The Demonstrations Photographer Exposing Israel's Political Tensions

Haaretz photographer Tomer Appelbaum talks about photojournalism in an era of protest in the digital age. His works can be seen in new Jerusalem exhibition

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Daniel Tchetchik
Daniel Tchetchik
Daniel Tchetchik
Daniel Tchetchik

What is the importance of photojournalists in a time of protests and during the age of fake news?

“The importance of fieldwork for a photojournalist is clear: In an age of ‘spin’ and fake news, often a single image or video can refute a lie very quickly, and in certain cases it can also be used as evidence and as a means to verify a report. The ability to obtain information about what is going to happen requires a personal connection with people in the field. That can sometimes be the difference between capturing a shot and missing it.

I feel like the protesters are protecting me too

Tomer Appelbaum

The protest against government corruption in Israel and against the prime minister has been going on for months in many different places around the country. It’s impossible to predict what the day will bring and which picture will really capture the symbolism or the headline. There were cases where I felt that the presence of journalists helped to calm situations and prevent violence. As a journalist, I feel it is my duty and privilege to document this period.”

What are some of your best and worst moments from the nights you were chasing after the protests?

“There’s something about this civil protest that really moves me: seeing masses of people taking to the street every week, sometimes several times a week, full of faith and hope for a better future. It’s thrilling and it’s happening in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that hovers over everything and necessitates masks and social distancing. The pandemic is the antithesis of the protest. Besides that, there are attempts at intimidation and violence. Sometimes the brave act is the simple act – going out to demonstrate. It’s the embodiment of history.

Shooting Square

“There are feelings of fury and frustration, of despair at the stagnation, and there’s a crazy energy that photographs beautifully. Sometimes I feel the shared destiny that unites people in the street. At one demonstration I got sprayed twice by water cannons, and protesters who saw that I was drenched took my cameras that had gotten wet and dried them off so I could go on taking pictures. Sometimes I feel like the protesters are protecting me too.”

What would you like viewers of your exhibition to come away with?

“I’d like them to see the face of the chaos, the vitality of this human mass, to hear the shouts, to breathe in the sweat, to feel, by means of their eyes, the adrenaline that is flowing to them. The pictures in the show have a strong storytelling element. I spoke with some of the subjects before or after the photo was taken. This dimension – knowing who the subject is – isn’t necessary for the viewer, but for me it’s huge. The exhibition also provides an opportunity to take an in-depth look at images that usually just flash by us on screen.”

What is the importance of photojournalism in this day and age?

“Photojournalism is undergoing a revolution. The weakness of traditional media organizations, the free flow of information on the internet, particularly on social media, is affecting the scope of coverage of events and leading to the use – purposely or for lack of another choice – of photographs taken by regular people. The fact that everyone has a camera ready to pull out doesn’t guarantee journalistic quality, but we’re living at a time where if an event isn’t recorded, it’s like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest. So even if the filming isn’t the best, it’s still better than nothing.”

Is there one photograph that you feel best reflects the current protests or the spirit of the time?

“It’s hard to choose a single image from a protest that is still ongoing. We’ll need some distance from this crazy year before we can define it. There are small moments that are etched in my head like icons: when Oded Balilty caught with his camera a protester kneeling with an Israeli flag in hand as he was being hit by a jet of water from a water cannon; when Assaf Sharon captured a blue jet of water striking the head of a protester in Jerusalem’s Paris Square; Yair Meyuhas’ shot of a protester who’s been arrested and is gesturing toward the camera with his hand, which has the word ‘love’ written on it. There are many more excellent photographs that have been taken, and surely many more to come.”

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Tomer Appelbaum, 42, is a photojournalist for news agencies and magazines, and has been a Haaretz photographer since 2007. His photographs have won numerous awards, including as part of the Local Testimony competition. This year, he won for drone photography in the Life Under COVID-19 category.

Daniel Tchetchik has worked at Haaretz since 2003, photographing for the Galleria and weekend supplements. He is creator and editor of the Haaretz photography blog. His work has been exhibited in Israel’s top museums and at a number of exhibitions abroad. His work may be viewed at danieltchetchik.com

Appelbaum’s exhibition “The Future is in the Dark” is on at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s Photography Department Gallery, on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem; visits must be coordinated in advance. Curators: David Adika and Ilanit Konopny.