Where Time Stands Still

Fifteen years after the helicopter disaster in northern Israel, a special documentary project sheds light on the very palpable but not always overt pain of the bereaved families

On the night of February 4, 1997, two Israel Air Force Yasur transport helicopters, carrying soldiers on their way to Israel Defense Forces outposts in South Lebanon, collided above the Hula Valley. They crashed into the ground − one in Moshav She’ar Yashuv, the second near Kibbutz Dafna. The 73 soldiers, officers and members of the air crew were all killed.

On the 15th anniversary of the disaster, the bereaved families gathered for the official memorial service in the Har Vagai regional high school on Kibbutz Dafna. That same day, the73.org website ‏(in Hebrew‏) was launched, featuring a unique project by graphic designers Keren and Golan Gafni, who had embarked on a photographic-documentary journey among all the families who lost loved ones in the helicopter disaster.

The memorial for 73 IDF soldiers who perished in 1997 helicopter crash near Kibbutz Dafna.
Gila Eliahu

During their five-year journey, together with photographers Shira Igell and Eldad Menuhim, the Gafnis met and spoke with the families of the deceased, and took pictures. The result is photographs from the homes of the fallen, accompanied by short, restrained texts written by the Gafnis − some of which appear on these pages.

“The project sheds light on the deceased via his surroundings, the family members we met, his home, the landscape,” says Golan Gafni, in a conversation in his and his wife’s Tel Aviv studio. “How does one present this wound visually? We allowed the walls and the objects to speak.”
“This journey came from a very personal place,” says Keren Gafni. “I was afraid there would be insensitivity. The helicopter disaster happened during a very difficult period in the country. Here was another casualty, and another name of a dead soldier, and articles in the newspapers − and it no longer touches you. The journey began from the desire to know and to feel. We live in a bubble. I’m not an activist, I don’t overturn tables and I don’t demonstrate. This was my way, a different way, in which I touch Israeli society.”

Golan: “On the fifth anniversary of the disaster I read an interview with one of the bereaved mothers, who said that not enough MKs attend the memorial services [over the years], because apparently they don’t get high ‘ratings.’ This connection, between ratings and a disaster, reinforced the feeling that when a disaster takes place here, the country mobilizes − but that’s where it ends. We were interested in confronting this wound, both as citizens and as people involved in visual communications, and to examine where we can give ourselves to society. We also wanted to create something beyond our daily work. To talk about something that dictates life here and to arouse broad public interest.”

Keren and Golan have been married for three years, live in Ramat Gan and are the parents of a 19-month-old daughter. They met while studying for their bachelor’s degrees in visual communications at the Holon Institute of Technology.

In 2005 they opened a studio, where they design projects related to the world of art and culture. In 2007, together with graphic designer Tali Green, they launched A5 Magazine, a nonprofit publication that comes out three times a year and provides a platform for young artists in the fields of photography, painting and graphic design.

The Gafnis’ documentary journey was undertaken without any profit motive. At first, as people in the print business, they thought about publishing their work in book form. When they failed to find funding for that, they made do with the website.

What does a journey like this among the bereaved families do for you?
Keren: “We received a great deal. We learned a great deal. The disaster includes all sectors of the population: various ethnic groups, secular and religious people, Druze and Bedouin. And if at first I thought that there are two ways of dealing with bereavement, that you can either continue or sink, I learned that every person deals with it differently.

“I also discovered in myself a wide range of feelings and emotions. The last meetings, after we had become parents, were experienced from a different point of view. Everything was more exposed, more powerful.”
Were there surprises?

“I was afraid – because who am I to invade these people’s most sensitive places? – and was surprised each time. People who didn’t know me invited me into their homes, sat and talked. Some explained that the very fact they were talking about the son, or the brother or the father, brings him back for a moment.”

Golan: “I was amazed each time by the places where time stood still. In some of the homes, the room remains as it was: The bed is made, the clothes are in the closet. It brings you back to the 1990s, to the period when you were 18-years-old. The same stickers on the closet, the same posters. That really moved me. There were places where they chose to pack everything up and even to renovate the house.”

Shira Igell, 30, and Eldad Menuhim, 33, graduates of Hadassah College in Jerusalem, accompanied the Gafnis as the project’s photographers. While Keren and Golan sat down to talk to the family, they walked around the house, searching, as Igell puts it, for objects that constituted for her “the soft or hard symbolism” of death.

Igell, who received the international Epson Photography Award in 2009 ‏(for photographers under the age of 35‏), particularly likes one of the photos showing pictures of deceased members of the family hanging next to an air conditioner and an open window. “As though they want to air out the bereavement,” she says. “In each house we encountered something entirely different. As photographers we try to see beyond things. Not every house had a memorial corner or a special room, and in those homes, where the commemoration is over, the photography began. With the aim of finding the little anecdotes.

“There was a house that had been completely renovated; the parents renovated it because they couldn’t live with the presence of bereavement. I searched for a sign of it. Looking into a round mirror on the wall, you could see the reflection of a careless splotch of paint that had been left on the ceiling. That was very symbolic, because, after all, not everything is all nice and clean; there’s also one small sign.”

Eldad Menuhin was drafted to the army on the day of the accident. “I was at the induction base that day, and during the following week in the basic training camps we had no access to newspapers. I heard about the accident only at the end of the week. I wanted to find closure. To enter a place of bereaved families was very threatening for me. At work, as a photographer, I tried to stay away from those places. I was afraid to enter people’s most painful place. It’s a polarized place: on the one hand very interesting, and on the other very private.

“Of this entire journey among the families, I remember mainly the trips back home. During the encounters I was very highly focused on photography. The trips back, which were often long, were the time to digest things.”

Igell says that since doing the project, in nearly every house she enters she finds the same corner that represents death. “I discovered that every home I enter is a home in which there is loss. I began to search for the loss. Even in my parents’ home.”

For Menuhin, the journey reinforced his Israeliness. “It’s hard to say this, but it warmed my heart in some way,” he says. “You see people who with all the difficulty are staying here and living their lives. There was something very strengthening in that.”