Close-up

Israel's top photojournalists reveal the drama and the danger of life behind the lens.

By SAM SER
May 31, 2006 08:47
warning pix bw 298

warning pix bw 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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The young man looks the part: he's fit, he's energetic and he has with him not only several samples of his work, but also the expensive equipment it'll take to produce more at a moment's notice. He has come to the Reuters office in Tel Aviv to meet with experienced news photographer Gil Cohen Magen to try to get his foot in the door - and he's been fortunate enough to be greeted as well by 20-year veteran Menahem Kahana of AFP. Perhaps, he hopes, they will give him a job. Or a chance. Or a tip. What he gets is a gentle lashing for the professional no-no, only a few days prior, of trying to impress Kahana with his photos from the Lag Ba'omer festivities at Mount Meron - unaware that Kahana was right there on the scene, had been right there on the scene for years and was doing just fine, thank you. ("Next time, introduce yourself to another photographer before you try to sell him your pictures," Cohen Magen advises while Kahana is out of the room.) In an extremely competitive and increasingly exhausting field, the lesson of discretion is not the only one this young photographer will need to absorb. If he can handle the pace of covering half a dozen events in a day, he'll still have to learn to overcome the monotony of snapping countless handshakes, remand hearings, first days of school, workers' strikes and stiffly formal ceremonies. The singular moment in which all the elements of a compelling photograph align for him will be maddeningly elusive, demanding constant awareness and uncanny anticipation. He'll have to be prepared to risk physical danger and deal with intense emotional trauma. When he shoots at a funeral, mourners will curse him. As he attempts to photograph a visiting head of state, colleagues will knock him down to obtain a better position. And after he has stared, over and over again and from several different angles, at the horrific suffering of terrorism victims that he is powerless to assuage and obligated to document in gruesome detail, no one will call him a hero and offer him solace. Instead, there will be only the call of another assignment. "This job," the hardened Kahana notes dryly, "is not for the weak." What a series of reversals Tsafrir Abayov has undergone. Having suffered an eye injury as a teenager, the Ashkelon native realized he would not serve a combat role in the military. So, with some photography work for a local newspaper already under his belt, Abayov joined the air force and took aerial photographs. In 1988, he went to an arts school in Montreal to study news and fashion photography and then, after three years, went to Los Angeles to pursue his fortune. The problem, he says, was that he "didn't know anything" - not even how to write up a resume. He worked odd jobs in Hollywood while trying to break into the business; his first assignment was to photograph a celebrity leaving a hospital for the tabloid The National Enquirer. From there it was a lot of celebrity chasing, movie premieres and college sports - to this day Abayov is hooked on sports, and shoots soccer and basketball for Yediot Aharonot - until his big break came with the Rodney King riots in 1992. When the Northridge earthquake of January 1994 (the most costly earthquake in United States history) struck, Abayov's photojournalism career was just hitting its stride. The photos that he took of his neighborhood, two kilometers away from the epicenter, would appear as a two-page spread in Life. And then came the car accident. After he woke up from the coma, Abayov still had to spend a few months in a hospital in California before returning to Israel for rehabilitative therapy at Beit Loewenstein. In all, he didn't work for close to three years. Abayov's return to action came, he says simply, "because I wanted to feel like a photographer again." He was sitting at his parents' home in Ashkelon, watching TV, he recalls, when he saw on television that Yasser Arafat was going to meet Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres at the nearby Erez crossing. Heading out on a whim, Abayov arrived to find just one person awaiting the VIPs' arrival. It was Barry Iverson of Time, a photographer who had already earned his stripes by the time an Israeli shell shattered his leg in Lebanon in 1982. That Iverson could return to photojournalism after suffering such a serious injury inspired Abayov to relaunch his own career - which he has done, working as a freelancer for more than a decade for Yediot, AP, The Jerusalem Post and others. Since his pep talk from Iverson, Abayov has experienced more ups and downs. On the up side was the highly publicized release from prison of Mordechai Vanunu in 2004. It started out poorly, too: Scores of photographers from all over the world had crowded around the small spot in the prison parking lot where Vanunu, Israel's so-called nuclear whistleblower, was to meet the press. Unsuccessful in his attempt to jostle his way into the crowd, Abayov instead stood off to the side, next to the prison's outer gates, somewhat dejected. But as all the others struggled to get a decent angle, Vanunu suddenly ran to the gate - straight toward Abayov - to greet his supporters who had gathered outside. Abayov's exclusive photo of Vanunu climbing the bars and thrusting his arm forward with a "V" gesture was picked up all around the world. Sometimes, he says, you just get lucky. On the down side, though, was the time when he was sent to Pe'at Sadeh in Gush Katif to cover the murder of a middle-aged Israeli entrepreneur by a Palestinian terrorist. "I'll never forget this," Abayov recalls. "I was standing next to the body of the terrorist when a friend of mine called. As soon as she heard that I was in Gush Katif, she hung up the phone. I didn't understand why. But a few minutes later she called back and said, 'That was my uncle.' There I was, standing next to the terrorist's body, as about 40 Palestinian workers were standing there in their underwear, being searched and interrogated… What was I supposed to say to her? "Later, she asked me to come to the family's home. As soon as I pulled up, her