Photographing angels

Merav Stark's ‘Israel’s Trail’ takes viewers on a photographic journey of life, environment, society and culture.

Happy trails - Apollonia between Netanya and Herzliya 390 (photo credit: Merav Stark)
Happy trails - Apollonia between Netanya and Herzliya 390
(photo credit: Merav Stark)
We know that this country has long been a global media target, although often not for overly positive reasons. However, Merav Stark is doing her best to show Londoners a cheerier side of the Israeli demeanor with her exhibition of photographs of the Israel Trail, currently in progress at the Apthorpe Gallery of the ArtsDepot center in North London.
Mind you, taking snapshots of our national hiking route was not exactly what Stark initially set her daytime activity sights on.
“I have a doctorate in microbiology and molecular genetics,” states Stark – which doesn’t exactly lead seamlessly into her current preoccupation with cameras. In fact, it was a dramatic and potentially life-threatening development which steered Stark’s hands away from microscopes and on to the lens and shutter button.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I had to stay out of the laboratories, because there were carcinogenic substances there,” she explains.
Then again, it wasn’t as if, once she could no longer work in the profession for which she trained long and hard, she just opted for photography. The-shot snapping roots go back several years, and a generation.
“My father has been a photographer for over half a century and has had exhibitions all over the country, including at Artists’ House in Tel Aviv,” says Stark. “I and my siblings all got a camera for our bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah.”
Despite getting the equipment at an early age Stark did not become an avid photographer from the outset and, ultimately, she was drawn her into taking photography seriously in somewhat inverted fashion.
“I got into [graphic editing computer software] Photoshop and I thought, if I know the program I should really take pictures, too.”
That decision was taken eight years ago and, once bitten, Stark dived headlong into the hobby, and has run a photography club near her home in Modi’in for the last four years.
The current exhibition in London was spawned by the marriage of her photographic endeavor with another love.
“I have always enjoyed walking,” says Stark. “I was 49 years old and I thought: I am almost 50, why don’t I treat myself to a walk, and take pictures along the way. For me it was the ideal combination of two things I really like doing.”
She had several partners along the way, and did part of the walk solo.
“My daughter has just finished the army, around the time of Rosh Hashana, and I said she should come along with me as, anyway, there was no chance of her finding work during the [holiday] season.”
Stark’s daughter duly joined her mom on the trail, but left to start a job after three weeks.
“Various people walked with me but I also had days when I was on my own. On the one hand that allowed me to focus on the trail and taking pictures, but it is also nice to have companions.”
“The Israel Trail” exhibition follows a local photography show of a more environmental nature.
“I had a roving exhibition, with an ecological agenda, which ran all over the country, including at the Eretz Israel Museum [in Tel Aviv], the Jerusalem Theater and at Beit Gabriel [by the Kinneret],” explains Stark. “For around 18 months I took pictures of garbage which people left behind them at one of the beaches by the Kinneret. That was designed to raise environmental awareness.”
With her confidence bolstered by the success of the Kinneret show Stark set out to try and interest the outside world in her work.
“I went to a few galleries in Paris and London, with a portfolio of pictures from ‘The Israel Trail’ and the ArtsDepot center people liked what they saw,” she recalls, adding that she had some premeditated national-image-related intent too.
“People around the world are not aware of this aspect of Israel. It’s normally about the holy places, religion, Jerusalem or wars. I thought the Israel Trail is the kind of thing I’d like people abroad to know about. I hope the show manages to introduce non-Israelis to a more positive side of this country they did not previously know about.”
The items in the London exhibition focus on three themes: walkers, different ways of traversing the trail and “trail angels.” Stark was particularly keen to put the latter in the limelight.
“The angels are wonderful people who simply open their homes to walkers. They provide accommodation, or a hot shower, or drop drinking water off at some point along the trail for walkers. Their phone numbers are on a web site and there are more and more people who offer their services, free of charge. When I did the walk there were around 100, and now there are close to 200. It’s a wonderful phenomenon and I thought that people outside Israel, too, should know about them.”
It is also a classic example of “do unto others,” with walkers repaying kindness in kind whenever possible.
“There was one kibbutz along the trail where we were told that a bunch of walkers came to spend the night there and, as they were unable to continue the walk the next day, they volunteered at the kibbutz for a day.”
Stark says her 75-day trail sojourn has left her with an abundance of positive added value.
“I came out of the walk better off spiritually and physically, and I am delighted I can share that with people in London.”
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