PHOTO IS:RAEL: Placing cameras in fresh hands

Activist group disrupts the social hierarchies of power to offer fresh visions of Israel and humanity.

August 20, 2019 21:13
4 minute read.
PHOTO IS:RAEL: Placing cameras in fresh hands

17-year-old Gayasko Piasko in Addis Abba . (photo credit: Courtesy)

Where does the power of photography come from? When the medium was first introduced, it offered a novel way with which to depict human lives. No longer would we face painted portraits of rulers and battles and wonder “Was it really so?” The technical nature of photography, the promise that this mechanical process in which light itself [photo] bounces back to leave a mark [graph] on sensitive materials, in a split second no less, means that modern people are able to look at images of the past in ways no other generation before could.

This is not a sculpture, Lincoln really did look like that. This is not a panoramic 1821 painting by John Trumbull depicting, for example, Burgoyne’s 1777 surrender during the Revolutionary War, this is an actual photograph of a Civil War battlefield. True, photographs are often staged, edited, censored and even altered (the famous 1945 photograph Raising a Red Flag over the Reichstag by Yevgeny Khaldei was doctored to remove various wristwatches the Red Army soldier liberated for himself while liberating Europe from the Nazis). But their claim on truth, on reality-as-it-actually-is, still excites us today in an age of digital non-stop image making and sharing.

Often the power of photography was harnessed in more prosaic ways by hierarchies of power. Criminals are photographed by the police when they are taken into custody, and witnesses are sometimes asked to look at photos of known felons. “Was this the man?” Army intelligence offers combat units satellite images of where they must do battle. Members of the academia, usually from the West, took photographs of various non-European peoples they met in Asia, Africa and the Americas during the age of Western conquest and colonialism. The last Hawaiian Queen, Liliuokalani, was photographed in regal clothes in 1891 by James J. Williams. She was overthrown two years later.

Now PHOTO IS:RAEL, an activist group which merges photography, education and inclusion, offers a unique way to use that power. What if cameras and knowledge about the art of image making was provided to those not used to seeing their points of view on display? What if Bedouin women are asked to document their lives? Or people on the Autistic spectrum? What will happen to the photographers when they see their work presented at photography festivals and seen by others?

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, professional photographer Eyal Landesman explains how vital it is for him that PHOTO IS:RAEL workshop participants be given a badge indicating they are photographers, not visitors, when they see their work in a photography exhibition. “This is the same professional badge given to a professional photographer who flew in from New York to show his or her work,” he said, “and so [our participants] get to meet people and speak with the audience at eye-level. This is the real dialogue.”

LANDESMAN, WHO gained global notice for his work on the 2007 music-video Her Morning Elegance by Oren Lavie, said his journey began in 2009.

“We wanted to break the hierarchies,” he explained. The biggest shift in the process came when it was realized, “It is not enough to present communities that need help on the gallery wall and have other people dress up and see the photographs and make pitying noises. We began to explore the thought of what would happen if communities are given tools to take their own pictures.”
Some argue that the extensive increase of digital image taking and sharing leads to difficulties, starting from people who are too focused on taking photos of their latest meal on their phones to enjoy the moment, and ending with governments presenting doctored images and videos to push forward their agendas. Landesman has a different point of view.

“The more people use photography and share their work, the better it is from my point of view,” he told the Post. “The question is how they use the language [of photography].” After all, he points out, the invention of typewriters did not make everyone a brilliant writer either.

Saying that he prefer to enjoy a sunset and not take a picture of it, Landesman argues these are not artistic issues but social processes that we are going through. “The question we ask today is, ‘What makes good photography?’ Nobody really knows,” he said.

Insisting PHOTO IS:RAEL is not about using photography as a therapeutic tool but about teaching skills to communities, he adds, “We haven’t invented anything,” citing the discipline of photo-voice, developed in the US in the 1990s, and the same-named British charity as powerful inspirations for PHOTO IS:RAEL.

The first project taken on by PHOTO IS:RAEL was to teach young people on the autistic spectrum how to use the language of photography so they could document their school graduation. Today the foundation offers a three-month training course to group teachers and engages with young Bedouin from unrecognized communities in the Negev, those who struggle with addiction, and former servicemen and women who are overcoming traumas.

PHOTO IS:RAEL was able to reach 55 different groups across the country in 2019, with 70 guides who volunteer their time and dedication to promote the goals of empowerment and inclusion. With the upcoming 9th International Photography Festival meant to take place in November, PHOTO IS:RAEL wishes to bring to the gallery members from 45 groups who will present roughly 450 photos. The groups include elderly people, at-risk youth, the deaf, and others who greatly appreciate the invitation to tell their stories.

PHOTO IS:RAEL will hold a special fundraising event in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on September 2 with singer and musician Ivri Lider and artist and photographer Liron Kroll.

For more about programs, the fund raiser or volunteering:

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