Wild Man Behind the Lens

Micha Bar-Am has spent a lifetime capturing Israel's history in images. Now 81 and with two exhibitions opening, he looks directly at the present day, and says he is optimistic - even when there is no hope.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

Some have called him a savage, but press photographer Micha Bar-Am, whose photos of Israel between the 1967 and 1973 wars graced the covers of TIME and Newsweek and earned him international acclaim, never took the word as an insult. Despite his strict upbringing, at age 6, as he and his family made their way here from Germany on the deck of the Galileo Galilei, he punched another boy. And when he was 9, he was thrown out of elementary school in Haifa, and his parents sent him to work for a German-Jewish family in Ramatayim. Around the age of 13, he decided to change his name from Anguli to Bar-Am, an act for which his father never forgave him.

His wife, Orna, recalled this week that she told him - before she was 16 - that she'd prefer a more "normal" boyfriend. "He was 24 and came across as a wild man who liked to take risks," she remembers. "He would slither down a rope ladder on cliffs in the Judean Desert and crawl into caves, and then show me the pictures he took."

Micha Bar-AmCredit: Reli Avrahami

Two years later she married someone else. Micha Bar-Am still won't admit that he waited for her. But he did, and they have been living and working together for more than 50 years, mostly at their attractive home in Ramat Hen and primarily in the basement archive that holds more than half a million images, along with documents and historic photo collections. The walls of the guest room are decorated with Orna's paintings.

When they are not working in the archive, life happens in the kitchen. The coffee is excellent, smoking is permitted, and the first thing that catches the eye is the framed mantra hung above the old wooden table: "When I talk and you answer me, it disturbs the dialogue between us." The bond between them is stronger than any chain, but there are no chains involved. "I knew that as soon as I tried to hem him in, it would wreck the relationship," says Orna.

Bar-Am has two solo shows opening this week: one at the Willy-Brandt-Haus in Berlin (curator: Dr. Alexandra Nocke ), and one at the Open Museum of Photography at Tel Hai (curator: Naama Haikin ). After a lot of rummaging through Bar-Am's private archive, Nocke decided to focus on photographs "of documentary and artistic importance," as she writes in the book that accompanies the exhibition - on images through which Bar-Am viewed Israel's history, images that captured the Zionist dream, and its loss.

"The exhibition in Berlin will present subjects that in one way or another reflect the way I saw the State of Israel and myself as a part of it," says Bar-Am. "In the Tel Hai exhibition, Orna and I will present two bodies of work that have hardly been seen before. Our family photos and photos of a family from Peki'in that I've been following for about 50 years."

Their three children will accompany them to the April 8 opening in Berlin: Barak, an artist who lives in Berlin; Ahuvia Kahane (Orna's son from her first marriage, a professor of classical philology who translated "The Odyssey" into Hebrew ), who lives in London; and Nimrod, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and teaches at Sapir College.

The photographer's great love

Orna was born in 1938 on Kibbutz Kinneret, where her parents, Shmuel and Shifra Zmirin, were among the founders. When she was 15, she met Bar-Am, who was helping to run the kibbutz summer camps. He fell in love with her smile and her beautiful eyes, and took her to Tel Aviv to see a movie and eat ice cream. When her group took a trip to Eilat, he carried her backpack. "The girls were jealous of me and I was proud that he was courting me, but when I was 16 I told him that he was a brute and not suited for marriage."

Bar-Am chimes in: "I had a lot of girlfriends. It's not true that she wasn't interested. She was a minor and it was a platonic affection. We broke up and there was no big dramatic crisis, because you can't go on with life that way." Orna adds: "Saying things like that doesn't mean that Micha is a rational person. He's an intuitive man."

At 18 and a half, Orna married Reuven Kahane (who later became a professor of sociology ) and they made their home on Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan. A year later they separated and she had to leave her son, Ahuvia, in his father's custody. "Micha heard that I was free and he looked for me." Bar-Am corrects her: "I didn't have to look. I always knew where you were." She went to study at the Bezalel School of Art and Design and later studied with a number of artists, including Yitzhak Danziger and Raffi Lavie. She also married Micha.

