Jerusalem photographer captures spirit of vanishing neighborhood

Hodaya Kalman-Book is working on her final project for the Emunah Academic College of Arts and Design.

 HODAYA KALMAN-BOOK cares about the people in her neighborhood.  (photo credit: Hodaya Kalman-Book)
HODAYA KALMAN-BOOK cares about the people in her neighborhood.
(photo credit: Hodaya Kalman-Book)

These days we are all photographers, right? Actually, snappers or documenters might be a more accurate description. And while the pictures Hodaya Kalman-Book had on display at the Social Space (in the former President Hotel building on Ahad Ha’am Street) over the last fortnight, could be classified as realistic and, yes, documentary, they are plainly the work of an artist, someone who has a firm grasp of the discipline, as well as the local lay of the land. The spread was curated by Maya Bamberger.

Kalman-Book has a lot on her young hands. As the 23-year-old mother of 16-month-old twin daughters, she somehow managed to complete a four-year study program at the Emunah Academic College of Arts and Design. She spent some time considering her options for her final project, eventually realizing that the old adage, “there’s no place like home” applied here too.

In fact, it was when she learned that her home patch was poised to change, possibly out of all recognition, that she realized it was high time she moved up a gear or two and got herself and her camera out and about.

Kalman-Book lives in that most grassroots of Jerusalem neighborhoods, Katamon or, as the locals call it, the Katamonim. To be clear, this is not the largely genteel Old Katamon part of town. This is the working class stratum of the urban socioeconomic hierarchy.

KALMAN-BOOK and her husband moved into the neighborhood two and a half years ago, blissfully ignorant of the plans the municipality had for the area. She says it was a shock when reality dawned that a pinui binui – “evacuation and reconstruction” – scheme was in the works, and that her physical milieu, including the very building in which she lived, was about to get a fundamental makeover. 

 THE SOCIAL fabric in the Katamonim is about to change forever. (credit: Hodaya Kalman-Book)
THE SOCIAL fabric in the Katamonim is about to change forever. (credit: Hodaya Kalman-Book)

“I decided I needed to do something, for my final project, that I loved. And I love photography,” she says.

That, then, was going to be her chosen vehicle of expression to try to get the word out about the transformation that is about to descend on her surroundings. 

A photographer's project: Taking pictures of Katamonim as it disappears 

“I have been taking photographs for a few years now. I also work in that – taking pictures of events, families, and such like.”

Any photographer worth their salt will tell you that you have to prepare the groundwork before you sling your camera over your shoulder and set off for your location of choice. Of course, that doesn’t always apply when you are a photojournalist trying to relay images to the world from some battleground. But Kalman-Book had no such logistical considerations to ponder. She was going to document her own home patch, a place where she knew many of the locals and was familiar with the bricks-and-mortar fixtures.

“It took me a while to decide exactly what it is I want to do, and I came to the conclusion that I want to engage in the space around me,” she explains. That “space” meant the whole fabric of life – human, physical, and natural. 

“There are some special people who live here, and there are unique buildings. Everything is going to completely change. It will be unrecognizable when they have finished here.” 

THE PROJECT duly evolved, partly with planned excursions and partly with a more of an opportunist mindset. 

“There were days when I set with an agenda – what and where I was going to shoot. But there were days when, say, I’d go off to the makolet, talk to people on the way, and I’d have my camera with me. It became part of my daily routine. I’d take my daughters to the neighborhood garden and I’d talk to people and sometimes take their picture.”

That familiarity, and the ease of the subjects, came across in the portrait works in the exhibition. These were the smiling faces of characters you can come across every day of the week in certain parts of the city, particularly the less well-heeled areas. The subjects clearly knew Kalman-Book was on their side and were happy to cooperate. 

“That was what was special about this work,” she says. “It was being part of the place, of the ambiance, and getting to know people close up.”

That was very much the photographer’s aesthetic and professional line of attack for the project. This was more about the basic human component than the irreversible structural process the district is about to undergo, and the implications that it would have on street-level life there. 

“There is the saying that ‘a person is nothing but the shape of his native landscape’,” she says quoting from a poem by celebrated Hebrew language Russian-born poet Shaul Tchernichovsky.

Kalman-Book feels there is a symbiotic relationship between humans and the structures in which they live and work, and encounter on a daily basis. “People are very much impacted by the area in which they live. There is something which is not quite harmony, but there is something special shared between people and the buildings that are important to them, in Jerusalem and other places.”

But it is the capital where Kalman-Book lives, breathes, and works and, particularly, her own backyard which interests her the most and that she set out to lovingly document for her final project.

