Getting the true picture

Atalia Katz started her career as a photographer almost by chance. Serendipity had a role to play in the showing of her exhibition on the Falash Mura, too.

Ethiopian children playing 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Atalia Katz)
Ethiopian children playing 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Atalia Katz)
Atalia Katz seems to have the knack for being in the right place at the right time, which isn’t a bad attribute for a photographer to have. The results of the 60- year-old grandmother of nine’s go-withthe- flow ethos are currently on display at the Jerusalem International Convention Center in an emotive exhibition of photographs entitled “Voice of Ethiopian Jews,” which depicts Falash Mura awaiting aliya in the Jewish Agency compound in Gondar, Ethiopia.
The highly professional prints notwithstanding, Katz first put index finger to camera button only five years ago but, once bitten, she caught the photography bug in right royal fashion, taking almost every opportunity to get out there and document the people, buildings and landscapes around her.
The exhibition in Jerusalem was the result of an unplanned discovery. “In January 2010 I went on a trip to Ethiopia to take pictures of all sorts of things there,” Katz recounts. “You know – the mountains, nature, that sort of stuff. I was very excited about the trip. Every time I go on a photographic trip, it’s like the first time for me. Every time I take pictures, I get a thrill.”
Katz has been active in various artistic fields, including painting and sculpture, for some years but got into photography almost by chance. “I suddenly found myself with a void in my life, and I started making trips abroad. The first one was to Vietnam and Cambodia with a friend. I went to the duty-free store at Ben-Gurion Airport and decided I would take a camera with me, but not one of those cheap jobs. I decided to go for the most expensive camera they had, and my friend said, ‘Why don’t you take this one?’ It was a [Canon EOS] 5D.”
It was love at first click.
“It was like being swept away. I just took pictures and more pictures on that trip. I really got into it, and I felt I had a natural talent for it.”
Katz, it appears, does not do things by halves. After her Far East trip, she took various photography courses in Israel and at the International Center of Photography in New York.
By the time Katz got to Ethiopia, she was well versed in the working of her various cameras – the 5D was gradually augmented by a Leica and other state-of-the-art equipment – and was immediately taken with the things she encountered at the transit camp for the Falash Mura, who are not recognized as Jews in Israel and are therefore allowed to immigrate only in small numbers. “It was so moving to see these people living at the camps,” Katz recalls with undisguised emotion.
Naturally, Katz’s first showing of the Falash Mura pictures was also the product of unadulterated chance. “I was in New York and met a friend and showed him some of the pictures I’d taken in Ethiopia. I hadn’t really planned it, but I was excited about the photographs and wanted to share them with him.”
Serendipity then slipped into top gear. “After that, while he was waiting for the elevator in his office building, he happened to meet the owner of a gallery on 57th Street he knew and, while they were chatting, mentioned my photos. The gallery owner said she’d just had a cancellation and was looking for something for an exhibition, quickly. It was amazing.”
The story just gets more fantastic and better for Katz. Some members of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, who were involved in trying to facilitate the Falash Mura’s aliya, saw the exhibition, and Katz was duly invited to join a trip to Ethiopia to accompany a group of Falash Mura on their long-awaited journey to Israel.
Katz says that in addition to being on hold in the transit camps in Ethiopia for several years, the Ethiopian Jews’ odyssey here is an experience of gargantuan proportions.
“That four-hour flight is like going to a different planet and traversing eons. It may seem trivial, but seeing those Ethiopian children trying the headphones on the plane and listening to music, it is an incredible experience for them. It’s incomprehensible to us.”
And it wasn’t just technology that fazed some of the Jews. “A woman said to me that she didn’t know what stairs were before she got on the plane. Try and imagine that!”
There is a fine catalogue to go with the exhibition, in English and Hebrew, with textual contributions by Rabbi Menahem Waldman, head of the National Committee on Ethiopian Jewry, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. The show features highly evocative shots of Ethiopian Jews praying, in Hebrew classes, roasting coffee beans in the highly incongruous setting of a makeshift Interior Ministry office in Gondar and young children romping around in the transit camp, seemingly without a care in the world.
More poignantly, the catalogue incorporates interviews with Ethiopian Jews who have been living here for some time. One of the interviewees very nearly didn’t make it here. In fact, he very nearly didn’t survive.
“This man, called Asi, used to bring Jews to Sudan on their way to aliya, and he was caught and sentenced to death,” Katz says. “But his father, who was already in Israel, managed to bribe someone, and that’s how Asi got here alive. After that he joined the army and served in the Infantry Corps. These Jews have such a powerful passion to be here and to live as Israelis.”
One Ethiopian woman who came on aliya several years ago had an unscheduled impact on Katz. “On the day the exhibition opened, a cleaning lady came by and looked at one of the photographs, and suddenly said. ‘Hey! That’s my sister!’ We cannot possibly imagine how strong their emotions are,” Katz declares. “There are all these families that have been separated, while the ones who have already made aliya wait for their brothers and sisters and parents to join them here. And they all want to make aliya so much. That’s all they have been waiting for all these years, these thousands of years.”
Katz says we could all learn something about patience from the Ethiopian Jews. “I asked a few of them how they felt when their turn to come here finally came, and why they decided to come on aliya. All they said was, ‘It was time.’ There’s a lesson there.”
On the morning I met Katz, there was a demonstration outside the ICC against the government’s decision to reduce the number of Falash Mura brought to Israel each month. “That means some of them will wait longer to get here,” says Katz. “You see, it just goes on.”