Still a photographer

Still a photographer

October 22, 2009 13:28


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As tens of thousands of mourners thronged the Mount of Olives cemetery to approach the shrouded corpse of Menachem Begin, Esteban Alterman stopped clicking his camera's shutter and took a step back. From the other side of the sandstone wall enclosing Begin's grave, Alterman had found his shot: 21 men of all different walks of life rushing the stone embankment up to the wall and hurling themselves over to press themselves into the already congested crowd. Scanning the ancient, rocky slope where Jews had been buried for 3,000 years, at one of the most historic funerals in the country's history, Alterman could hardly believe that less than a year earlier he was living in Buenos Aires, photographing parties to pay the rent. Over the next decade and a half, since launching a career as photographer and photo editor for The Jerusalem Report news magazine (part of The Jerusalem Post Group), such moments of gratitude would happen over and over again as he photographed Israel's most pivotal moments and diverse characters from workers in the shouk and Ethiopian immigrants to top politicians, clerics, philosophers, artists, authors, scientists and chefs. Until one day, the camera that was his steady companion started to feel like a heavy stone around his neck. "I was around 40 and I had never been very athletic, so I thought that it was normal aging. I bought some weights, but it didn't help. Photography requires a lot of physical activity, even when you are static," he says. Taking magnesium helped his cramping a little, but muscle spasms continued occasionally and last year his legs suddenly gave out as he crossed the street. "My face smashed into a parked car and nobody stopped to help me," he says. He lay in the street, scraped and praying that a car would not run him over, until he caught his breath and dragged himself to the nearest bus heading home. That was when Alterman decided to take his family for a visit to his native Argentina, so his father, a neurosurgeon, could arrange some medical tests. By the time the he headed back a few weeks later, the possibility of some serious neurological diseases had been raised, but nothing was clear. He went back and forth to neurologists at Hadassah-University Medical Center, until at 46 and feeling pretty fit except for some unexplainable episodes with his muscles, his doctor told him that his voluntary muscles were being progressively destroyed by ALS - Lou Gehrig's disease - and that he was going to die. TEN MONTHS later, sitting in a newly fitted green wheelchair, Alterman's arms, now thinning and hard to lift more than a few inches from his lap, are still in motion, directing a flurry of activity as his works were being hung in the Jerusalem Theater. It was three days before the opening of his first public photography exhibition in Israel and he was again feeling full of gratitude. "David Rubinger is the father of Israeli photojournalism," he says of the award-winning Time-Life photographer who selected the portraits on exhibition. "I first saw his work when I was around 10 at a book fair. I remember his portrait was on the back cover and I was so impressed by his face. He looked like a British Shakespearean actor and I thought, 'Only a person with such a face could have taken such pictures.'" Alterman had been hanging out in darkrooms since he was five or six years old, with his dad, an amateur photographer, who included his son in his weekend evening developing and printing activities. The excitement and interest he felt in the darkroom, coupled with the strong bond he developed with his father over the shared activity and the family's interest in culture, would help inspire his lifelong fascination with art, design, architecture and photography. Rubinger's photographs, as well as those of war photographer Robert Capa, also fueled his inspiration to become a photojournalist. When he fell in love with Capa's work, he told himself: "We are all born the same. If he can do it, so can I." Of Rubinger, he says: "I saw him many times over the years from afar and didn't dare shake his hand. In around 1993 or 1994, I took his picture and I was very nervous and of course the picture didn't come out very well. But over the years, as my confidence grew, I reviewed his book for The Jerusalem Report and I interviewed him. And now he's the curator of my exhibition. Wow. It's like a circle." When Rubinger reviewed a sample portfolio of Alterman's work, he was especially moved by the portraits. Thirty-five he hand selected include such diverse figures as Jerusalem's late mayor Teddy Kollek from the back addressing a sprawling crowd in a Turkish fez; comic book artist and writer Uri Fink looking like a comic character swirling in a sea of comics; Brother Daniel, a Holocaust survivor who became a priest, holding his head in his hands; Palestinian artist Suleiman Mansour, smiling up at a mural of angelic-looking figures; and director David Lynch peering from behind a door frame with one eye. "I am very impressed by the ability in these portraits - I know quite a lot of the people in the photos and more than the features of the person, you can feel their character not just what they look like," Rubinger said at the opening on October 16. "It's so important to have exhibitions like this, especially of documentary photography, on its deathbed." The majority of the works on exhibition received bids at a silent auction, still being calculated. "Esteban's photographs always looked wonderful in the pages of The Jerusalem Report," says David Horovitz, who was Alterman's editor at the magazine for many years and is now editor of The Jerusalem Post. "But seeing them enlarged and given breathing space in the Life in a Frame exhibition gives them a remarkable