But he hadn't changed, had he? He says he was and remains "a hunter who goes out to the field and brings in the next catch."

Orna: "I decided to take a risk, and I can't complain. I've been married to him for 50 years, and living with a photographer who rushes from one trouble spot to another, from a war in Lebanon to a war in Kosovo, is no easy thing. When we got married he only photographed wars in his backyard. That was the essence of his life, and I never told him no, even when he did crazy things.

"In '95, he went to Beirut for a week, and he wasn't a young man anymore. They were starting to clear the rubble from the city and National Geographic was excavating there and they found remnants of the Old City. The Syrians were in the city and so were Hezbollah, and he agreed to travel on a foreign passport. For eight days, there was total radio silence. I didn't say a word. I knew that the moment I tried to rein him in, I would ruin our relationship."

Orna says that life with Micha led to several decisions. "After Nimrod and Barak were born (in the late 1960s ), I did some soul-searching. I'm the kind of person that has to go all out with whatever I do, and I always knew that being a woman meant a desperate attempt throughout life to cover yourself with a blanket that's too small. Either your shoulders are cold or your legs are outside, unless you've managed to shrink. I had to choose whether to be with the family or to be the kind of woman who goes into the studio and is so wound up in her painting that she couldn't care less if the house were on fire. I decided that I wouldn't be a part-time mother. I'm at peace with my decision. I gave up painting, but no one forced me. Since the late '70s, Micha and I have been working together. We create books. When he's putting together a lecture, we work on it together. It was important to me to be with the children, especially when Micha was out in the field, and if there's anything he regrets it's that he wasn't around enough when the children were small."

Bar-Am, listening in, says sorry - he has no regrets.

In life, as in photography, Bar-Am says of himself: "I'm rational-intuitive. I don't always think and analyze things in the moment. I work on the basis of impulses and passions. Now, with age, I'm starting to understand things that I never understood, like the idea of being on the front line in wartime and getting into risky situations."

Where does it come from? From some ideology, or is it a heroic macho thing?

"I've met plenty of female photojournalists who had impulses that were just as powerful. No one is completely fearless, but there is a certain kind of person that knows he has to get over the fear. Of course, you get scared.

"On the front line at the Suez Canal, in '73, it was nonstop bombardments and shooting. I wasn't at the front because of an order. Even when I was doing reserve duty and I took pictures, the decision of where to be and what level of risk to take, that's the photographer's decision. The few photographers that I admire, like Shlomo Arad and Avraham Vered, were there out of a conscious decision that it was an extreme risk. It's a kind of anomaly."

In a photo by Shlomo Arad from October 1973, Bar-Am is seen standing by the bridge that crosses the Suez Canal at the spot IDF soldiers referred to as the "Courtyard of Death." Four cameras are slung around his neck and he's carrying a backpack and a Kalashnikov (a spoil of war ). "I think that photographers hide behind the camera and dare to do things that a sane person wouldn't do," says Bar-Am. "You need a kind of autism in your emotional make-up in order to do this."

Rebel dreams

Anger and a desire to be free were the passions of his childhood. Micha Bar-Am was born in 1930 in Berlin, to the affluent Anguli family. When he was a year old, the family moved to the city of Ulm, on the banks of the Danube. His first childhood memory is of Simhat Torah eve, when he was 4 and went with his parents, Max (Moshe ) and Herta (Chana ), to visit relatives. "I got lost on the way back from the synagogue. I clung to the coat of a woman I thought was my mother. Instead of taking me home or trying to find out who this child was who spoke in a Swabian dialect and was holding a Simhat Torah flag, she took me to the police station. I enjoyed the adventure. Policemen examining a large map with tiny flags stuck in it. It felt like a scene from 'Emil and the Detectives.'

"The policemen brought me to the home of a Jewish doctor who gave me struessel to eat. I'll never forget the taste of it. When it was nearly morning, and I was being carried on the shoulders of a German policeman, we ran into my father and my uncle at the end of the street." In his German kindergarten, Micha was named the child with the most Aryan appearance, but when the other children started to call his older sister names because of her Jewishness, their father decided to immigrate to Palestine. The journey from Trieste, Italy to Mandatory Palestine is still clearly etched in Bar-Am's memory. "Years later I met someone who told me that I beat him up on the ship and that I was very violent. I was already a tough customer even then."

