The Tel Aviv Portrait Studio Where African Refugees Go to Escape

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A portrait taken at the Rahabot studio in Tel Aviv.
A portrait taken at the Rahabot studio in Tel Aviv.Credit: Abel Eyob
Tali Mayer
Tali Mayer

When it comes to picturing the Africans living in the country, most Israelis possess a fairly limited gallery of mental images. They’re usually pictured as idle people wrapped in colorful blankets in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv, or as marching in protest against their arrest and deportation. But in Rahabot, Abel Eyob’s photography shop in the Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood of south Tel Aviv – where a large number of the African asylum seekers in Israel live – there’s no trace of the difficulties of their daily life.

Every day, three or four people – about 20 per day on weekends – come to the store to have a photographic portrait made in the second-floor studio. The Eritrean-born Eyob has three backdrops against which he shoots his subjects, but for most of them he uses the green screen that allows him to replace the plain background with images of their choice. His clients all own cell phones that have decent cameras, but they still prefer to come to him. A major element of the final image is the substitution of their everyday surroundings with shots of generic, feel-good buildings. The squalid urban landscape of the area around the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv is supplanted by pleasant foreign surroundings.

“In Eritrea, people go to a professional photographer three or four times a year – on holidays and birthdays, or when they buy new clothes,” says Emanuel, a native of that country, who volunteered to accompany me and translate from Tigrinya. He added that this is a widespread cultural practice in Eritrea, Sudan and also in Ethiopia. There are at least three other businesses in the neighborhood that offer studio portraits, but in Eyob’s view, it’s his backgrounds that draw people to his store. “People don’t send their family pictures of themselves taken at home or in the street, because it doesn’t look good. They want to send beautiful things,” he says.

A portrait taken at the Rahabot studio in Tel Aviv.Credit: Abel Eyob

Perhaps in this way the families – some of whose members remain in Africa, while others are in European countries or in America, and a small number in Israel – preserve a uniform look that is not bound to a specific venue. One of the most popular backgrounds is a nighttime view of tall office buildings in an unidentified city.

Very few clients want the city of Tel Aviv as a background. Eyob searched a long time before he found, at my request, the photograph of the only client who asked specifically for Tel Aviv. He doesn’t remember his name – he calls him “Ghana” – but does recall that he told him he was in the country for a short time and had missed an important family wedding. The picture was meant to be sent to the family as his wedding gift and was also meant to explain his absence. In the photograph he’s dressed to the nines, smiling and standing in front of an image of the Azrieli Towers complex, chosen, apparently, because of its obvious identification with Israel and Tel Aviv. Unfortunately for Eyob, who printed the shot on oversize, A3 paper, Ghana never showed up to collect and pay for the picture: It’s still waiting for him at the store.

Eyob has been in the store for six years; previously, he knew nothing about photography. “At first I worked seven days a week washing dishes in a wedding hall in Netanya, from six in the morning until 1 A.M., 19 hours a day. And then the guy disappeared and never paid me. After that I spent two-and-a-half years washing cars in Pardes Katz. And then a year [doing the same thing] in Ramat Gan.”

He learned the technique of photography from colleagues in the store, but mostly from lengthy viewing of YouTube clips demonstrating use of photographic editing; in fact he considers himself more a graphic artist than a photographer. “Most of the work is with Photoshop – that’s why people come to us,” he says. “The sharp photography and the lighting only help to crop the people in the editing and in replacing the background.”

Abel Eyob, the photographer at the Rahabot studio in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tali Mayer

A few months ago, Eyob marked the 10th anniversary of his arrival in Israel, celebrating, as he does every year on the relevant day, by eating out. “I entered on Valentine’s Day, on February 14, 2008,” he recalls. “There were lots of fireworks and lights in the sky. I waited with a friend until soldiers came to us and told us, ‘Don’t be afraid, hands up.’ From the desert, we were taken to a camp, where we spent two days. After that they took us to Be’er Sheva. On Saturday night they told us they were going and would be back, and they left and didn’t come back. We had no documents. There were taxis there that took us to Tel Aviv for $100. We went with them, and they dropped us off by the sea. There was someone there with a store. He gave us Krembo [tea cakes] and bread as a gift and said, ‘Welcome to Israel.’”

The photography store was opened by two friends of his, Ibrahim and Mula, one of whom had studied photography and graphic art in Eritrea. “At first,” says Eyob, “I only worked at the cash register on the ground floor, and I just helped people work with Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp. We had a lot of computers in the store, because people didn’t have internet on their phones back then. I would help send their pictures to family and friends. Afterward, I started to go up to the studio and take an interest.”

