Picture Story

Rina Castelnuovo Hollander has been photographing Israel's wars for major interna tional media outlets for 25 years, but has always remained out of the public eye. Now, with her photos on show in Tel Aviv, she talks about her risky profession for the first time.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

Three small dogs bark nonstop as she makes her way from the yard up to the attic. The light outside is fading, and photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo Hollander lights a cigarette. She is wearing black, a contrast to the gauzy white curtains that cover the windows of her attic-cum- office. She didn't sleep last night. Her laptop strains and groans while she talks about the photos she took before dawn at Ketziot Prison in the Negev desert, and afterward at the Muqata, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, in Ramallah. On the screen are images of exultant just-released Palestinian prisoners, seen through the window of their bus on their way to freedom. Another minute and she has sent the last shot to New York.

For the past 25 years, Castelnuovo Hollander, aged 50-something, has been photographing our wars and other regions in crisis. During her impressive career she has shot dozens of cover stories for Time, Newsweek and People, and for the German magazine Stern. She documented the revolution in Romania in 1989, which ended with the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, the humanitarian crisis of the Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, the two Lebanon wars and the two intifadas. Her photos have twice - in 1982 and 2006 - won her the prestigious prize of the Overseas Press Club of America. For the past 14 years, she has been The New York Times' photographer in Israel.

Despite her senior status she has remained in the shadows. "It's by choice," she says, sipping a cup of tea. "I don't like the exposure. I always turn down invitations to appear on television programs. My mother is always telling me: 'All these years you've been working and taking pictures, and no one has ever heard of you here.' But that's the way I like it. I love the anonymity. Maybe today I am going public a little for my mother, so she will be able to show her friends in the coffee shop: 'Look, this is my daughter.'"

Works by Castelnuovo Hollander are now on display through January 12 in an annual photography exhibition called "Edut mekomit" ("Local Testimony") in Dizengoff Center (Building A, 3rd floor) in Tel Aviv, in conjunction with World Press Photo. Her photographs documenting Palestinian children from the Hebron hills were chosen by a team of judges to receive the "Series of the Year" award at the current "Local Testimony" show.

"These children work in the Hebron garbage dump, looking for metals in the refuse," she says about the site, which was also the subject of a "Twilight Zone" column in this magazine by Gideon Levy and photographer Miki Kratsman. "The families take the children out of school and send them to dig around in the garbage for whole days, from morning to night. It's a relatively new phenomenon, one of the byproducts of the security fence. The children's fathers used to work in the construction industry in Israel, but are no longer allowed into the country. There is no work of any kind in the Hebron hills - the families get food from UNRWA [the United Nations relief agency], and the pennies the children earn keep their families going."

She spent two months photographing them: "I had some sad days there. I think I am attracted to suffering. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that I simply cannot ignore the suffering of children. I took the photographs in July and August, the Times article appeared in September, and since then we have been getting donations - people sending checks to the Times bureau in Jerusalem. At first we didn't know what to do with the money. A few days ago, I went back there and distributed the thousand dollars we received. I just show up and hand it out to them and to their parents. I thought the money would get them out of there and back into school, but that didn't happen. They are still going there."

Castelnuovo Hollander, who has three daughters, lives with her American husband, Jim Hollander, a photographer for European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), in the village of Beit Zayit, outside Jerusalem. In her workroom is a large, transparent plastic container containing hundreds of negatives. "I want to transfer them to the computer, but I just never get around to it. The truth is that I am not attached to my photos, and maybe that's why I keep putting it off. The only photos I am attached to are the ones I am working on that day. I'm attached to the photos I take for 12 hours," she says with a smile, as her beeper goes off. "After that I'm not interested. I go on to the next thing."

Her unusual biography begins in Tel Aviv, where she was born. "It was a normal childhood with parents who are Holocaust survivors from Poland," she notes with dry humor. "They were both 10 when the war broke out. My mother went through all the concentration camps in Poland and was finally liberated in Auschwitz. My father hid in a cellar for almost two years, and then his family joined Russian partisans and was saved. He still will not talk about that period. My mother lost her whole family, except for her mother."

She never held a camera as a child. Her passion was for painting. At the age of 16 she wanted to enter art school, but her parents balked and instead sent her to Ironi Heh high school in Tel Aviv. "Those were four shocking years - it was one of the rougher schools at the time. But I didn't give up my dream. I wasn't drafted because of an arthritic condition, and after high school I studied painting in Italy, at the Accademia di Belle Arti, in Rome."

The move to Italy was the beginning of Castelnuovo Hollander's journey into the world of photography. It was made possible in the wake of an encounter in Tel Aviv with a young Italian man from a wealthy Jewish and Zionist family. He had come to Israel for a visit and enlisted in the army; they met and were quickly married. "Naturally a girl from a good home can't go gallivanting around the world by herself; it happened because I married my Italian husband. We were married in Tel Aviv and I gave birth to a daughter when I was 18. We named her Romena. But we soon decided to split up. During the separation period I left Rome and flew to Africa. I spent some time searching for myself, took a break from my studies and flew with my little daughter to Senegal. I traveled around. Nowadays youngsters go to India; I went to Africa. That was where I held a camera in my hand for the first time, where I started to get into it. But nothing special came out of Senegal, and to this day I can't find the pictures."

