Photography: Picture a wall

Any photographer will tell you that if you want to capture the spirit of a place, and the transient dynamics of everyday outdoor life, you have to set out with a good deal of patience.

The ‘Jubilee at the Kotel’ photo exhibition (photo credit: DAVID AND SRAYA DIAMANT)
The ‘Jubilee at the Kotel’ photo exhibition
In case it had escaped anyone’s attention over the last 12 months, 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and, hence, the reunification of Jerusalem. That, inter alia, meant that Jews from all over the world had free access to the Western Wall.
David and Sraya Diamant are particularly happy about that turn of events for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it offers them a fertile and dynamic substratum for their creative pursuits. Some of the results of the above are currently on display in the Old City, at the Cardo and in the Herodian Quarter, as the “Jubilee at the Kotel” exhibition.
All told, the father-and-son team have around 40 works on show, and Diamant Sr. admits to something of an ulterior motive – albeit only in retrospect – to snapping the Western Wall and its environs over the years. “It has brought me closer to this holy place,” he observes. “It started when I went to take pictures of the Sigd holiday of the Ethiopian community. I realized I was experiencing and seeing things I would not normally have witnessed without my camera.”
The Diamants invested around four years in producing the fruits of their exhibited labor. They made frequent trips to the Old City together, but tended to go about their snapping business independently. The bifurcation benefits are clear to see – for example, in two pictures the pair took of the same event, Hoshana Raba services. Without the text under each photo you would never have guessed they were taken around the same moment, and at the same location.
“This is the same event,” says David Diamant, whose son is currently serving in the IDF. “You see the whole Western Wall esplanade in both photographs. This is the same moment, and the same place, but it looks like a completely different point in time.”
A multifaceted approach is the name of the game.
“We wanted to show the general public this unique place as we experienced it, through the lens. Despite both Sraya and me being in the same place and at the same time, we each came back with completely different pictures. That, for me, is the story of the Western Wall. It is made of stones of different sizes and from thousands of stories. Each of us sees this place in a different and unique way.”
The Western Wall is, of course, one of the most iconic and most visually documented places on Earth. As such, any photographer looking to offer us fresh perspectives on the site has to put in the legwork. Judging by the “Jubilee at the Kotel” display, the intergenerational couple has managed that with aplomb – but they put in the hours, and then some.
“We’d often get there before daybreak,” notes Diamant. “Everything would be dark and still, and gradually the place would come alive.”
They also captured the sun as it peeked out over the top of the massive millennia-old Wall stones. There is nothing more kitschy than sunrise or sunset pictures, but somehow this day starter looks intriguing.
Diamant says he and his son are aware of the pitfalls of rote documentation, and that kept them on their creative toes.
“We have to make sure we take pictures that no one else takes. Every day, you have 100,000 photos taken here. We have to offer something that everyone can enjoy – and tell a story that you get when you look at the photographs.”
Besides serving as a revered place for prayer as the holiest site in the Jewish world, the IDF also makes good use of the Western Wall – for instance, holding swearing-in ceremonies there for paratroopers. The Diamants caught such an after-dark event. Again, this is tried, tested and well-plowed visual territory, but again, the printed end result draws the observer in. There is no picture postcard feel to it.
The photograph was taken from an elevated vantage point to the southwest of the plaza and shows the military goings-on in all their colorful pomp. The camera operator snapped the image just as the senior officers out in the front raised their right hand in salute. You can sense the dynamics of the proceedings, and the significance of the occasion for all concerned. The bland shades of the powerfully illuminated Western Wall stones are contrasted and complemented by the colorful military banners, flags, soldiers’ uniforms and the clothing of the hundreds of onlookers, presumably family and friends.
The composition, textures and hues capture the spectator’s interest, with the gradually ascending walkway to the Temple Mount projecting out toward the plaza and overhanging the crowd gathered for the ceremony adding yet another point of optical reference. The instantly recognizable golden roofing of the Dome of the Rock casts an ancient eye down on the goings on below. But, rather than the strikingly bright gold coloring it normally exudes, in the Diamant print of the top of the Muslim shrine is bathed in a softer glow, as if it were in slumber mode. The range of intensities of light, and colorings, capture the imagination and interest.
There are grand panoramic scenes and frames that home in on subtle details that most of us probably don’t consciously see.
“There are siddurim [prayer books] of all sorts of communities and versions here,” says Diamant while we observe a print of a bookshelf by a prayer area near the Wall. “There are people whose job it is to arrange these siddurim and make sure people from different communities are catered to.”
That is not normally the kind of perspective you gain just by popping along to the Old City, and taking in a perfunctory box-ticking foray to the Western Wall. Any camera toter will tell you that if you want to capture the spirit of a place, and the transient dynamics of everyday outdoor life, you also have to set out with a good deal of patience and forbearance, along with your lenses.
“We take our time and observe how things unfold,” Diamant explains. “You get a feel for the place and the way events take place. You gain a sense of what is happening, and you get deeper insight into what you see.”
“Jubilee at the Kotel” covers many of the expected bases – prayer services, bar-mitzva events and such – but there are some delightful behind-the-scenes pictures, too. One such is a wonderfully oxymoronic slot showing a worker burrowing into the cracks between the outsized weathered Western Wall stones to clean out all the slips of papers placed there in the hope that Almighty will answer the handwritten prayers. The inescapably recognizable and iconic masonry backdrop is delectably offset by the quotidian nature of the white plastic chair on which the worker is standing, with the extricated paper detritus cast unceremoniously on the ground, awaiting transfer to an appropriate repository.
And what could be more commonplace than a picture of a bride in front of the wall? The Diamants manage to portray that ostensibly yawn-inducing scene in a compelling way, too, with the white-gowned young woman’s friends, each clad in a different-colored dress, looking on as their friends reads from a siddur.
All of the above human and aesthetic kaleidoscope of colors, shapes and dynamics are within easy walking, biking or driving distance of most people in this country.
“Some people work hard to save up money, and get on a plane to fly for hours to the Far East to see interesting things,” says Diamant. “It’s all just half an hour away from my house.”
The exhibition closes on January 31, but you can take the images home with you by purchasing the accompanying book at The Tifara Gallery in the Old City above The Cardo or online, at