Argentinean-born Esteban Alterman's timing may, initially, have been a bit off but he made it here in the end. "I wanted to immigrate at the beginning of 1991 but the Gulf War was on," says the 46-year-old Jerusalemite photographer. "In fact the Jewish Agency guys in Buenos Aries tried to dissuade me from coming to Israel because of the war but I was determined to make it here. I always felt Israel was the place for me as a Jew."
Alterman arrived here with abundant Zionistic zest and something to offer on the professional front too. "I developed an interest in photography when I was very young. My dad had a dark room set up in the kitchen and on the weekends I'd watch him, and then I started developing photos myself." That initial fascination blossomed into a career choice which eventually led to Alterman joining the Jerusalem Report staff in 1992, as a photographer and a couple of years later, as photograph editor. He still holds the latter position and some of the pictures he has taken over the years are on display in his Life in a Frame exhibition at the Jerusalem Theater, from noon today until November 12.
Actually, Alterman's decision to make a living out of instant visual documentation was also a matter of default. "I was studying architecture at university in Buenos Aries and I had to take courses in mathematics. I didn't understand a thing in mathematics and I realized I was never going to finish the degree, because of that." It was then that Alterman's boyhood love of photography resurfaced. "I'd taken pictures on my dad's Voigtlander Besamatic camera. It was German made, not Japanese and solid with no plastic in it. My dad had a book with pictures by press photographers, people like [iconic Hungarian-born Jewish photographer] Robert Capa, and that's really what I wanted to do."
Over the next few years Alterman took various photography courses, honing his skills out on the beat in between odd jobs. By the time he got here he was something of a seasoned photographer.
In fact, Alterman landed the Jerusalem Report job at what was for him, the very last minute. "When I came to Israel I gave myself a year to see if things were going to work out for me in my new country," explains Alterman. "I arrived in Israel on April 1, 1991 and I started at the Jerusalem Report on April 1, 1992. Who knows where I'd be today if that hadn't happened just then."
Prior to that he had spent some time taking pictures for the various facilities of the Haifa Museum, but after a while realized he was on a professional dead ender. "There wasn't anything for me to do there so I told the Jewish Agency, who had found me the position, I was leaving." That meant striking out on his own. "The only thing I knew back then was that I wanted to work as a photographer and I wanted to live in Jerusalem," Alterman recalls. He found an apartment with the help of a friend and began looking for work. "I tried at all the newspapers but I was told there were more photographers than work available, and then I got an internship position at the Jerusalem Report through the Jewish Agency." And the rest, as they say, is history.
"I really enjoyed getting out on the road on assignments," says Alterman. "I've been to places in Israel that very few people get to." Mind you, there were a few hairy moments along the way. "Once, I went to take pictures at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem just before it opened and I got into the hippopotamus enclosure. I must have gotten too close to it because it got annoyed and started to charge at me. The zookeeper told me to press myself against the wall and not to move." Luckily the hippo calmed down but Alterman didn't get any close-ups of it.
Unfortunately, last year Alterman was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease, and is no longer able to take pictures. However, he has thousands of memorable photos in his archives, some of which made it into the Life in a Frame exhibition. The exhibits include intriguing pictures of well-known figures, the likes of Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert, and some no less poignant shots of Joe Public. "There's always something interesting to capture in anyone you meet," says Alterman. That comes through loud and clear in the Life in a Frame exhibition.