It has been a voyage of discovery for her, on various levels. “I am a born and bred Jerusalemite, from Kiryat Moshe,” she says. “Maybe it’s not a nice thing to say, but I didn’t know anything about the Katamonim before we moved there. It is not the kind of place you stumble across on your way somewhere else.”

It is no secret that Jerusalem is reaching for the sky, as ever-increasing tower blocks spring up all over the show. The southern reaches of Derech Hebron, for example, are now unrecognizable compared with just five or six years ago, as apartment buildings of 20 or 30 floors have materialized there.

I wondered whether that came into Kalman-Book’s line of thought as she snapped away in her neighborhood. She preferred not to take sides on the urban skyline issue. 

“This project is about people. I am not addressing the matter of whether it is good or bad [to completely change the physical milieu]. Jerusalem is developing. It is a process that has to take place. I am interested in relating to people, the people – the simple folk – that live in the Katamonim. They just get on with their lives. I wanted to provide a platform for people whose lives are about to change. I am not looking to say if it is good or bad.”

She did, however, get the local lowdown on the impending game-changer. She says it is far from an open-and-shut case scenario. 

“I tried to speak to as many people as possible. There are some who don’t believe it is going to happen. Some are waiting for it to happen. Some don’t even think about it. There is going to be a change. I set out to show what there is there now, and what is going to change.”

Intriguingly, most of the photos in the exhibition – all except two – were printed on cloth. 

“Yes, and they were hung on a line, like a clothesline, attached with pegs,” Kalman-Book notes. That, she says, was designed to bring a whiff of her homestead to the Social Space. 

“Clotheslines are something that is very characteristic of the neighborhood, like in times gone by.”

She was keen to impart a sense of simplicity and of folk who just go about their everyday lives, minding their own business, until that is rudely interrupted by some more powerful outside force. 

“I sometimes have the feeling that they [the authorities] in Jerusalem do just what they want with these kinds of neighborhoods because the people that live there don’t have the ability to influence or change things. This [pinui binui] is going to have a drastic effect on their lives, whether they like it or not.”

Kalman-Book would certainly like to do something about it or, at the very least, provide the locals with a mouthpiece and a means of telling the world what is about to unfold in one of the poorer quarters of the capital. But does she really believe her work can make a difference? Does she have faith in the ability of artists and their art to generate change? 

“I do believe in the power of pictures,” she declares. “Just the mere fact that we are talking about this means I have managed to proffer an issue from a different angle. Lots of people talk about pinui binui. It is a burning issue in Jerusalem and all over Israel. What is special about pictures is that they remain.” 

Unlike, it seems, the building over in the Katamonim. 

“A few years down the road, regardless of what remains here, there will be a document. This won’t be forgotten. I would like to believe that my work can have some impact. At least I am doing my bit.”

College head Dr. Efrat Grossman believes in the power of art to make a difference and has faith in the efforts of Kalman-Book and her fellow students to generate desirable shifts on the sociopolitical scene. 

“Hodaya’s work, in her unique frames, commemorates a neighborhood that is gradually vanishing and commemorates a time, atmosphere, and people. All the works in the exhibition were created through an immersive inner process that all the students underwent. Their output reflects the ideas and personal and social values they chose to advance and bring to the light of day.”

Interestingly, it is not only about Kalman-Book’s neighbors, who feature in a work that is, essentially, about her domestic environs. There are a couple of shots with happy-looking Asian foreign workers in there too. “She takes pictures of people who are there, in the neighborhood,” Bamberger observes. 

“For Hodaya it doesn’t make any difference if they have been there for a few years, like her and her family, or were born and bred there, or are foreigners just passing through. It is all part of the same social fabric.”

That comes through in the structural, human, and flora and fauna elements of the exhibition. The faces she captured chatting on a bench, out with their dog, or peeping a little warily out of their home base are people she knows and cares about. 

“She photographs the domain in which she lives,” says Bamberger. “I think she has developed a special sensitivity to the people there, the way they look at life. She captures their humaneness.”

One shot, in particular, spells out the impending transformation which, no doubt, will not only change the local aesthetics but will have a powerful bearing on the social and human fabric there. 

The picture shows an unassuming four-story apartment building. The exterior is mottled with air conditioners and laundry hanging on clotheslines, with old TV antennae protruding from the roof into the leaden wintry sky. To the right, in front of the building, there is a large billboard showing three tightly-packed tower blocks, naturally with unblemished blues skies and plenty of green spaces around. The slogan on the billboard reads: “Growing together with you.” 

That, clearly, is a matter of human or other perspective. ❖