The closing of a discerning eye: Esteban Alterman, 1963-2020

Alterman was a top-notch photographer, who soon after his arrival in Israel in 1991, became the house photographer for The Jerusalem Report.

Esteban Alterman  (photo credit: ARIEL JEROZOLIMSKI)
Esteban Alterman
(photo credit: ARIEL JEROZOLIMSKI)
“A great photographer, an even better man” wrote i24 news and current affairs anchor Calev Ben David on his Facebook Page. He was referring to Buenos Aires born photographer Esteban Alterman, who died on Saturday after a long battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is a fatal, neurodegenerative muscular disease, which gradually paralyzes the body and progressively affects the nervous system to the extent that many of its victims also lose the power of speech.
Alterman was a top-notch photographer, who soon after his arrival in Israel in 1991, became the house photographer for The Jerusalem Report, which is one of the flagship publications in The Jerusalem Post Group, and operates in the same building as The Jerusalem Post.

Ben David who spent several years writing and editing for the Post was a great admirer of Alterman’s work. Alterman had a very discerning eye, and his photographs, whether a news assignment or a portrait, always contained some unique detail that made his photos different from those of other photojournalists.
People who worked with him described him in the most superlative of terms, praising not only the quality of his photography, but also the warm character of the man.
Friend and colleague Ariel Jerozolimski, who a few years after Alterman joined The Jerusalem Report, became the chief photographer of the Post, naturally gravitated to Alterman due to both their professional interests and the similarity of their cultural backgrounds. Jerozolimski, who was born and grew up in Uruguay, described Alterman as “a true hero who for years fought a cruel disease with humor and courage.”
Jerozolimski’s most abiding memory of Alterman goes back to the early years of Alterman’s illness. Jerozolimski came to visit him at his apartment and saw him sitting at the table with his young son and daughter and helping them with their school homework. “To look at that scene one would never have known that he was ill,” said Jerozolimski.
In 1994, following the AMIA Bombing, Alterman returned briefly to his hometown together with David Horovitz, who was then a reporter for The Jerusalem Report, to cover the effects of the devastation.
In later years, Horovitz recalled that Alterman had been his guide, translator and fixer, helping him to secure interviews including one with then Argentinian president Carlos Menem. But mainly, Horovitz said, Esteban took photographs – pictures of a shell-shocked Jewish community, a shell-shocked nation.
Horovitz subsequently was appointed the magazine’s editor and after that became editor in chief of the Post, and later founding editor of The Times of Israel.

Avi Hoffman, a former editor of The Jerusalem Report, described Alterman as “one of the finest photographers I ever met in a long career in journalism. He was professional and precise, and he didn’t let his illness stop him when he could no longer hold a camera.”
The Jerusalem Post Group valued Alterman so highly, that when he was unable to take photos, he was retained as photo editor, a position he had held in tandem with that of photographer. Hoffman used to drive him to work.
Alterman was familiar with the styles and techniques of just about every photojournalist in Israel, and he knew exactly whom to call for what to illustrate the stories in The Jerusalem Report, said Hoffman.
Alterman continued as photo editor until 2014, but after that, he had no longer had the strength.
In his personal life, he married Alejandra in 1996, and they had two children, Tamar and Yonatan.
Aside from his photojournalism, he photographed Israel’s landscapes and devoted himself to a special project which he called Jerusalem in Detail, photographing colors, shapes, flowers, window frames, statues and etchings of lions, door knobs, light at different times of the day – in fact everything and anything in the city that he loved so much and in which he made his home.
The first inkling that he had that something was wrong was in 2006, when his camera began to feel like a weight around his neck. He’d carried a camera ever since he was a child. It was part of him. After that, he suffered occasional muscle spasms, but he didn’t give it much thought. Then one day, as he was crossing the street, his legs gave way and he fell head first onto a parked car. That experience frightened him sufficiently to compel him to undergo tests – but he wanted the first round of tests to be in Argentina. So, he packed up his family and flew to Buenos Aires where his father, a neurosurgeon, made the necessary arrangements.
The diagnosis was not complete. All that Alterman learned was that there was something seriously amiss.
On his return to Israel, he underwent another series of neurological tests at Hadassah Medical Center, until finally he was told that he had ALS and that it was terminal.
There were lots of things he wanted to do, and he knew that he had little time in which to do them. As it happened, he had more time than most people with ALS – a little more than a decade.
One of the things he wanted was to have an exhibition, and so with the help of another former Jerusalem Report editor Sharon Ashley, and others who had worked for the publication, he held an exhibition of 35 portraits at the Jerusalem Theater.
The exhibition was curated by David Rubinger, a prize-winning Time Life photographer, who had long been hailed as one of Israel’s greatest photojournalists. Rubinger had been one of Alterman’s heroes for as long as he could remember. Alterman was honored and unbelievably happy that a photographer of Rubinger’s caliber had agreed to select the photos for his exhibition.
Sitting in a wheelchair, Alterman greeted his guests, several of who were the subjects of the framed portraits – and they were simply delighted with what they saw.
In 2013, Alterman came to even wider attention.
Professor Stephen Hawking, the renowned astrophysicist and the most famous ALS patient in the world had joined the academic boycott against Israel by bowing out of an international conference hosted annually by then president Shimon Peres.
Alterman who some years earlier had met and photographed Hawking at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, wrote an open letter to Hawking on his Facebook page, asking him to reconsider
Explaining that he too had ALS, Alterman wrote:
“Your decision to join the academic boycott of Israel undermines the battle for scientific discovery and advancement that has the potential to find cures, or even simply remedies to give us our quality of life back, for our common disease, and those of others who suffer in their own ways.
“Israel’s politics should be divorced from its genuine efforts to advance the cause of medicine and science. What you perceive as an effort to produce change politically will instead simply adversely affect the future of independent academic pursuit.”