“Press photography is akin to creating a time capsule; the contemporary photographer is a kind of modern Flavius Josephus,” says Micha Kirshner, curator of this year’s “Local Testimony” exhibition of photojournalism, currently showing at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv. He is referring to the chronicler of the Jewish-Roman war (66-70 CE). “One day,” Prof. Kirshner adds, “someone will leaf through the book we’ve assembled in honor of the exhibition and will shed tears. In the end, he will be looking at a ravaged land.”
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Indeed, the images hanging on the walls are depressing, reflecting a chaotic, broken reality that seems to dissolve into itself. Yet their aesthetic quality is undeniable. As in the work of Kirshner himself, who is one of Israel’s preeminent photographers, the photographs are utterly flawless – but the same cannot be said of the people they document.
Tali Mayer’s powerful series of portraits shows Palestinians who were shot by the Israeli army with black sponge-tipped bullets. Most of them lost an eye. Mayer, whose jaw was shattered by just such a bullet while she was covering a demonstration in East Jerusalem, looks at them through the eye of the camera, in her studio, a situation void of context that imposes on the viewer a direct, non-evasive gaze.
“If I had to translate Mayer’s series, I would say that she comes from a rational place,” Kirshner says. “Yet it’s precisely from that cold rationality that all the passions flow. You look at the wandering eye of the child who was hit, and it’s not going anywhere. That child is looking at you, and while one eye smiles at you, the other floats in space, staring.”
One can’t help recalling your photograph of Huda Massoud, a little girl who lost an eye to a rubber-coated bullet fired by an Israeli soldier. To what extent do these images converse with one another?
“It’s the identical event: Palestinians being hit by gunfire of our forces. I took my photograph against a gray background, excluding all information. It’s quite an academic picture. And when I went to the territories, too, I would improvise myself a studio. All around me was the stench of sewage and devastated homes, but I decided that I didn’t want to shoot it that way. Images like that were abundant. By documenting these people in a quasi-studio, you force the viewer to look them straight in the face. You look at wrinkles, perspiration, the drooping eye, the melancholy, the loss, the joie de vivre if any exists.”
Almost 30 years separate the photograph of Huda Massoud, which was taken during the first intifada, and Mayer’s series. Do those sightless eyes, then and now, reflect a tragedy that ultimately defeats photojournalism?
“When I was asked why I’d gone to photograph the first intifada, I replied, half-jokingly, that when the time came for our Nuremberg trials, I would be covered, because I would be able to say that I warned about the situation.”
Can you recall game-changing photographs in recent years?
“There was the image of the dead toddler on the coast of Turkey, for example. That opened the gates of Europe for migrants, at least for two weeks. Many people survived because of that photograph.”
But you’ll surely agree with me that iconic photographs are few and far between nowadays. It’s hard to find images today that will rise to the surface of the endless visual stream of consciousness.
“I will refer to one of the photographs from the current exhibition about which I feel deeply. It was taken by Ilia Yefimovich and shows a young Palestinian trying to knock down the separation wall with a huge hammer. The picture generates an immediate association with the Berlin Wall. It’s a Sisyphean task. He won’t knock the wall down, but he will leave his mark on it. It’s a very powerful photograph, splendidly done. It bears great potential.”
As it was last year, terror is once more the star of the current “Local Testimony” exhibition. A striking image at the entrance to the show documents the funeral of Dafna Meir, a mother of six who was murdered in her home in a West Bank settlement. In the photo, by Ronen Zvulun, her husband and children are immersed in their grief, not looking at the camera. The theme of the photograph recalls the image that was chosen as Photo of the Year in the 2015 exhibition. Taken by Menahem Kahana, it captured Palestinian women dismayed at the sight of the burnt home of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank village of Duma. So it goes: year follows year, funeral follows funeral, a terrorist who’s been shot lies on this road and then on another road.
Even topics that do not deal with the political and security situations are rife with existential malaise. Ultra-Orthodox children bathing in the Dead Sea project a dangerous morbidity, looking mummified in black mud that seems to threaten their end. Another photograph portrays a feeding site for eagles in black and white, a wasteland strewn with animal carcasses, in what looks like a set for a distinctly dystopian movie.
In his time, Kirshner has produced quite a few photographic provocations. Still vividly remembered is his shot of the poet Yona Wallach, published in the (long-defunct) monthly Monitin, in which she sits next to a naked man who is wrapped in phylacteries. There is also the well-known pieta-like photograph of a Palestinian mother and her son. And there are his celebrity photos, such as the one of Yael Bar Zohar as a girl of 16 on a horse – one of the most erotic moments in the history of the print press in Israel.
Standing proudly behind these images, Kirshner is nonetheless aware of the fickle duality of the photographic art. “There is no medium more deceptive, manipulative and subversive than photography,” he asserts. “I’ll give you an example from the more distant past.” Kirschner refers to the Maaleh Akrabim massacre of 1954, involving a bus from Eilat to Tel Aviv. “At the end of the steep ascent the bus was ambushed by Bedouin. Everyone was killed, apart from a four-year-old girl who fell between the seats and a woman who was wounded but survived. After a time, an Israeli army vehicle passed by the site and made contact with Southern Command headquarters in Be’er Sheva. The whole lot, including the bus, the wounded and the bodies of the murdered, was moved to Southern Command. And then an officer with the rank of major asked a question that no one had raised until then: Was the event photographed? When the reply turned out to be negative, they moved everything back to the site, scattered the bodies about – without any connection to what had actually occurred – and took photos. That’s the image we live on to this day, and it’s based on something that never existed – certainly not in the way it was documented and imprinted in the collective memory.”
Though a melancholy atmosphere pervades the exhibition, there are also numerous breathtaking nature photos, spectacular landscapes and star clusters photographed with long exposure. Moments of joy, compassion and innocence are also to be found. For example, one picture portrays a group of extraordinarily young bridesmaids at a Haredi wedding that looks like a colorful, captivating string of smiles.
The photographer Avishag Shaar-Yashuv, 25, has documented a nomadic family that lived in a van and raised their children on the move. Kirshner, who likes this series, recalls a 2013 photograph by Shaar-Yashuv that depicts the current prime minister and his wife at the Mimouna – a celebration of North African Jews on the day after the Passover week.
“I always tell my students that even if I’d been given $10,000 and been told that Bibi and Sara agreed to do whatever I wanted, and had as many extras as I wanted, and a studio with the most suitable conditions, I would not have achieved the precision that Avishag did. She created the decisive moment,” Kirshner says. “Her series in the exhibition tells the story of a woman who decided to travel around Israel in a yellow van like the ones that were familiar here in the 1960s. She met her husband when she gave him a lift while he was hitchhiking, and they’ve been together ever since.”