Private Lives

This is a disturbing image. You want to turn away and not look at the people lying on the floor, not have to cope with their situation, so as not to embarrass them.

This photograph, which shows people sleeping in a municipal shelter on Ha'aliya Street in Be'er Sheva, leaves the viewer feeling uneasy. It is a disturbing image. You want to turn away and not look at the people lying on the floor, not have to cope with their situation, so as not to embarrass them.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz is a wonderful photographer who works in the south of the country, documenting its news events and occasionally its blazing landscapes. Here, he looks patiently, from slightly above - though not at an angle that distorts the room, and without focusing specifically on anyone - at people who, fearing a missile attack, sleep in a public shelter on sheets they have brought from home. They are all wearing simple summer clothes, not pajamas, and their flip-flops and rubber shoes await them quietly next to the mattresses.

bomb shelter, be'er sheva
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

There are more than two dozen people in the photograph, most of them men and children, but also one family: a corpulent man lying on his back in the center, while by his side, with her back to him, his wife, in yellow pants, protects a baby - only the infant's small red pants and pink blouse are visible from this angle - and next to them an older brother and sister. The girl's hair is parted in the middle and she is wearing a green blouse, while her brother, with his pure and perfect face, is sleeping next to her in a rolled-up orange shirt.

Although this is a press photograph, a documentary image, it has the character of an installation, an artistic act. As though Tiranit Barzilay, who in a well-known series photographed a group of women and men in underclothing in an empty room, were about to enter, thank everyone for taking part and tell them they can get up now.

It's the end of the night, daylight enters through the door. In the upper right corner it is possible to make out the feet of a boy who is sleeping on his stomach near two fans and under a black-and-white parasol attached to a baby stroller.

But it is not the children who are the focus of our attention in this photograph, nor the spontaneous sprawl pattern in which the sleepers have organized themselves; it is, rather, the four public trash bins positioned along the wall on the left. It is hard to look at people sleeping next to the familiar massive green garbage bins. After all, refuse in society is any matter considered out of place, as anthropologist Mary Douglas teaches us in "Purity and Danger." Trash bins do not belong in a bedroom. They are supposed to be separated, located in another sphere, out of the way, even if they are washed or new.

This photograph, then, does not document only the fear of air-raid sirens or missiles - that is a different, melancholy subject, on the other side of which there are always people and children across a non-border who are bombed from the air by warplanes. This photograph documents the way in which residents of the neighborhood are forced to give up their privacy, the space that envelops them, delimits their independence. It is about the self-evident cultural distinction between "good conditions" and "non-conditions." This photograph stirs discomfort in the heart of anyone who has a stable, protected home in which each object is in its place. It is a photograph that calls on people everywhere to go into the streets and protest the living conditions, persistent and ever-present, of those who seek shelter.