Capturing Jerusalem on camera

Trying to make photographic sense of the Old City

May 17, 2019 23:00
Capturing Jerusalem on camera

The newly rebuilt Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter with a model of the Jewish Temple menorah in the foreground. (photo credit: EITAN SIMANOR)


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OUR HEARTS easily fill up with empathy for the writer who suffers from fear of the blank page, probably because we have all experienced similar pathology in some way. But who takes pity on the photographer struggling with a photographic project in the Old City of Jerusalem?

He or she is confronted, on a daily basis, with the exact opposite but not less traumatic phenomenon: The Old City resembles an exuberant theater set, the countless actors are all hyperactive and the set is textured like an ancient parchment covered with Holy Scriptures over which endless militant graffiti has been scribbled.

The photographer is like a radar operator forced to decipher a weak signal hidden among white noises of high intensity! Working around his subject, he is constantly trying to keep his frame reasonably clean from the overwhelming data in the form of hectic activity and chronic disorder. To achieve a “clean shot” in the streets of the Old City is about as unlikely as to come across the messiah.

I can testify to the above as a privileged witness. Indeed, most of my photographic projects in Jerusalem are based on the observation of the feverish daily activity in the streets and at the sites of the Old City, in an attempt to decipher the fascinating groundswell that sweeps this tiny microcosm.

Eitan Simanor (Courtesy)

As part of my self-assigned mission to capture the essence of Jerusalem I have developed techniques, I have learned by heart the map of the Old City, I know the light at each street corner in every season (almost) and I relentlessly cover events and locations inside the Old City Walls. According to any learned photographic tutorial, I should long ago have transcended the Old City of Jerusalem. Well, I have not.

Yet two quotations by legendary American photographer Dorothea Lange have helped me make progress: “Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion.... The subject must be something you truly love or truly hate.”

As I bumped into this quote I first concluded that I had done the right thing but then realized that I never actually got close to exhaustion. Since then I have become less empathic towards my fatigues and I have multiplied my efforts. I like to think that it has paid off, maybe. As for true love or true hate towards the Old City, I still have to make up my mind… A quote by yet another remarkable American photographer, Susan Meiselas, saved me from the dilemma: “The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong. It gives me both a point of connection and a point of separation.”

A second quote by Dorothea Lange hit me like a revelation. I was at first vastly destabilized, until I turned it into my Gospel: “To know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting, and often false.”

A father and child walking by a traditional Arabic pastry stall in the Muslim market (Eitan Simanor)

As a photographer in Jerusalem, you are almost never alone when working on a subject or an event, as banal as it may be. It is not rare to be surrounded by a crowd of fame-thirsty photographers like yourself. The tendency is to stick with the flock and to focus on the more dramatic, iconic, mediatic scenes. The result often comes as a series of pale and preconceived clichés. But if you purposely take some distance from the bustle, change perspective, search for the seemingly inconspicuous characters, turn your back to the obvious, you are then stepping into a brand new and fascinating Jerusalem.

As a result, you are likely to find yourself digging even deeper through white noise, but with a little bit of faith and enough obstinacy you are now ready to capture some true gems, hopefully. Don’t be surprised of course if, as the day draws to an end, just before the Old City’s narrow alleys turn pitch black while the crowds have deserted them, as your body refuses to respond after endless hours of legwork and your feet are desperately pleading for mercy, you are left with no more than a handful of photographs out of which only one might be singled out. Time to consider this next delightful quote by British author W. Sommerset Maugham: “Every production of an artist should be the expression of an adventure of his soul.”

An Israeli flag is held up next to a Palestinian youngster during a march through the Muslim Quarter on Jerusalem Day (Eitan Simanor)

THE PHOTOGRAPHER is to expect yet more frustration in his ambitious campaign to conquer the Old City of Jerusalem. Most visuals describing the city and its human fabric inevitably encompass an iconic dimension, a dialogue between the subconscious and some of the more universal cultural landmarks.

It undoubtedly has to do with the fact that Jerusalem enjoys a Holy Destiny… but more prosaically it is linked to the fact that within the nations whose cultures are impregnated with monotheistic affinities, all individuals share a sizable collection of concepts and images acquired from their close surrounding, from their exposure to education, to art, culture or entertainment and from their own relationship with faith.

What is common to some of these concepts and images is that they have emanated from religious dogmas or from stories out of holy books. This quote by French author Albert Camus might make some of us smile but it certainly does not leave any of us indifferent: “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t, than live as if there isn’t and to die to find out that there is.”

A Christian pilgrim carrying a cross to reenact the way of the cross along the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday (Eitan Simanor)

Jerusalem plays a central role as a Holy City in all three monotheistic narratives. The Bible, the Gospels and the Koran have inspired humanity for as long as they exist.

Hollywood has produced blockbusters, based on stories and characters intimately linked with biblical Jerusalem. The far-reaching influence of religious symbols, heroes and stories on our subconscious is difficult to quantify. One extreme if controversial example is Jerusalem Syndrome, a mental condition which is rooted in “religiously-themed obsessive ideas,” or as Wikipedia puts it: “Jerusalem Syndrome is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously- themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not endemic to one single religion or denomination but has affected Jews, Christians, and Muslims of many different backgrounds.”

Jewish Orthodox youngsters in the Jewish Quarter during the Festival of Lights (Eitan Simanor)

A WESTERN photographer is influenced by these religiously-themed messages. What does he or she see, what do they feel when they set out to work on a photographic project in the Old City of Jerusalem and how does all this transpire into their work?

The photographer is actually holding a double-edged sword. On the one hand, his creative moves and decisions are influenced by his Judeo-Christian background. On the other hand, while photographing in Jerusalem, you are confronted with the “real thing” at lens’ length, as if you are immersing yourself in a biblical story.

Add to this the fact that the targeted public of viewers are most likely to be Westerners who are themselves a product of Judeo-Christian culture. How are they viewing and interpreting his photographs of Jerusalem, being themselves under the influence of their own religious background?

A young and talented Israeli photographer, Adi Nes, made a clear choice early in his career. He embraces all the elements of his identity as part of his art. “My staged photographs are oversized and often recall well-known scenes from art history and Western civilization combined with my own experiences from my life as a gay youth.”

A young Jewish couple relaxing on a public bench in the Jewish Quarter (Eitan Simanor)

One of his well-known images recreates Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” but replaces the central figures with Israeli soldiers. The photograph appeared on the front page of The New York Times in 2008. In his photography, Adi Nes does not make use of the reality at street level in today’s Jerusalem.

As an artist he takes the freedom to interpret and transpose religiously-themed icons into a studio environment. As for the photographer working on a project in the Old City, the narrow alleys are his studio and real life crowds are his models. These being the streets of Jerusalem, his photographs will inevitably include elements of religiously-themed icons. But the grating reality, the harsh Middle Eastern light and the inherent disorder are no match for the glitter of Hollywood productions or the splendor of historical paintings of biblical scenes by the greatest known masters of art.

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