It has no parents, it is really a kind of natural phenomenon. After all, photography was discovered; it is something between a discovery and an invention and is still seeking its path. Even though someone declares every few years that 'photography is dead,' it is one of the most active fields in art."

Kratsman has not only been photographing the occupation for many years but also taking an active part in the struggle against it. He does so by means of his photographic work and his teaching, and he was one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, an organization that collects testimonies from soldiers about their service in the territories. Kratsman was also the first to take photographs from the point of view of soldiers in the territories - literally, over their shoulders - and thus contributed to the understanding that we, too, the viewers of the pictures, are occupiers and part of the occupation.

How do you deal with all the ethical dilemmas you mentioned? You photograph people and exhibit them in newspapers or on gallery walls and the works have a price tag and so forth.

"I find solutions. In some cases the solutions are a type of response to the need of these people or this society to manifest themselves internationally. Sometimes, when I told people in the territories that I was an Israeli photographer they were disappointed - they preferred a photographer from abroad, because the results are more widely distributed."

Do you tell the subjects of the photographs that their portraits will appear in exhibitions?

"No. In 2003, in connection with the exhibition 'Control,' which was a joint collaboration with David Reeb, I told one of the subjects that his portrait was on view at the Israel Museum. He asked me what a museum is. I replied that a museum is like a large gallery. 'What is a gallery?' he asked."

Across the fence

Gideon Levy, a member of the editorial board of Haaretz, laughs and says, "Miki is a delightful guy, but he just doesn't know how to take pictures." Beyond the black humor that developed between the two, Levy notes, "Miki is definitely the most ideological and most determined photographer I know, and with every fiber of his being. He influenced a great many photographers in Israel and allowed them to dare to follow in his footsteps. He is a totally political animal and for him photography is an ideological act. If newspapers consist of reporters and publicists, Miki is undoubtedly of the second type." According to Dr. Tal Ben Zvi, a curator and the head of the school of arts at Seminar Hakibbutzim College, Kratsman "does not draw a distinction between the aesthetic photographic realm and the political realm. His photography operates in the public space, on the ground, and in contrast to many artists, he has no problem with the political labeling." He works consistently from a commitment "to keep the occupation, the territories, the Palestinians and the relevant geography within Israeli art in a way that no artist has done for many years. Over and above the importance of any particular frame, this constitutes an ongoing activity and a moral stance which holds that none of those subjects must be allowed to disappear from our view for even a minute."

In the 2005 documentary series "Frame Story: 100 Years of Art in Israel," in the chapter dealing with Kratsman's photographs and Reeb's paintings, which were greatly nourished by them (and exhibited at the Israel Museum in 2003 ), Kratsman says, "I think the Israeli viewer of the images prefers to treat the subject of the photographs as a stranger, as someone on the other side of the fence, as invisible. The cooperation between us also projects a message of 'It is not us and them, it is a somewhat more comprehensive, broader us, it is them within the us.'"

Kratsman notes that the experience of working with Levy is extraordinary: "There are experiences you share with someone, and from that moment the world is forever divided into before and after the experience. I think that the time our car was fired on in Tul Karm [in the West Bank] was an event like that. We got out of the car and saw all the bullet holes. An experience like that creates a bond. At the same time, my work with Gideon is like two miners: they have a routine, they go down with the elevator, do their work and then they each go home. The continuity across the many years is weightier than the experience together."

Both Kratsman and Levy attach great importance to the mass of accumulated work. "I understood that effectiveness lies in persistence and in preservation," Kratsman explains. "In the most natural way I started to take pictures in a way that reflects that approach. I wanted the photographic activity to concentrate less on the specific case and be more generic in character, to refer to a phenomenon. I started to take more of an interest in the architectures of place than in specific people."

How do you turn a photographic portrait into something generic?

"A portrait can be generic in the wake of the way a person positions himself in front of the camera or the place at which I photograph him. I am not certain that the basic assumption - that the person I photographed is the actual subject - is always correct. I am now taking a great many images of shahids and removing them from their context, and it is hard for me to distinguish between the elderly person in the picture and my Russian-born grandfather. The two portraits are photographed in identical fashion."