In 1978 she returned to Rome to complete her studies. It was the year of violent demonstrations by the Red Brigades. "I had a neighbor, Victor Simpson, who was the chief editor of the Associated Press (AP) in Italy - in fact, he still is. Somehow he saw my photographs, I don't even remember how, and said it would be nice if I were to photograph the demonstrations. His daughter, Natasha, who was a good friend of my daughter, was killed in 1985 in the terrorist attack carried out by a Palestinian group at the El Al check-in counter at Rome airport. He helped me a lot, but the photographers in the office were uncooperative; they didn't like my being there. There was even a one-day strike against me. Later they became my best friends."

At the age of 26, having completed her studies, Castelnuovo Hollander returned to Israel after being promised a job in the local AP bureau. She didn't have an easy time there, either. "The bureau chief in Israel was against it. I waited half a year. He was against my joining because he wasn't sure he wanted women in the bureau. That was also the reason for the boycott against me in Rome. Women were a bit foreign in this field. The idea of female photojournalists was not as accepted then as it is today. A female photographer in a bureau of male photographers was a problem back then. I wasn't taken seriously."

The peace agreement between Israel and Egypt had been signed a few years earlier. "The feeling was that we were headed for a period of quiet," she recalls. "But within a short time I was assigned to photograph the first Lebanon War. I was sent from the very first day. I went up north, to [Kibbutz] Gesher Haziv. The journalists broke through the fences and entered Lebanon. There were no land mines then. I started to move around there with all kinds of people. At first I stuck with Eitan Haber, who was the military correspondent of [the daily] Yedioth Ahronoth. Then I wandered around with photographers and with the CBS network crew. I got to Beirut even before the Israeli army conquered the city."

In Beirut she stayed at the Alexander, the photographers' hotel, in the eastern part of the city. "It wasn't a war of missiles, it was a real war. Soldiers moved from house to house, street to street; the gunfire never stopped. The images I see from there are of ruins of buildings and walls riddled with bullets. What I remember most is the nights, because they were long nights of shelling. Red ricochets from live fire flew past my hotel window all night. The windows were shattered. I soon ran out of clothes to wear. I remember that the AP correspondent there brought me clothes of hers all the time. One day I was hurt in a car bomb attack. I was sitting with a few photographers in a cafe and we saw the car lift into the air. I was covered with shrapnel and was treated in an Israel Defense Forces field hospital. When I washed my hair, I would remove bits of shrapnel."

You liked your work that much?

Castelnuovo Hollander: "It wasn't a choice. I didn't fly abroad like other war photographers, who go from one conflict to another. I live here and I cover what happens here. I wasn't mature enough at the time and I didn't understand exactly what I was doing. In that war I suffered from severe nausea before going out to take photos. It was from fear. But when I was shooting pictures, the nausea went away. These days, photography is a different world for me from what it was then. I didn't want to be a war photographer, I just got into it. I was young and naive, and I didn't understand exactly what was going on there."

After Lebanon came the Gaza Strip: a different landscape, same suffering. "It was a painful process, day after day. I suffered tremendously at the sight of the distress. It was also a real risk, because there weren't means of protection like there are today: protective vests and armored cars. I drove the family car from Tel Aviv to Gaza, and the first time my car was stoned was a real shock. Then comes the second time, and the third. Children smashed the windshield as I was driving. Gaza was a nightmare. When your car is attacked you feel a concrete sense of death, when you hear shooting you don't know where it's coming from. At first, my husband and I went to Gaza together to cover all the events of the first intifada, but it was too hard. I started to develop a terrible fear. It was impossible; I couldn't do the job. Instead of shooting pictures, I looked for him the whole time. I couldn't work with him in the same place."

She first met Jim Hollander in Lebanon. They were married in Tel Aviv after the war. New York-born Hollander established the photography department of the Reuters photo agency, and afterward of EPA. "For most of our married life, we spent four months a year apart. He was constantly traveling. He covered all the big stories: the Iran-Iraq war, Afghanistan, coups in a number of African countries. Jim had a big influence on my photography. From him I learned what perspective is. At the start of my career, when I was working for AP, they asked for very simple, clear shots. Jim showed me how to broaden the picture, how to shoot in several layers, see details and work them into the shot. He helped me get color and atmosphere into my photographs."