father came out - it was his brother who was killed - and gave me this terrible stare. God, what could I possibly say to him? What could I say to the family? Shortly afterward my friend asked to see my photos from the scene, but I refused… "The next time there was a terrorist attack," Abayov says, "I was afraid to go cover it. I was afraid I would know the victim. And to this day, I have that fear." They come and go in a flash - the moments that Ariel Jerozolimski captures in "Freeze Frame," snapshots of life's funny contrasts. As much as he loves to snare such moments, Jerozolimski hates when one gets away. "I was passing the Old City of Jerusalem once when I noticed a group of monks carrying televisions over their heads - you don't expect that, right? - but by the time I could stop and take out my camera, they had gone," he laments. "It's well known that I'm always on the lookout for things like that. Once I was on vacation in Turkey when my daughter, seeing a funny situation, called out, 'Look, Daddy! A Freeze Frame!'" Jerozolimski's father, the editor of a Jewish newspaper in Uruguay, encouraged his son's two aspirations, photography and Zionism; when Ariel made aliya at age 18, he had already shot enough pictures for local newspapers to fund several upgrades to his camera. Jerozolimski started his military service in the Armored Corps, but he later moved to the IDF Spokesman's Office, where he took up photography again. After leaving the army, Jerozolimski worked at AFP's photo laboratory and shot pictures for the short-lived Hadashot newspaper, as well as a Jerusalem local newspaper. By early 1999, he was named chief photographer of The Jerusalem Post - which counts on him to provide not only his humorous slice-of-life pictures but also a significant amount of its news photography. Despite his affinity for capturing the playful and even bizarre images that crop up in Israeli life, Jerozolimski takes a serious approach to his work. "You have to flip a switch in your head and keep your cool," he says of covering the dramas, both political and security-related, that are commonplace in Jerusalem - whether that means rushing into the middle of a chaotic scene, or staying calm and finding just the right spot to capture that chaos on film. Like other news photographers, Jerozolimski admits that he is sometimes thrown for a loop while covering profoundly sad events, identifying with those who have struggled to continue shooting during the heart-rending moments. "There have been times when I was crying as I was shooting," Jerozolimski says matter-of-factly. "You try very hard to disconnect your personal feelings - not to completely shut them off inside you, but to hold out as long as possible, to disconnect your personal pain and sorrow as much as possible, and to keep shooting. It's a huge emotional effort." But Jerozolimski is quick to note that news photographers are a lucky breed as well. "This job affords you the opportunity to do and to see things that most people will never do and see," he says. Things like worrying that the rickety old Russian airplane carrying an Israeli delegation of journalists over Uzbekistan will break apart and plummet back to earth at any moment, he jokes. Or like photographing the in-air refueling of an Israeli F-15 over Europe, plying the deep sea in an Israel Navy submarine or patrolling the coast with a Dabur team, he adds. And there are still plenty of funny moments - some of them, like the time an Argentinean aide suffered a revealing "wardrobe malfunction" at a public meeting with then-foreign minister Shimon Peres, that may never even appear in "Freeze Frame." Considering that there are so many photographers in the field today, Jerozolimski says, it is almost impossible to get an exclusive shot of an important event the likes of which built the careers of earlier generations of news photographers. That's why you have to try to make every picture as interesting and unique as possible, he adds. And as long as you're doing that, he says, "This job will never get old." Tricks of the trade come from all over. Ricki Rosen learned them in Brooklyn, Port-au-Prince, Moscow and Beirut. Rosen, who grew up in New York City, got her first big break because she was the first person keen enough to notice the group of blacks in Crown Heights who had crossed the line dividing the neighborhood and become hassidic Jews. The photo essay that she did on them was the kind of work that eventually won her greater access to the Lubavitcher rebbe than just about any other female journalist had ever had, with the media-savvy sect providing bodyguards for her while she photographed the charismatic leader for a New York magazine cover story. Rosen, who went on to become a contract features photographer for Time and make aliya, documenting the massive Russian influx and the smaller but more dangerous immigration of Ethiopian Jews, recalls the shortcuts that young photographers would take in an attempt to impress. "In New York, we used to say that if something provided you with the opportunity to make exciting pictures it was like shooting homeless people. Every photographer starting out in New York would photograph homeless people," she says, "because it always produces something powerful that tugs at your heartstrings. And, it's impossible to miss." Nothing Rosen had done in New York, however, was as powerful or as impossible to miss as what she saw when she flew to Haiti in 1986 to cover the chaotic days after dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier fled the country. "When I got there, there were people running amok in the streets and going after the collaborators of the government. People were being killed by stoning, or hanged. It was very violent," Rosen recalls from her living room in Jerusalem. While picking up tips from the veteran photographers who had already filmed their share of bloodthirsty mobs, Rosen underwent a sort of initiation to which no homeless shoot could compare. "As we were roaming the streets we came upon a scene where a mob was stoning a man to death. I had this strange experience that, unfortunately, I've experienced many times afterward, here: I was doing horizontals and verticals, with flash and without - trying to make it artistic, because it was so gory - and I was doing it without thinking that this was real blood