Maybe it had something to do with being the middle child between two sisters, one two years older and the other two years younger. His sisters do not live in Israel and the siblings are not very close. Bar-Am declines to talk about them.

They arrived in Haifa on August 1, 1936. His father invested all his money in an ice factory in the lower part of the city, near the train station. He brought with him books of classic German literature, a cuckoo clock that Micha took apart and couldn't put back together again, and all the other furniture and objects from their affluent home in Germany. Their home in Kiryat Bialik wasn't ready yet, so they ended up living for several months in the laundry room of the opulent home of painter Hermann Struck. Micha loved playing in the shipping container that was left in the backyard, where his mother grew asparagus.

His father's factory was burned down during the Arab Revolt. After that, Moshe went to work as a laborer in the oil refineries, but Micha was still brought up in the best German tradition. German was spoken at home, they listened to Bach, read German classical literature, and Micha went to Binyamina to take accordion lessons from a private teacher. His parents had trouble letting go of the cultural world they left behind, but young Micha kept growing more distant from his father.

"I don't have much to say about him. In later years, there was some affection between us, but it wasn't all that enthusiastic," he says. "He was the true Zionist. A son of Russian refugees from Odessa who grew up in Berlin, and later decided to go to Palestine. My father hardly learned Hebrew here but my mother, who was more open and practical, learned Hebrew and Arabic. I didn't have trouble adjusting to life here, and I was very hard-hearted toward him. For many years he had trouble supporting the family, and my mother worked as a maid. My sisters and I were left to our own devices."

He can't say when or how he became a rebel. He got along socially, but studies didn't interest him. The family lived in a small apartment in which one room was always rented out. When a family from Ramatayim proposed that their daughter come to live with the Angulis so she could attend the WIZO School in Haifa, they decided to make an "exchange," and Micha was sent to live with the David family in Ramatayim. "I felt bad, but I didn't cry myself to sleep at night," he says. "We belong to a generation that didn't cry. It wasn't easy to be sent so far from my friends. My parents wrote to me, and I still have letters from my mother. I would visit on holidays and I could see how hard it was for them. My dream of going to the Reali School couldn't be realized because of financial difficulties."

He worked on the David family's farm plot, and occasionally attended the elementary school in Ramatayim. When he returned to Haifa, his father decided that he needed to learn a trade. Micha dreamed of being an explorer, but his father sent him to be a cook's apprentice. At first he worked in a hotel and later on in a bakery, but before long he was working at the port, and dreaming of sailing far away.

In contrast to his parents' household, which remained German-Jewish, Micha got swept up in the spirit of the young nation. At age 13, he changed his surname to Bar-Am. The choice of name was very deliberate - bar in the sense of "wild" or "wilderness" and also of "son" - of someone perpetuating the Jewish nation (am ). He learned spoken Arabic from roaming the streets and the Arab produce market, where he also heard the music of Umm Kulthum and Farid al-Atrash. From the bars at the end of the street came jazz played by musicians of German extraction. At his parents' home, there were magazines like LIFE and Look, which brought sights from distant lands into his life.

Before the declaration of Israel's independence, the 18-year-old Bar-Am worked as a shipping clerk at the Haifa port and was involved in underground activity and weapons smuggling. He was in the Sixth Palmach Brigade and fought in the 1948 war. He later was among the founders of Kibbutz Malkia, near the Lebanon border.

There was always a camera in Bar-Am's home when he was growing up, an old-fashioned and bulky accordion camera. He took pictures with it as a child. "I longed for a camera of my own," he says. "As a teenager I had trouble expressing myself; I felt that with the camera I could express some of the things I experienced. I didn't have any space of my own apart from the small storage attic in my parents' home, where I kept my Tarzan comics. I dreamed of getting a camera for my bar mitzvah, but I didn't get one.

