Shooting Israel / Seeing Jerusalem Through the Lens of a Camera

Barbur Gallery in the tiny Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot is hosting a unique photography exhibition though January 12, a project coordinated by the American photographer Wendy Ewald.

On a particularly cold evening last week, several merchants from Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market closed up shop and headed for the nearby neighborhood of Nahlaot. There, in one of the narrow alleyways, they entered a single-story building with a garden that houses a little gallery called Barbur.

The gallery is hosting, through January 12, a unique photography exhibition entitled "Marking the Market," featuring works by 10 owners of stalls and stores in the shuk, each of whom was given a small digital camera and asked to document his daily life during the past year. The results of this photo workshop are colorful, interesting and thought-provoking.

The project was coordinated by the American photographer Wendy Ewald, who has been handing out cameras to other people for the past 40 years. She looks for individuals who have no experience in photography or art, teaches them what she can about being a photographer, and puts them to work. People in the know call this "art and social collaboration" - a combination of social, political, artistic and community-based activity.

Ewald, who turned 60 this year, has already crisscrossed the world with her project. The photographers she has trained are dispersed across the United States, Colombia, Mexico, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, India and the Netherlands. Now the list has grown to include Israel, which she visited several times during the past few years, as part of Frederic Brenner's photography project "Shooting Israel."

Besides the merchants from the Jerusalem market, Ewald's local "representatives" include women from East Jerusalem, gypsies in Jerusalem's Old City, elementary schoolchildren in Nazareth, teenage Jewish girls at a military preparatory program in the south, Palestinians in Hebron, Bedouin from a village in the Negev, employees of a media firm in Tel Aviv, and others.

To them Ewald is more than a photographer. "She is an educator, the sort who helps people see and teaches them to use a camera as a means of expression," says fellow photographer Ronit Porat, who assisted Ewald in her work in Israel.

Ewald says that her method of working, which involves seeing things through the eyes of others as they photograph, yields the kind of photos that she would not be able to get in any other way - "better pictures, which bring me closer to the community and broaden my viewpoint of it."

The Israeli project was the first time that Ewald equipped the participants with digital cameras, and the first time that they produced color photos. "Thanks to the speed of digital photography, I can work with many groups in tandem. The digital focus also makes it possible to do things that couldn't be done before," she says. On the other hand, "in the age of digital photography, people think they know on their own how to use a camera. My job is to teach them how to see - how to pay attention to what they see."

This was also the first time that Ewald chose to document an entire country, the length and breadth of it, as part of a number of parallel projects. Up until now she had focused on just one or two areas in each country where she worked. "Good thing Israel is so small," she says with a smile.

When asked whether there is a common denominator in terms of the amateur photographers she has worked with in Israel and other countries, she thinks for a moment, conjuring up past experiences with places, people and photography.

"I am always surprised and excited by the way people live their lives and the things that they deal with; how they manage to survive, and how strong they are," she says. "These are their lives [in the photos]. They don't perceive themselves as poor, for example, and don't compare their lives to those of others. You don't have to be educated or to live somewhere in particular to take part in a project like this - anyone can express himself."

The Mahane Yehuda merchants were very quick to discover the camera's power, and spoke at the opening of the exhibition last week, about the great change it made in their lives. One of them, a tobacconist named Dadi Mousseri, photographed his regular customers. The camera permitted him, for the first time, to talk to them and even ask for their names.

"This one ultra-Orthodox man who comes in here once a week, buys cigarettes and leaves - we never exchanged a word. I asked him to pose for a picture, and even asked him his name," Mousseri said as he pointed to a portrait of one of the customers in his shop.

His colleague in the marketplace, Yossi Mizrahi, owns a popular nuts and seeds store. Mizrahi's brother Eli has a fashionable pub/coffee shop there - one of those places that even draw bon vivants from Tel Aviv. Yossi chose to photograph, among others, his neighbor, Dover, taking a nap at his vegetable stand. "He used to have a butcher shop, but it didn't meet the health codes, so the Ministry of Health shut it down, and now he sells onions," Mizrahi explained.

Another part of Ewald's Israel project is a series of photographs taken at a remarkable military preparatory program for religious girls. The program, called Tzahali, is held on Moshav Massuot Yitzhak, near Ashkelon. Six of the young women there agreed to document their lives with Ewald's cameras.

"We accompanied them for the duration of the program, almost a year. We wanted to see how their lives, having come from religious families, change as they prepare to enlist in the army," Ewald explains.

Another group that took part was made up of Arab women from East Jerusalem. "At first they were suspicious and were not keen to cooperate. But the moment they began working, they also began talking," Ewald recalls.

"Many of them felt that nobody listens to them. Now, through photography, they gained confidence," adds Ronit Porat.

Ewald's amateur photographers, spread out around the country, have so far provided her with some 20,000 pictures.

"I taught them to look around, to use the frame and move the camera. I gave them simple assignments: to photograph the family or a holiday celebration, for example. Then we met, looked at the works and discussed them together. In the final stage I go over the pictures, select and edit the best ones," she explains. Eventually they will be among those shown in the final exhibition of the "Shooting Israel" project organized by Brenner, in 2013.

As for herself, Ewald says her perspective of Israel has undergone a process since her first visit. "I was afraid to come here. I perceived Israel as black and white," she says. "Now I have a much better understanding of the complexity of this place, its layers. Previously, I didn't really understand the meaning of a country where everyone comes from somewhere else and what that actually said about them," she adds.

Last week Ewald wrapped up her current visit to Israel and went home to New York to spend the Christmas vacation.

"We thought initially that they would do this only for a short period, until the project ended. But some of them asked to go on," Ewald says, "so we are continuing to accompany them. On the other hand, obviously we will have to stop at some point."