What the eye doesn’t see

Druze photographer Samira Wehbe offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the women of her community in her exhibition ‘Testimony.’

ONE OF Samira Wehbe’s photographs on display at her ‘Testimony’ exhibit at the Tel Aviv Artists’ House (photo credit: Courtesy)
ONE OF Samira Wehbe’s photographs on display at her ‘Testimony’ exhibit at the Tel Aviv Artists’ House
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The gentle bubbling of paper-thin pita on half-moon taboons, the inviting aromas of za’atar and olive oil wafting through the chaotic Carmel Market, coffee so strong it can cure the unruliest jet lag – these are the mental snapshots that tourists associate with the Druze, a unique ethno-religious sect residing mainly in small communities in northern Israel.
Dating back to the 11th century, the Druze practice a monotheistic religion with roots stemming from Arab ancestors. There are approximately one million Druze today, most of whom dwell in the mountains of Syria, Lebanon and Israel. What this incredibly secretive group lacks in numbers, it makes up for in loyalty. Israeli Druze show loyalty to their country by serving in the IDF; to one another by marrying within their communities; and to their sacred doctrines with an intense allegiance.
Photographer Samira Wehbe left her Druze village of Daliat al-Carmel as a young adult, to study photography at the Camera Obscura in Haifa. In the years since, her loyalty to her community of women has never dwindled. In fact, the self-sufficient women of her intimate hometown form the centerpiece of Wehbe’s new exhibition “Testimony,” on display at the Tel Aviv Artists’ House this month.
“I am the first Druze woman to study photography,” Wehbe boasts. “I love having a language by which I can express myself, my ideas and my thoughts.”
Wehbe first discovered her passion for photography after noticing that the majority of photographers at local weddings and parties were men. She felt strongly, not only about changing this, but also about her ability to explore and expose specific sights that male photographers could not reach. In her case, these sights included a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the mysterious world of Druze women.
Wehbe describes the photos of “Testimony” as “witnesses of reality, of our reality.” They are shot in black and white – Wehbe’s preference for capturing a more holistic image – and capture spontaneous moments that very few individuals can tap into. This is because she is taking photos of her own community, the community she grew up in, the community that she “lived in, learned in and believed in.”
“THESE PHOTOGRAPHS are extremely special because they aren’t only photos that you come to see, admire and then leave behind,” Wehbe explains. “These are the photos of someone who has lived these moments, who knows these moments.” The subjects in her photographs are not hired models or strangers; they are her mother, her sister, her friends and their children.
“When I take my camera out,” she continues, “I do not aim to take photos of a specific Druze woman seated or standing in specific ways. These are spontaneous moments. They happen by accident.”
In one such “accidental moment,” Wehbe’s mother bends over to pick a plant from the field as a young boy stands close behind, yet the two seem miles apart. In another, a woman tends to a ghostly white veil. It is a moment so personal, so intimate, because that ritual belongs solely to the woman.
“Outside you can see the woman working, eating and drinking with her head covered, but wrapping it is something personal that she can only do inside. No male is allowed to see her uncovered except for her husband, her sons and her brothers,” Wehbe explains. “So this picture allows me access into her intimate life. The white cover symbolizes a moment that belongs to this woman. It is for her. She is in control.”
In entering this realm, Wehbe aims to bring Druze women out of the shadows of their husbands, in order to exhibit their incredible female strength, an appropriate aim during Women’s History Month.
In addition to giving these women their own voices, Wehbe sees a mirror reflection in the subjects of her photographs. In that regard, her artistic pursuits have helped her concretize her own voice, a voice she feels she could not have developed without the support of her family:
“They laid down the rules on how to behave, where to go, where not to go, when to come back home. I had protection,” she says.
“My family supported my desire to become a photographer, and their rules and regulations helped me cope with the many difficulties of the outside world.”
After completing her education at Camera Obscura, Wehbe continued her studies in Tel Aviv, before returning to the Druze village of Isfiya with a larger-than-life sense of purpose. “Now when I take a photo, I feel that I speak the whole language of our world,” she says with a smile.
Testimony is funded by Mifal HaPais Council for the Culture and Arts, and curated by Vera Pilpoul. It will be on display at the Tel Aviv Artists’ House, Elkharizi St. 9, until March 30. For more information, call 03-524-6685, or visit artisthouse.co.il.