"I've basically been taking pictures nonstop since a very young age. During World War II, when Haifa was bombarded, I was in Isfiya, and I have photos from those days. In Kibbutz Malkia and later in Gesher Haziv, I started taking pictures of the kibbutz, and also of our Bedouin neighbors, with cameras I borrowed from friends. Yohanan Aharoni, the scholar and archaeologist, asked me to join the delegations that were searching for the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves in the Judean Desert."

In 1953, he bought his first camera, a used Leica, and taught himself to use it through trial and error. Developing and printing he learned with the help of guidebooks. In the late night hours, he would shut himself in the small darkroom he had set up, and to pay for the developing fluids and paper for printing, he sold photographs to kibbutz members.

In 1959, Bar-Am sent to his mother's parents, who had been in a concentration camp in France during the war and afterward immigrated to America, a very touching photo-diary. The diary, which included pictures and handwritten comments, shows the idealistic viewpoint of the Zionist grandchild who photographed his new homeland. Camels in the desert, scenes from kibbutz life, a still-life in his room called "After a Kumzits," folk-dancing, a trek to Sodom, new immigrants at the Haifa port, the National Water Carrier, an Arab wedding in Peki'in, a military cemetery.

He didn't receive any payment for the first photograph he ever published, on July 9, 1953. He had taken a shot of a demonstration in Tel Aviv and the weekly newsmagazine HaOlam Hazeh printed it without giving him credit. That experience made him scrupulous from then on about ensuring that he and photographers in general receive the credit due to them.

From 1957 to 1966, Bar-Am worked as a photographer for the army magazine Bamahane, and like many of his colleagues in those years, he shot images that fit the heroic spirit of the time and were faithful to the patriotic narratives. In 1967, he became friends with Cornell Capa (brother of the photographer Robert Capa ), and the two photographed together during the Six-Day War. In 1968, Bar-Am joined the Magnum photography agency. His pictures appeared on the covers of magazines like Newsweek, Stern, Paris Match and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked independently ever since.

In 1996, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art held an exhibition entitled "The Last War." A glance at the exhibition catalog (Keter Press ) shows that Bar-Am was the first to place photographs of Palestinian captives and refugees within the museum walls, making them an object of observation - from an aesthetic standpoint, but not only that. In an article in the May 2000 issue of the journal Studio, photographer and critic Oded Yedaya analyzed Bar-Am's war photographs and described him as having an adventurous spirit, as having traded in his rifle for a camera. Yedaya went on to say that Bar-Am's work showed him to be in the service of the country, always identifying with the right side, i.e., Zionism; that he went from war to war, and from there to issues on the national agenda, without displaying any criticism or interpretation of the events. Haikin, the curator of the new exhibition at the Tel Hai Open Museum of Photography, quoted from Yedaya in the catalog text.

When I mentioned these articles, Bar-Am lost his cool. "I'd prefer not to comment on Yedaya's review," he said. "And let's not forget that in his youth he was a macho officer in Sayeret Matkal. I'm not a radical and I don't pound my fist on the table, but I have more than a few photographs showing corpses. His text saddened me at the time, despite its academic treatment. I was sorry that the curator looked for support on the basis of his article. We're in a different, more fascinating time now."

Yedaya maintains the same view even today. "Bar-Am has and had roots in art, and was also a photographer for The New York Times, a paper that sought to show the other side also, and all the photographs he took were done within the framework of his journalistic work," he says. "Bar-Am did show human sensitivities, complex ones, but it's impossible to ignore the fact that the dominant tone in the book is of the co-opting of the camera, and of the person behind it, for the glorification of the state at that time.

Haikin both agrees and disagrees with Yedaya. "His contention that by the very act of photographing, Bar-Am takes an active part in the Zionist act with which he identifies is something I accept," she said this week. "At the same time, the opposition Yedaya sets up between artistic and documentary photography, or between sympathetic and critical photography, is not tenable in Micha's case, because of the type of observation he applies to the reality, which is attuned to the material dimensions of it. Also, the way he gives a place and visibility to all parties in the act of the photograph, to be present in the frame with equal force, doesn't allow the various sides of the discourse in the photograph to cancel one another out."

