Caught in the moment

Reporter Gillian Laub came to Israel to see what kind of images her camera would capture. The results, published in her new book 'Testimony,' are disarming.

laub image 88 (photo credit: )
laub image 88
(photo credit: )
When Gillian Laub took off for Israel five years ago, she didn't know what she was going to photograph. She only knew she had go to there and make pictures, as they say in the business. She felt compelled to document something about this troubled little country at the center of a violent conflict that swallows lives like an angry, swollen river. After 18 trips to Israel, the talented shooter finally figured it out and has assembled her photos in a book called 'Testimony,', which will be published by Aperture in May. The book - Laub's first - contains 50 portraits of people living in Israel, including the combustible West Bank. With her medium-format camera, Laub captures a provocative mixture of broken bodies, survival and hope among Israelis, Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and displaced Lebanese families. Their attitudes run counter to widespread impressions of the region's inhabitants. "The people I encountered were people who were reasonable and rational," Laub, 31, said in an interview. "They were not fanatics." Laub, who is based in New York City and works for The New York Times Magazine and other major publications, is not a conflict or war photographer. But she manages to frame the horrors of war with jarring accuracy. Above all, she does it fairly - no small feat considering the passions that divide those embroiled in this unrelenting struggle. In this region, pictures can be as inflammatory as words. How does Laub succeed in her work? She randomly found men, women and children willing to talk and share their pain or thoughts in brief testimonies that accompany the pictures. Almost everybody was willing to talk. Almost everybody was willing to let her snap away. The photos in the book evolve. At first, there are intense expressions and rattling perspectives. DIMET, AN Israeli who lives in Tel Aviv, refused to join the army. For this, he has become a pariah. Laub photographs him in a park with his wife and three children. "After so many years of war, why can't we just all move on," Dimet says, almost naively. "Stop the occupation and maybe they will stop bombing." Haya and Hannan of Jaffa are Israeli Arabs. They're not so different from Dimet. "The Jews and Arabs fight, even though we are all the same," they tell Laub. "They fight about nonsense. We hope to have peace between everyone." There's Nicola and his dog. An Israeli shell fell near his house in Bethlehem in 2002. He lost an arm and gained a gruesome scar around the shoulder. Israeli police shot Muhammad in the head in 2000 at the beginning of the second Intifada, or uprising. He's confined to a wheelchair and cannot speak. "In war, everyone pays a price," Muhammad's father says. Guy had both his legs blown off below the knee while serving as a paratrooper in the IDF. Against a backdrop of peaceful mountains, Laub takes the picture while Guy sits next his girlfriend. Gabi sits with his son. Two terrorists opened fire with guns and grenades while he was voting. A bullet struck his forehead, leaving a giant indentation. He wears a discomforting look of surprise - like realizing he just got shot. "I used to be very far right," he says. "Now I just want peace and am willing to give up a lot for it. The pain war causes is just not worth it. Our children should not have to live like this." The most troubling of the portraits in this book is of a young woman named Kinneret Boosany. Kneeling on her bed, she reveals terrible injuries suffered in a suicide bombing. Burned on 70 percent of body, one of the prettiest women in Tel Aviv now has to wear a burn suit. Her face is disfigured; her body is blanketed in scar tissue. "My goal is to show the world that the force of life is stronger than everything," she says. Laub recalls shaking when she took that picture. "That's a really important picture to me," Laub said. "She's very, very vulnerable." Laub, the photojournalist, understands she could return to Israel in 50 years and find nothing has changed and take similar pictures of similar victims - a depressing stasis. "Change takes a long, long time," she said. "But the only way to make change is to try."