additional dimension. The photographer's care and skill are visible as never before. The ferocity in the features of Sheikh Nimr Darwish, the quiet dignity in the body language of the Ethiopian immigrants, for instance, resonate with far greater impact. Seeing the precise, elegant composition of so many of these photographs, you realize how outstanding a photographer Alterman is. "That Esteban's illness was the imperative for the exhibition is unthinkable, tragic. But what a vindication of his work. And how wonderful it was to see him, at the opening last Friday, watching people come into direct contact with his photographs as never before - watching the joy he rightly took in their appreciation of his work." "People really did find the beauty in the photos and the story in their faces," said longtime friend and former Jerusalem Report editor Sharon Ashley, who with a team of old friends, editors, colleagues and supporters, helped organize the show. The opening was as Alterman hoped, he says - "full and very happy." THE OPTIMISM and good health that Alterman exudes is not a mask, he says, but a decision to embrace life as it is each day without expectation. "ALS is a progressive and fatal disease. I asked the doctor if he was sure it was ALS and he said he was 1000 percent sure and that there is no cure. That was when I cried the first time. I felt I was very deep in a tunnel. It was so graphic. I was never so depressed like that. Then, waiting for the elevator, I said, 'I can't go any deeper than this. This is the bottom and from now on there is only one direction to go, and that is up." According to the National Institute of Health in the US, the majority of ALS patients die within three to five years from the onset of the symptoms, though approximately 10 percent survive for 10 or more years. The rate of degeneration is unpredictable. "Time is against you. I will be less able to do in two months what I can do now. I am sad sometimes; I cry sometimes; I am afraid. But I still work; I try to put it in proportion. What am I going to do, cry all day long? I don't have much time, so I try to enjoy things now. For example, I like the coffee at Aroma. It's a little expensive for me. But now I buy it whenever I want, because I don't know if in a month from now I'll be able to." Alterman, whose passions included traveling around the nooks and crannies of the country by car to shoot, has already lost the muscle strength to hold his foot to a gas pedal or brake or to hold a camera in his hands long or steady enough to press the shutter. "I have been in a wheelchair for two months. I had to stop driving; I had to stop taking pictures. I am surprised, but I don't feel desperate or hysterical about it. I still take pictures in my mind." Experimental treatments are of no interest. "I understand that this is it. I decided at some point not to fight it - since then I feel much better. There is no time, so there is no point in fighting. I heard that when you have this disease you don't think about the past or the future, you just take it one day at a time." With the progression of ALS, the nerve cells that control voluntary muscles degenerate and die, often rapidly. The senses of sight, smell, touch and taste are not affected, nor are the eye muscles or the muscles of the bladder or bowel. But ALS sufferers, at different rates, lose the use of their arms, legs and fingers, usually first, followed by the loss of the ability to chew, swallow and speak, and in final stages, the ability to breathe independently. "Eventually I probably will not be able to talk to my kids," Alterman says of his eight-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. "So I tell them now that I love them. I talk to them now. They hug me a lot, but I can't really hug them back. I had to learn to accept their help. I need lots of help and will need more, and I have accepted that I have to ask for help. "My family - we are all on the same highway but each on his own journey. We all live with this disease. "I try to broadcast optimism and good humor. But some people around me - I can't make them feel good or not be sad. That pisses me off because I'm okay." When Hebrew University anthropologist and dental anatomy professor Patricia Smith attended the opening and saw a portrait of herself with an ancient skull framed on the wall, she hugged Alterman and thanked him not only for her portrait but for such a beautiful show. "But I'm sorry to see you like this," she said. Alterman laughed and cocked his head toward her portrait. "At least I don't look like that [skull]," he said. On the wall behind him, the last portrait in the exhibition beckoned, one of a young Chernobyl survivor laughing and drawing a happy face on a blackboard. "The [main subject] doesn't have to be the prominent element in a photo. The context and environment help the viewer to understand more about the person," he says. This is true not only for his favorite portraits - like the child survivor of Chernobyl and one of Ehud Olmert during the 1993 mayoral race, standing casual and slightly unkempt besides a polished version of himself on a poster - but for some of his other favorites not in the show, like the one of Menachem Begin's funeral on the Mount of Olives. "I can't lift a camera or press a shutter anymore. I didn't win the Nobel Prize. But my pictures appeared in a high quality and serious, well-written magazine that reached smart people all over the world, and I'm part of that," he says. "Look at that happy kid drawing a happy face," he says, pointing. "This is right for a happy picture to be at the end. There has to be a happy ending." The portraits of Esteban Alterman will remain on display at the Jerusalem Theater through November 13. His work on display or from his archives can be purchased by

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