Total freedom

Bar-Am has a clear view of his work and ideology: "I was always a Zionist and I'm still a Zionist today, despite the pain of what has happened to the dream. It's not easy being a Zionist today. It means you have to consciously decide to be optimistic, otherwise you can get carried away. I'm aggressively optimistic by nature, and being a Zionist pulls you into a life between the polar extremes that are tearing Israeli society apart. I force myself to be optimistic, and there is heartbreak involved."

You were among the first to document the occupation, but curator Ariella Azulay didn't include your photographs in her book "Ma'aseh Medina: Historia Metzulement shel Hakibush 1967-2007" (A Photographic History of the Occupation ). "Some of those photographs I did as a photographer for Bamahane, which was my first platform. I didn't consent to be included in Azulay's book because I wasn't ready to submit to her very clearly defined agenda, and I was unwilling to see the world through the rose-tinted glasses of an establishment photographer in the service of the Zionist idea, as I'm described in certain circles.

"Despite my personal friendship with people who became prime ministers, I wouldn't agree to become a court photographer. I wanted to preserve for myself my criticism of events in the photographs, even if it was just implied and not necessarily extreme. I'm not a radical and I try to say things my way. Which is why I set out to work independently as a photographer. My definition of freelance photography is total freedom. On the other hand, I didn't have the ambition to create art. It's a process that happened over time, until a documentary photograph was recognized as a work of art."

When did you start to grapple with the ethical issues, or what is called "the aesthetics of war," which always photographs well?

"For me it happened after '67 and reached a peak during the first Lebanon war, when the question of where the photographer was standing came up. I'm one of those who believed, and this is a line that's attributed to Robert Capa and has become a cliche - that if your photo isn't good enough, it means you weren't close enough. But I also would say that if you were too close, you lost the perspective and the way to see things as they are. You also need to keep back a bit. When I photographed Palestinian refugees in '67, the only way to move in the field was to hitch a ride on a friendly half-track or to run with the soldiers."

And the aesthetics of photography? After all, the photographer makes a living from the horrors he shoots.

"I see a situation and I try to convey it in a single frame, but I'm coming from a stance of human compassion. And that goes for the Israeli soldier who is there and not necessarily deserving of compassion, and for the Palestinian refugee or collaborator whose face is covered with a sack. To me, nothing is off-limits, and I've photographed plenty of situations that we as a society have refused to look at. I photographed what I saw way before many others."

The photograph of the bare-backed Syrian POW makes one think of a Greek statue. It's disturbing.

"It's definitely a paradox. It's not merely an aesthetic photograph. Obviously I'm aware of the state of the light, but first of all I'm a witness discerning the misery of the person, even if he is considered an enemy, and I always have to explain that on the half-track in the background of the picture there were two more bound POWs. I feel that every photograph I've made was right for its time, and can be read in different ways. I'm just as interested in the fact that the photographs weren't tossed into the trash with yesterday's newspaper, and that some of them became icons and part of the Israeli collective memory."

Is it relevant that these photographs are also used as an indictment?

"Doesn't matter. When I realized the immediate potential of some of the photographs, I tried not to release them. You're living in an age where the Minister of Information recommends using the photographic documentation of the Fogel family, who were savagely murdered in Itamar. I have photographs that I have not released and will never release."

And what about the political significance?

"In my photographs, I try to understand the complexity of situations that may have no solution. What I knew how to do was to photograph. I photographed Peki'in because it was part of my life. You're fixating on the dramatic photographs from the start of the occupation, but the village that was an immanent part of my life did not yield dramatic photographs loaded with long-lasting explosive material. It's testimony, but I was not in the service of any organization or army. Some of us have become critical over time. As I said, I saw the reality prior to that."

Is there anything you regret?

"I have no regrets. It pains me to see what is happening here. In the past, I felt an urge to be part of what is happening by photographing, and afterward I assimilated what I recorded. I am genuinely optimistic. Even when there is no hope."

Which photographers do you admire today?

"Pavel Wolberg is a marvelous field photographer with an amazing eye. I identify with his physicality. Alex Levac, Avi Ganor. From the young generation I like Adi Nes and Dor Guez. I also like the works of Lea Golda Holterman."

