#YallaYebo: Creating SA-Israel dialogue through images

Swimming at the Dead Sea (photo credit: MIKLAS MANNEKE)
Swimming at the Dead Sea
(photo credit: MIKLAS MANNEKE)
THERE IS no doubt that the world needs more dialogue these days – people need to talk across geography, religion, culture, race, nationality, gender and creed. Just because dialogue is needed, doesn’t mean that it must take place in a traditional speaking format.
With the advent of modern technology, people can now communicate via radio, email, whatsapp, video, emojis and social media.
With this idea in mind, the #YallaYebo #PhotoDialogue campaign was born, the brainchild of the Israeli Embassy in South Africa, South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) and El Al. The #YallaYebo campaign takes dialogue from verbal forms to the visual realm, through the medium of Instagram.
This social media tool allows people to share their photographs and create communities of followers. Exceptional and talented instagrammers can have tens of thousands of followers who enjoy their work and contribute to the conversation around the images that are posted. It is one of the most friendly, supportive and talent-filled social media platforms, where anybody from anywhere can connect over a single image.
Painting 1,000 words The campaign, hashtagged #YallaYebo taps into this conversation by connecting with four top instagrammers: two from Israel and two from South Africa who visited the respective countries simultaneously.
The instagrammers went on visual tours, immersing themselves into the culture, allowing for the most interesting and inspiring images to be taken from each country. By allowing each instagrammer to understand and capture the space they were in, whilst simultaneously sharing on the #YallaYebo hashtag, a unique #PhotoDialogue was created. Through this medium, thousands of ordinary members of the public could now experience South Africa and Israel in a completely new way.
For two South Africans, the renowned photographer Alexi Portokallis with over 88,000 followers on Instagram, and Oscar-nominated director Miklas Manneke, “it was a visit long standing on our bucket list.
The opportunity arose, and we grabbed it.”
Portokallis tells “The Jerusalem Report:” “We’re here to take photos and show South Africa what an incredible and diverse place Israel is, because Israel has been labelled with certain perceptions and we want to come and break those perceptions. Kind of what we do for Johannesburg, which is perceived as dangerous, and a hell on Earth and it’s really not. We’re here to document and show the world the people of Israel.”
Growing up in Johannesburg, in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, Portokallis was always fascinated by Jewish culture and wanted to learn more – and where better than in Israel? Being of Cypriot descent and a hop-over from his ancestral homeland “we’re neighbours,” he said chuckling.
“There’s so much here and it’s a lot like Cyprus – I wanted to come and experience my ‘cousin’s’ house, here in Israel – it’s amazing!” Manneke, who loves exploring new cultures and meeting new people, says he always wanted to come to Israel.
“I’ve managed to travel around the world with my film, and nothing has stood out as much as Israel… you’ll go to Istanbul and you’ll see a very Muslim community or go to Greece and see a Greek-Orthodox community. But you come to Israel and you have everything – it’s like a melting pot for all these places,” he said.
“You’re at a place like the Wailing Wall and you’ll see so many people there from so many different religions and then you have the Dome of the Rock, which is important to Muslims, right next door. There are so many pre-conceived ideas about Israel – so many people asked me before we went: ‘Aren’t you scared; it’s going to be dangerous?’ But you don’t get a sense of that at all,” he adds.
Mind-blowing experience For both instagrammers, one of the most enriching revelations of the trip was “the warmth and openness of Israelis” and feel they can describe the experience in one African word – “Ubuntu” – the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. “It’s been a really beautiful and accepting place,” both assert.
“The people have been amazing,” says Portokallis. “On the way to a Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem, some guy stopped us and asked, ‘Are you lost?’ and we told him we knew where we were going, and he asked us if we wanted to come to his house for Shabbat dinner.”
“That moment showed just how amazing the Israeli people are, to welcome everyone and anyone into their homes." What also stood out for the two South African instagrammers was “the visual diversity and uniqueness of the four quarters – Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian – of Jerusalem’s Old City.”
“The way we’ve always imagined biblical places – like seeing where Jesus was nailed to the cross – is mind-blowing now that we’ve been there,” says Manneke.
Amazing South Africa Speaking to The Report from South Africa, renowned Israeli photographers and Instagrammers Sasha Rozenson and Ella Uzan say that visiting South Africa was “a dream come true.”
While as a cityscape and urban photographer, Rozenson says he was mesmerized by the Johannesburg city landscape, and what was most enriching was “playing with children in Soweto and Inanda. It was an experience of a lifetime.”
Having never visited Africa before, Uzan says it was her “mission to document and show the world the amazing people of South Africa.”
According to the South African Israel Forum (SAIF), which helped create the itineraries, the instagrammers' photographs help to show the many similarities between the countries and create an informal and artistic sense of place that transcends the headlines and goes deeper into the soul of the varied subjects.
As the photographers travelled, they uploaded their pictures that they took, both in South Africa and in Israel. Thus, a photo dialogue was created with the images, interacting as the process unfolded. This encouraged members of the public to comment and share, with some of them even taking their own photographs and adding it to the #YallaYebo conversation. As part of this organic process, more than 600 000 instagram users actively viewed the pictures.
The social media space however, was only the first part of the journey for the project.
Upon returning home, the instagrammers did a number of media interviews in print, radio and online, about their trips, talked about their experiences and shared photography tips with the public.
The instagrammers worked with the South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) to pick which images were the outstanding ones, and how the body of work would look as a whole, for the professional art exhibition. The space used was Foto ZA, a trendy art gallery situated in Rosebank, a popular suburb of Johannesburg that is famous for its galleries. SAFI's Lisa Peretz, who helped put the gallery experience together, says “the photos were unique because they often captured the same places in completely different ways which is very unusual.”
The recent gallery opening was attended by a wide variety of the community as well as passersby and art aficianados. It was opened by Israeli Ambassador Lior Keinan, who had recently arrived at his post. Keinan notes that one of the ironies of the exhibition is that it undercuts many of the established narratives about both countries. Both have public images in which conflict and violence are often the dominant theme that is portrayed. The intimate, personal nature of the Instagram medium brings the everyday nature of both places to light.
Not everyone was happy about the exhibition, however: a small group of extremist protesters brandishing posters and Hezbollah flags shouted outside the venue.
The protesters were clearly angry that Israeli diversity was on display. One protester tweeted, “My heart is so painful. What the Israeli lobby did today at this sh*t was really sad… the purpose of this gallery is to show the correlation between South Africa and Israel.”
The organizers say that this shows the power of art to spark a genuine conversation – "That the BDS movement is so scared of some basic everyday pictures shows how terrified they are, and that their carefully constructed propaganda view of the world can be undermined so easily. " The SAIF, which takes many different groups of people to Israel, including Christians, journalists, business people, students and politicians, says “participants are frequently amazed at their own ignorance of the situation, even though they may be well read on the subject. Often being able to see it for yourself is just the beginning of a journey to towards a greater understanding of the region.”