Mourning loss and celebrating life – through the eyes of a camera

At first sight, Sarah Muchtar’s pictures appear delicate, infused with poetic intimacy and sweet feelings.

Mourning loss and celebrating life – through the eyes  of a camera (photo credit: SARAH MUCHTAR)
Mourning loss and celebrating life – through the eyes of a camera
(photo credit: SARAH MUCHTAR)
Sarah Muchtar lost her husband and two of her children in a tragic car crash in 2017.
Her photos, at a new exhibition at the Heichal Shlomo Museum, serve as a journal of her journey back to the light
At first sight, Sarah Muchtar’s pictures appear delicate, infused with poetic intimacy and sweet feelings. A pair of children-sized light blue Nikes stand on a light-colored hardwood floor, partially reached by luminous sun rays. An undershirt with tzitzit (ritual fringes) attached to its four corners, just slightly wrinkled, lies on a white background. A baby-ride tractor rests in a garden full of bright autumn colors, golden leaves and intensely red pomegranates surrounding it.
Yet, at a closer look, the tragic story behind the images slightly pervades the observer. The shade of the undershirt is not the pure white of newly bought clothes. The fruits in the garden are decaying. All the objects somehow feel deserted, lifeless.
The pictures, which are on display at the Heichal Shlomo Museum in Jerusalem, are the expression of Sarah’s mourning and loss after the sudden death of her husband and two of her children in a car accident two-and-a-half years ago. Titled “By a Thread,” the exhibition is curated by photographer Vardi Kahane. It was inaugurated on December 26 and will run until the end of March.
Sarah made aliyah with her family from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when she was 11. “My parents had never been to Israel, but they were very Zionist. They decided to try. It was not easy,” she recalled, speaking to In Jerusalem in a local café on a chilly December afternoon.
After a period at the absorption center in Mevaseret Zion, they moved to Jerusalem. A few years later, Sarah enjoyed her army service in Nahal. As many young Israelis do, after being discharged she traveled for a few months.
“My cousin and I backpacked through several countries in Europe – Greece, Italy, France and Spain, among others,” she said.
Growing up in an artistic family, she had always enjoyed arts in different forms. When she came back, she started attending the Musrara School of Art, and later the Bezalel Academy for Art and Design.
Sarah fell in love with photography at the beginning of her studies, from the first time she set foot in a darkroom, the special room analogic photographers use to process film and make prints, which needs to be completely dark except for red light so as not to ruin the light-sensitive photographic material.
“It was magical. The darkroom is the equivalent of sculpture in photography. You play with shadow and light. Even the way you print an image makes a difference,” enthused Sarah.
In school, Sarah found her voice through her pictures.
“I’m not a very verbal person; photography represented a way to express myself,” she explained.
She loved the work of artists such as Diane Arbus, Eugene Meatyard and Sally Mann. Her camera accompanied her everywhere.
She sometimes worked at events such as weddings or bar mitzvahs.
“However, I didn’t like it as much. I wanted to pursue my art,” she explained, recalling her final project at Musrara. “I worked with different people wearing masks, including a baby wearing a mask featuring an old person’s face. I remember someone tried to suggest that I was exploring the subject of death, but it was not what I meant. For me, it was about how people often go by wearing a mask.”
Sarah got married to Alon right before she turned 30. Shortly after, “kids started to arrive,” and photography stopped playing a central role in her life.
“However, I always took pictures, especially of my family and my children. They, too, picked up what it meant. They would see something and they would tell me to take a picture of it.”
In July 2017, Sarah, Alon and their five children – then aged 16, 15, 13, 11 and 7 – went on their annual family vacation with the rest of Alon’s family. Every summer they would travel somewhere with Alon’s parents, his four sisters and their husbands and children. That year they had decided to go up to northern Israel on a trip that was planned months ahead.
The second day started with a lazy morning at the pool.
“I remember telling Alon that in the coming fall we were going to celebrate 18 years of marriage, chai,” she recalled, referring to the Hebrew word for life, whose numerical value is 18.
Later, the families started driving. Shortly into the ride, the Muchtars’ car was hit by a heavy truck. Alon, 13-year-old Ella and 7-year-old Yoel were killed. Sarah and her teenage children were injured, while the 11-year-old who was traveling with one of the aunts was unhurt.
After a few weeks of rehabilitation working with a physiotherapist, Sarah was able to climb the stairs to her bedroom for the first time. One morning, waking up and looking at her daughter sleeping next to her, she felt the need to capture that intimate moment, to stop it, “just like time had stopped for me.”
“I took the camera and I clicked,” she recounted.
“For me, the pictures are a sort of a journal, through photography, I write my journal,” she added. “I have to do it. Before, I never saw pictures of myself, but I started. In the meantime, everything I saw reminded me of them. There have been a lot of threes, three trees, three rocks, three candles… I wasn’t thinking at all that the pictures would become part of an exhibition, I was doing it for myself.”
One day, Sarah happened to show some of her pictures to a close friend.
“She was blown away, deeply touched. And I felt that if this could touch other people, maybe even help someone to feel something, to build a connection, it would mean something.”
A few months ago, she was put in touch with Vardi Kahane through a mutual acquaintance.
“She asked me to send her some pictures, specifying that she did not promise anything. After she told me that she would be happy to work together, she said something that meant a lot to me: that she was not doing it because of what I had gone through, as horrible as it was, but because my pictures stood for themselves, they were really strong.”
About 40 of those hundreds and hundreds of pictures are on display at the Heichal Shlomo Museum.
Asked if there is anything else that she wanted to add, Sarah expressed her gratitude to her community, the yishuvim of Kfar Adumin, Alon and Nofei Prat, a few kilometers from Jerusalem.
“They have been amazing, incredibly supportive. I think that if I had lived in a big city, I would have never survived what happened. Even today, they are always there when we need them.”
And of course, she mentioned her children.
“They give me strength. Every day they get up and go and I look at them. They are my strength.”