These days, Bar-Am does much less photography, except of his grandchildren. "Occasionally I photograph in order to return to a certain point. In the absence of memory, the camera has served me like a memory book. But the passion has eroded. Today I'm in a process of trying to understand. I have enough photographed materials and I'm creating books and exhibitions from them. Old age is starting to have an effect and I'm not as keen on running about in the field. The death of passion is indeed a kind of death. Now my main interest is in thought and thinking."

How did you feel about the macho label that was attached to you?

"Amid a society of immigrants like the one I grew up in, with a mixture of immigrants from all kinds of cultures, you needed an ability to survive, and this meant fighting for your place or for recognition. Anyone lacking those capabilities didn't make it. So let them call me macho. But machismo is something hollow. The ideal was austere and this roughness stuck to me too. The sabra myth. I was there. We have the marvelous privilege to look back in retrospect, and over the years I've gained insights to understanding where we were. With a little luck and good genetics, I survived.

"I don't think about death. I've been there, very close, several times. That's why they say that I'm macho, that I'm tough. I dealt with my shell shock on my own. I came out of the Yom Kippur War damaged. How I dealt with it, I couldn't tell you. I decided I was strong enough to go on. You don't always need to take everything to heart."

Orna's son Ahuvia lives in England with his family. He supported the British academic boycott of Israel because of Israel's policy in the territories.

"He took himself to the diaspora because of the reality, and we live in peace with him. He's very critical toward Israel and so am I, but unlike others, I am from here, and I accept, even if painful and torn, the complexity of life here. We're sorry that Ahuvia doesn't live here, but that's what happens, and he visits here every year."

Savage modernity

In addition to the 150 photographs and the curators' articles, the catalog for both exhibitions contains essays by artists, writers and journalists from Israel and abroad about Micha Bar-Am's works. The writers include Dubravka Ugresic, Simon Schama, Maxim Biller, John le Carre, Yoram Kaniuk and Nava Semel; the journalists are Gisela Dachs and Thomas Friedman. Also included are pieces by former Tel Aviv Museum director Mark Scheps and renowned German photographer Herlinde Koelbl.

The essay by Simon Schama focuses on a few photographs by Bar-Am. One of them, from 1968, shows a handcuffed POW sitting on a chair, with a sign hanging on the wall that says "Speak the truth!" Who speaks the truth? Schama wonders. He calls Bar-Am "one of the greatest photographers of our savage modernity," whose works convey a quality of "sublime decency" and "can make us see, as well as say, yizkor [remember]."

Marc Scheps writes that Bar-Am "developed a dual position, both internal and external: he empathizes with his photographed subject up to a certain point, but from then on he distances himself." Gisela Dachs, a writer for Die Zeit, chose to focus on a 1966 photograph of two elder statesmen, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and David Ben-Gurion, sitting in the old man's "wooden hut" and about to dine on some potato soup prepared by Pola Ben-Gurion. Bar-Am, who knew the bodyguards, was able to slip in and immortalize the encounter.

The German-Jewish writer Maxim Biller chose an October 1973 photograph of bound Egyptian soldiers lying in a ditch. "Once you know that the second silhouette on the left is Micha Bar-Am with his camera, you sense cold shivers running down your spine," writes Biller. The writer John Le Carre also chose to talk about a photo showing captured Egyptian soldiers in the Yom Kippur War at a place known as the "Courtyard of Death." Bar-Am was talking with one of the captives in Arabic when the shelling began and everyone, captors and captives, sought cover. Bar-Am kept on shooting.

"Israel is not just a conflict, it's a country," writes Thomas Friedman at the start of his essay. One of Friedman's favorite shots is of a fashion show during some down time at a military base. Bar-Am photographed a bunch of women soldiers as glimpsed between a model's legs. "The fashion runway meets the military runway. That's the real Israel."

According to Yoram Kaniuk, "Bar-Am goes out into the field not in order to gossip about his subjects, but in order to spy on them - at the same time staging reality into an image that seems unstaged." Kaniuk chose a photograph showing rows of Syrian POWs in the Golan Heights in 1970, awaiting their fate. A photograph that is almost like a Goya painting, says Kaniuk. "After all these years in Israel, Micha Bar-Am still knows what it means to be a refugee. He is an Israeli with a built-in sense of refugeedom."



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