In the Thick of the Action

David Rubinger, Israel's leading photojournalist, was always there when something significant took place

15-Esteban (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The ever-impassive Yitzhak Rabin was not known to be easily taken aback by the people he met. But even he was surprised when top photojournalist David Rubinger spent the day with him in 1994, in order to document his daily routine as prime minister, as part of the "Day in the Life of Israel" project initiated by an American publisher. He took Rubinger's request to regard him as a "fly on the wall" in stride. He was aware that the photographer specialized in shots of prominent personalities in unposed, revealing situations. Yet he was amazed when Rubinger said, "If you have anything really important and secret to discuss with someone, I don't mind leaving the room." Rabin's response was testy. "Do you really think I'd have a problem throwing you out?" But what Rabin took for audacious condescension was really yet another expression of Rubinger's concern and consideration for his subjects. In an age where most news photographers hope to catch the rich and famous in embarrassing moments and situations, Rubinger, as can be seen in his new and copiously illustrated biography, "Israel Through My Lens," adopted a different approach. By spending days shadowing his subjects, Rubinger managed to penetrate their worlds. By becoming "invisible," he was able to capture intimate and character-revealing moments, without abusing or ridiculing his subjects. As a result, his characteristic images of Israel's leaders snapped in their private moments (some of which are shown here) have become his professional trademark. From the start, life in Israel has always been interesting, even intense. Rubinger has been in on the action from the beginning, and his autobiography accurately reflects this, with a bonus of added humor. One photograph from 1956 shows a French officer with a white flag of truce and his Israeli counterpart solemnly protecting some nuns combing the no man's land dividing East and West Jerusalem; a patient at the nearby Notre Dame hospital had dropped her false teeth from a window overlooking the border. The book offers a fast moving trip in time from Rubinger's pre-World War II years in his native Austria to the present, touching on personalities, wars and aspects of daily life in Israel. The book is full of personal anecdotes intertwined with historical events, which for many Israelis were defined by Rubinger's photos. In order to tell us about his life, Rubinger opens both his photo archive and his heart. He tells us that he shed tears freely when he took that unforgettable photograph of the three paratroopers gazing up at the Western Wall after the recapture of Jerusalem's Old City in 1967. David Rubinger was born in Vienna in 1924. His formal education was brought to an abrupt end by the Anschluss in 1938, and he arrived in Palestine the following year. During the Second World War, he served in the British Eighth Army in Africa and Europe under General Montgomery. Afterwards, he fought in the Hagana during the War of Independence. These early experiences were probably decisive in making him a man who gloried in being in the thick of the action. He belongs to the privileged generation of photojournalists that lived through those dramatic and decisive years, physically fighting for both the survival of Jews in Europe during WWII and the independence of Israel. His love affair with the camera began in 1945 and has never ceased. He turned professional immediately after the War of Independence and, after almost thirty years freelancing for various Israeli newspapers and magazines, Rubinger became a Time-Life magazine contract photographer. He rose to world fame, and was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for his service to the media in 1997, the first photographer ever to win the award. He remains active today, traveling the world to promote an exhibition of the photographs of the late Israeli photojournalist Paul Goldman, whom Rubinger regards as a mentor. During his sixty years as a photojournalist, he seems to have never missed a single important historical event. As he writes in his book, "I never wanted to go on vacation, in case I missed something important. On the other hand, I always had the strangest feeling that nothing of significance could possibly take place unless I was there."