The two founders left Israel a few years ago, one for the United States, the other for England, where he opened a sister photography store. It too bears the name “Rahabot,” which means “to grow” or “to develop,” in Tigrinya. They still maintain a business and social relationship, and share the editing work in periods of pressure in either store.

As we speak, Armidalim, 29, who had come to Tel Aviv that day from Kiryat Malakhi in the northern Negev, enters. “I came to Israel six years ago today, and every year I have my picture taken on the date,” he tells us. Eyob has him sit on a wooden bar chair in front of the green screen and adjusts his posture so he faces in a certain direction. The tiny studio space – it’s actually an overhang gallery – compels Eyob to choose vertical images and slightly downward angles. “I keep all the pictures in my room, next to each other,” says Armidalim, “and I look at how they change over time – how I was once and how I am now. I had dreadlocks once.”

Portraits taken at the Rahabot studio in Tel Aviv. Credit: Abel Eyob

He doesn’t send the pictures to his family, in South Sudan, because they live in a region where is no internet, but rather takes the prints for himself. At the end of the short session, Eyob shows him a few images on the camera’s preview screen to ensure that he’s satisfied.

I asked Eyob when would be a good opportunity for me to come and speak to a large number of clients. He recommended Valentine’s Day. The store is always very busy in the days before the holiday and on the day itself, he noted. This year the staff decorated the store with balloons, cutouts of hearts and colored light bulbs, but in fact few people showed up. Only three couples came to have their picture taken during the whole afternoon.

One of them was Rosa, an Israeli citizen, and her partner. She immigrated from Ethiopia 12 years ago, and he is from Eritrea. They met on the No. 25 bus in Petah Tikva and discovered that they were neighbors. “My family knows him, everyone knows him and loves him,” Rosa says. “We are very much alike: We have the same food and the same holidays, and he also speaks Amharic.” She’s pregnant, in her eighth month, and they are trying to set in motion a process in the Interior Ministry so they can marry, but they aren’t very optimistic in the light of the latest developments and new procedures. “I think that what is happening is not right, what they are doing to them,” Rosa says. “After all, we are all people, we all live and we all die in the end.”

A portrait taken at the Rahabot studio in Tel Aviv. Credit: Abel Eyob

Beri, who was a soldier in Eritrea when she decided to leave, comes into the store with her daughter, Heyab (the name means “gift” in Tigrinya), to mark the girl’s third birthday. Beri has another daughter, whom she left behind in Eritrea with her grandparents, in order to spare her the ordeals of the journey. The father of that girl, Beri’s former husband, tried to reach Europe in 2007, but drowned at sea – an event that deterred her from making the attempt herself. She works as a cleaner in a 27-story office building in Bat Yam, and will be happy to leave the country, or the job, if a better opportunity turns up.

David, also from Eritrea, came to the studio to have his picture taken and brought with him a photograph of his wife, which he wants Eyob to edit in next to him in the finished portrait. David’s wife reached Italy with their two children, after the border fence made it impossible to enter Israel. He was slated to leave the following week for Sweden as part of a family-reunification program in that country. He planned to take the framed picture of the two of them as a present.

Abel Eyob, 28 and single, recently received a deportation notification from Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority. In the meantime, he began the process of obtaining a visa for Canada, so he was able to remain relatively calm during the period when the threat of mass deportation was being bandied about earlier this year, and refugees thought they had to choose between Rwanda and Uganda. In our first meeting, late last December, when we spoke about the fact that I work in photography, too, he asked for my help in ordering three new background screens for the studio. The next time we spoke was after the new year, when notices had begun to arrive offering a choice between incarceration or “voluntary” departure. By late February, the amount of work had declined sharply, but Eyob told me that the reason was because it was Lent, when Eritrean Christians – and of course other Christians – avoid celebrations or other indulgences.

He didn’t seem to be especially upset when we spoke in January. He was already used to the unending pronouncements by Israeli policy makers about the refugees. Most of it is bad news, from his perspective, and although much of it ultimately is not realized, it does leave the asylum seekers in a transitory limbo. Since then he’s tried to find out through me whether the screens he ordered were on their way. If not, he said, maybe it’s better to cancel the order in the meantime, and wait and see what the situation will be in another few months. I ask him whether he’ll shut down the store when he gets the hoped-for visa for Canada. No, he replied, he’ll hand it over to friends who are staying in Tel Aviv.

Portraits taken at the Rahabot studio in Tel Aviv. Credit: Abel Eyob

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