After the birth of her first two daughters, Castelnuovo Hollander decided to leave AP, devote herself to motherhood and work only as a freelancer. It was in this in-between period that she took some of her landmark photographs. In 1991 she chalked up one of the highlights of her career when she photographed Yasser Arafat at his home in Tunis for Stern magazine. "I had a good connection in Ramallah, and I asked him if it was true that Arafat had married. After that conversation, things developed and he decided to put me in touch with Arafat. Stern paid for the trip - they saw the potential. The New York Times declined to pay, because they knew that everyone who went there took up residence in the Hilton for two or three weeks and waited for Arafat to summon them at midnight for a snap interview. But that was not the case. I went with Mira Avrech, a journalist with Yedioth Ahronoth and a good friend of Shimon Peres. I think that what they liked in Tunis was the match between the two of us and also the indirect connection with Peres."

They flew from Tel Aviv to Vienna, where they met with Arafat's wife, Suha, who made the arrangements for the meeting with the Palestinian leader. "I arrived in Tunis via Tunisair and was seized with a terrible fear, because I suddenly discovered that Mira was flying with a German passport. I had an Israeli passport. I thought the whole point was to fly with an Israeli passport. I was naive. I remember that a black Mercedes waited for us next to the plane when we got off, and also someone who spoke Hebrew. I thought it was Arafat's chauffeur, but afterward I realized that it was Jibril Rajoub [later the West Bank security chief in the Palestinian Authority].

"It was an amazing experience," she continues. "I wanted to see who Arafat was. We met in his home, which was known as 'Suha's house.' I remember that his room reminded me of a monk's cell: only a military cot and an army blanket. He had a cupboard full of pills and there was a Koran next to the bed. Suha's room was pink and nice. I remember finding it funny that there were pink towels in their shower. They hosted us very nicely. We met a few times and we ate lunch and supper in their home."

Was he cooperative during the shoot?

"There was no need to tell him to do things. Everything around was interesting. There were six or more children whom he had adopted, Palestinian orphans. He was responsible for dividing up the food in the house. It was like a ceremony. I remember him saying that he cooked the rice, that he liked it done a certain way. I shot him sitting in his room and working, hugging Suha, with the children, eating watermelon, watching television."

Those were among the first photographs that showed Arafat in a human light. Was that the purpose?

"Yes. I was in an optimistic phase then, and felt that reality could be changed through photography. It was after the first intifada, which officially had not ended, and I thought that maybe something could be done in this way. My good intentions persuaded Arafat to let me come and photograph him. It wasn't a matter of a scoop. I thought there might be a different aspect to his personality which maybe we were not aware of in Israel, and the fact is that I found it there. At the end of the meeting he gave us a letter for Shimon Peres. Years later, Peres wrote that this letter thawed the relations between him and Arafat."

"I met her for the first time when I displayed work by her husband as part of the photo exhibition about the intifada that was held in my gallery in 1989," says Ami Steinitz, the curator of the "Local Testimony" show in Tel Aviv, referring to Castelnuovo Hollander. "Even though she photographed there in the same period, she did not exhibit. She never pushed herself, despite her tremendous achievements. During my stay in the United States, as well as on The New York Times' Web site, I came across many of her important photographs. I don't know of any other Israeli figure who has worked so continuously with one internationally prominent newspaper. She is one of the most important photographers in Israel. She is our marker - she creates our visual image."

What sets her work apart?

Steinitz: "There is a very human dimension to her photographs, which gets across the subject's situation. There is a story in her pictures, not only a specific news event. There is also always something metaphorical about the photos. For example, in the series about the 'garbage children,' there is an image of a boy who is wandering about in the dump with white butterfly wings on his back. By this means she instills a deeper human dimension in the people and the situations she photographs."

Castelnuovo Hollander is flustered by this description. "I don't look for metaphors when I take pictures, I look for the factual," she says. "I look for beauty, but I don't think about it while shooting. Maybe you could say that in my subconscious I am drawn to symbolism, but I am not drawn to such situations by rational thought. I have never stood over a body and asked myself how I can get a beautiful shot out of this."

What place affected you most powerfully?

Castelnuovo Hollander: "The Kurdish refugee camps in Iraq. That was a very harsh experience for me, the closest I have come to masses of hungry and utterly destitute people. I was on the border between Iraq and Turkey ... I spent a few weeks there. We entered on foot from Turkey and then hitchhiked, constantly moving further inside. It was a situation of complete helplessness. Until the Americans dropped food and water, it was a horrific catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of people were scattered about there, with no shelter, shaking with cold, hungry, sick. Every day more and more people died. There was a moment when a mother came to me with a dying infant in her hands and asked me to help. There was nothing I could do to help her. I just cried, because I didn't know how to help. I did not photograph her."

How did you organize things with your daughters during your long absences from home?

"I never know what to say to that. I can only say that the girls were little and that I thought about the danger every day. There were constant moments of fear, but I never reached a situation where I stopped, where I would not do it anymore. Maybe because my husband is in the same profession - I didn't analyze it. For me, photography is not just a profession, it is a way of life. I have never done anything else, and I have never photographed anything else. This is what interests me and this is what I know how to photograph. I still go back to the territories time and again; the conflict is in my blood already, I can't photograph anything else. I never went through stages of wondering whether I should become a fashion photographer."



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