Israeli photographer wins Pulitzer prize

Oded Balilty tells 'Post': You have to respect the people you shoot

Balilty pulitzer 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
Balilty pulitzer 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Oded Balilty of The Associated Press has become the first Israeli photographer to win the Pulitzer Prize, for his image of a lone Jewish woman defying security forces during the evacuation of the Amona outpost in Samaria on February 1, 2006. Balilty, 28, was born and raised in Jerusalem. After 10 years of shooting pictures in Israel, the photograph he took at Amona won almost every possible award, including the World Press Photo contest and the Sigma Delta Chi award in spot news photography from the Society of Professional Journalists. On Monday night, Balilty received the phone call that will change his life. On Tuesday, between interviews and calls from friend and acquaintances, Balilty recalled the day he took the winning picture. "We were there for 30 hours in a row and we spent the night before in the place. The day before, we took pictures of the preparations. We all knew it was going to be a violent evacuation and a real struggle and that the settlers' fury, which they kept inside during disengagement, would come out there big time," Balilty told The Jerusalem Post. "During the evacuation the entire place was a mess and I couldn't find the right angle to shot from. Since we were three photographers there, I knew I could go and check the other side of the scene, because it all happened in a big area. I went there and I saw a long line of policemen marching toward one of the buildings. She [the girl in the winning photo] stood there and looked as if she was hesitating. I knew I had to be ready if the picture I was anticipating was going to happen, and when it did, I just pushed the button. A big part of it was also great timing," he said. The Post tried to contact the girl in the picture, but she declined to be interviewed. Balilty started taking pictures when he was 16. Two years later he began working for IDF's Bamahane magazine. After his military service, went to New York for four months, until he received a phone call from Eli Hershkowitz, the bureau chief of Zoom77, then a news agency in Jerusalem. "Eli called me and offered me the job, and I was sitting there in New York frustrated that I was not in Israel shooting pictures of the intifada. Three days later I was on a flight back to Israel," Balilty said. A year and a half later, Balilty ran into the former head of AP's Jerusalem photo desk, Jackie Larma. "She told me, 'If you want to work with us you are half way in.' We worked together for six months before she left," he said. Later, Enric Marti, AP Jerusalem's chief photographer, became Balilty's mentor. "I learned everything from Enric: editing, how to act in the field, how to respect the people I photograph. The fact that a person with so much experience was waiting for my pictures encouraged me to work harder. Besides, every day I learn something new from the colleagues I work with at AP and in Jerusalem," Balilty said. During his time with AP, Balilty has had joint exhibitions in Perpignan, France, and in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Last year, he twice has solo showings of his work on the separation barrier in Switzerland, and another on 20 years since the Chernobyl disaster, in France. On Thursday he will fly to Amsterdam to receive his World Press Photo prize, and in May he plans to receive the Pulitzer prize in New York. "When I found out I won the Pulitzer I first called my girlfriend, Lihi, and told her we won. Then I called my dad, who lives in New York. I told him, 'Dad, we did it,' and he started to cry." "I didn't expect to win this award because it seemed to me it represented a peak [to a career]. But I don't think I've peaked. The fact that I received a prize doesn't mean I've reached my peak. There is no peak in this profession. "Each story has its own individual peak. I might have peaked from the aspect of covering the settlers. For me, a peak occurs when a picture I took changes something," Balilty said. Finally, Balilty said his way to take powerful pictures has to do with several codes he took upon himself. "One must remember to show respect for the people and places he shoots. More than once, a picture I took took me to good places because I acted with respect while I was shooting it. "Events here in Israel keep repeating themselves, as well as hard things like settlement evacuations, terrorist attacks, funerals, and one shouldn't forget we deal with people's lives. Israel is a gold mine for pictures and the best schooling photographers can find. It's never boring here. But I hope this summer will be boring because the last two summers were busy because of disengagement [2005] and the Second Lebanon War," he said.