Total erasure

It seems only natural to make a connection between Kratsman's photographs, which deal in part with consciousness both genuine and false, and his personal story as a migrant. He was born in Buenos Aires into a Zionist family that lived within a closed, insular society. An iconic blue-and-white Jewish National Fund box - in which families put money earmarked for the Jewish homeland - stood in his grandfather's home. He also planted trees in Israel via the JNF. "I am still looking for them, but no one can tell me where they are," he says.

After his parents suffered a major economic blow they decided to start over in Israel. They immigrated in 1971, when Kratsman was 12. From the boat they were taken to Lod, where they spent six months before moving to Kiryat Ono. He and his partner, the fashion designer Dorin Frankfurt - he did the shoots for several of her collections - live in Ramat Gan.

"I remember the discussions about what we would take along," Kratsman says, recalling the period of the family's move to Israel. "Because the Jewish Agency offered a lot of space for shipping, my parents decided to take everything. Whatever would fit so we wouldn't have expenses in Israel. But they forgot to take glasses, and for half a year we drank from a cup."

The Zionist fantasy was shattered for him in Israel when he was still a teenager. "The change in my consciousness of the place started early," he says. "I became acquainted with the issue of the occupation at the age of 15-16 through people I met in Avant-garde," a branch of the radical-left Matzpen organization.

Despite his political awareness, Kratsman, like most of those from his generation, served in the army without thinking that there was any other option. "I entered the army because everyone entered the army." In light of this, it is not surprising that the concept of "place" preoccupies him. He wrote the entry for the term in "Mafteah" (Key ), a lexical journal for political thought. He noted that in 2006 he taught photography in the southern town of Ofakim as part of a project of Mifal Hapayis, the national lottery.

"Ofakim of 2006 looked to me like Lod of 1971, the year in which I immigrated to Israel with my family and we were sent to a center for new immigrants in Lod," he wrote. "It was a sharp transition. The same tenements, shopping centers and courtyards that made promises that were never kept."

Another example of fascinating thought about place and about the photographer's role in documenting "what was there," in Roland Barthes' words, is Kratsman's joint harrowing project with the artist Boaz Arad. The two photographed the site of Ein al-Zeitun, just north of Safed, where, according to testimonies, dozens of Palestinian men were thrown - their hands and legs bound - into a pit in 1948, left there for two days and massacred.

"When you get to a place like Ein Zeitun and want to shoot an event that is not in the place, and you are not entirely sure where the place is, you have to use methods akin to those of archaeologists or detectives," Kratsman wrote in Mafteah. "It is an attempt to trace an event, to ask where it was: Within this area, where would it be fitting to execute 70 bound people?"

Kratsman elaborates today: "What interests me is the story of this place, how concepts become rooted, how a myth is forged, a consensus, what lies on the margins of the story. I have been dealing with the territories for many years, but more recently I have started to think more in terms of 1948. Suddenly the division of 1967 is no longer exclusive; you understand that it is not just a matter of a geographical division but also one of time."

Another essential term in his work is "reenactment." Kratsman and Arad created a work called "Mifkad" (census, or roll call ), deriving from reflections on the Holocaust and from the statement "Every person has a name" (the title of a work by the Israeli poet Zelda ). The project they devised was to photograph people who stated their name and at a highly charged, bustling site: the Carmel produce market in Tel Aviv. Shortly afterward there was a terrorist attack there. "We didn't have the courage to check the names, for fear they would be in the video," Kratsman says. In another joint work, "21:40" (9:40 P.M. ), they shot a reenactment of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in which passersby took part.

Some people say that we have become inured to horrors because of their ubiquitous presence in life and in the media.

"There were times when I thought that was what was happening to me. But when I feel angry, I feel angry. If I go on feeling angry, that means I have not developed indifference. As of now, I am very, very angry."

And despairing?

"I am optimistic."