and a real body. "Later, when I started to develop the pictures," she continues, "I started to feel nauseous - because I couldn't believe that I had been in the middle of this scene and had just shot away. When you see it through the camera, it's almost as if you're watching a movie, that you're not actually experiencing it." A decade later, Rosen was shooting the macabre scene of a bombed-out bus in Jerusalem when that feeling slammed into her again. "I was on the roof of a building, shooting down, sort of removed from the scene below. But as I came down from the roof," she says, "a volunteer from ZAKA came up to me with something in his hand. Suddenly he opened his fist and said, 'Look, teeth.' …I just broke down in tears, because that was real. I wasn't photographing, it wasn't through a frame. It was close to me. It became so apparent that I had been photographing the destruction of human life." Carrying a camera has brought the conflict close to Rosen in other ways as well. "There are definitely some very violent and dangerous people who don't like being photographed," she says coolly. "For instance, there was a Hizbullah terrorist who was planning to detonate a bomb in Jerusalem, but he had an accident and the bomb blew off his hands and legs. We had an interview with him in the hospital where he was being held. "Then, there was a prisoner exchange with Lebanon, and he was one of the ones who was being traded. So a writer from Time and I went up to Beirut to interview his family and interview him when he arrived. It was a very tricky thing because they couldn't know that we were based in Israel; they were hard-core Hizbullah. It was also a part of Beirut that was not very friendly to Americans, and we were both American. "At one point, there were these gunmen playing with their weapons and, as I started to photograph them" - and here Rosen pauses as the memory plays itself out in her mind - "they… well, they made it very clear to me that I had better leave, or I'd find myself beheaded." A much more pleasant experience was making a fan of Ariel Sharon, who was known for his dislike of photo sessions. For an exclusive interview with a French magazine, the former prime minister's media liaison was demanding that Rosen finish shooting within five minutes. Fortunately, though, she had remembered to bring along photos she had taken of Sharon at his Sycamore Ranch not long before. Smitten by the flattering pictures of himself proudly holding a sheep around his shoulders, Sharon gave her all the time she needed. "He even invited me back to the ranch and promised to hoist a calf onto his shoulders the next time," Rosen recalls with a laugh. "Man, I wish I had taken him up on that offer!" 'There is a problem with our business," says Menahem Kahana. He should know, too, having worked more than two decades for AFP, covering not only events in Israel but also Olympic Games, the pope, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and much, much more. "Most of Israeli news photography," he explains, "is centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and politics, with a few holidays thrown in and a little bit of sports here and there. And even that is covered in as superficial a manner as possible. "As a professional photographer you may aspire to shoot deeper subjects [Kahana has been photographing haredi life, as a personal project, over a decade], but you don't have any time for it. You shoot 20 funerals every year, or more. You try to be creative, but how creative can you be at 20 funerals a year?" Gil Cohen Magen nods in agreement. "You become like a machine, like a factory, producing the same old pictures over and over," says the seven-year veteran, who started out at Yediot filling five or six assignments a day before joining Reuters. "But, if you're as experienced as Menahem, you can cover an event and sense exactly when the right moment to shoot is coming." "Actually," Kahana retorts, "if you know that something is going to happen, it's generally not very exciting. After all, if you know something is bound to happen, someone else probably does, too. So if you shoot that, what have you created, really? The idea is to 'fish' for the strange moments, the unforeseen moments, the moments that no one expects." That both men have seen so much helps them identify the shot that their editors will want, even as it makes them somewhat immune to the dramas they capture on film. "You can be very close to something physically, and the camera will give you emotional distance," Kahana explains. "I'm a lot 'rougher' than I used to be. Once I would take everything seriously, but after a few years of this you don't cry anymore." Even so, both hard-nosed veterans admit that the job has an emotional cost. "At one of the Mahaneh Yehuda bombings in Jerusalem, I saw a man lying on the ground with part of his leg blown off. He was not only alive but still conscious, and screaming terribly," says Kahana. "Well, you keep shooting and move on… but it haunts you in your dreams." Cohen Magen's breaking point came in late 2002 at Kibbutz Metzer, where a Palestinian infiltrator shot dead five people - including a mother and her two young children, as she tried in vain to shield them from the terrorist's bullets. It was a particularly shocking murder, at the end of a year riddled with atrocities. For Avi Ohayun, the ex-husband and father of the victims, it was a thundering blow; over the next few days, the entire nation would be gripped by the tremendous depth of his grief and pain. When Cohen Magen arrived at the home that night, though, Ohayun was just arriving as well. "There was so much blood… so much blood," he says now, still in disbelief. "[Ohayun] was absolutely torn to shreds inside; he had found his children's pacifiers and was sucking on them and weeping. My first child had just been born, and I just couldn't bear to see that. I couldn't manage to take a single picture in focus." The next day, Cohen Magen was assigned to cover the Ohayuns' funerals, but he refused. He couldn't do it. Of course, such incidents are extraordinary. "But you can get called to an event at any time, 24 hours a day. You definitely have to have a supportive family," says Cohen Magen. "And the desire to do this job has to flow in your veins."

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