Documenting 'the moment before the catastrophe'

Documenting the moment

"The situation in Israel at the moment is just below the boiling point. Things are bubbling, and we're possibly just one small point before an explosion." This is how Dana Gillerman, curator of the "Local Testimony" photojournalism exhibition, explains the title of her accompanying essay, "The Moment Before." The exhibition, which opens next week at Tel Aviv's Eretz Israel Museum, offers the Israeli public the opportunity to test the pulse of a nation not at ease with itself. In its sixth year, the exhibition pulls together images, drawn from across the country in an open competition, that capture the essence of everyday reality, inviting the audience to form for itself an opinion concerning what it means to be in Israel today. In the introductory essay of the exhibition catalogue, Gillerman writes that rather than embracing the obvious - "presenting images of one war or another" - the exhibit as a whole aspires to reflect what she describes as the uneasy "routine reality" that defines social life in Israel today. She expounds further: "It seems that this exhibition marks not only the 'decisive moment' (a phrase coined by celebrated photographer Henri Cartier Bresson) - defining a critical point in time - but the moment before, the moment before the catastrophe." The "Local Testimony" exhibition has been held yearly since 2003, in conjunction with the World Press Photography exhibition. There are 10 categories, including News, Society and Community, Religion and Faith, and Sports. Designed as a retrospective of the past year, the photographs selected share a particular media value combined with human significance. The driving force behind the exhibition is Dana Wohlfeiler-Lankin, who has also initiated other projects in the fields of photojournalism, documentary and social awareness. In bringing the two exhibitions together, her intent was to place photojournalism center-stage for one month of the year, generating rather than feeding media interest through its imagery. In its first years, the "Local Testimony" project was supported by the family of Lior Ziv, a military photographer with the IDF Spokesman's Unit. Ziv was killed on assignment in Ramallah in 2003 at the age of 19, and his family's expressed hope was that the public support of the work of photojournalists - whom Ziv admired - would promote the worth and value of the profession in the country. Selecting the final images, Gillerman explains, was a daunting task, whittling down more than 8,000 submitted images to the 250 that would comprise the final exhibit. The large number of submissions follows the organizers' wish to ensure that a broad spectrum of opinion, social and political, is represented in the final collection. "We actively didn't want just submissions from [news] photojournalists. It was important for us that we opened it up as much as possible," says Gillerman. While the "News" category was restricted to accredited press photographers, all the other categories were open to images that had been published in news and content portals - including the Internet - by photographers who might not necessarily be considered photojournalists. Regardless, says Gillerman, "all the submitted images were strong and had something relevant to say." Documenting Israel today demands an engagement with the convoluted political, military and social realities created by the "occupation" of the West Bank, and the fraught relationship - if such a word can be used - with the regime in Gaza. Is it possible to create an exhibit that reflects the politically charged landscape of the last year without being perceived as taking sides? "I would not want the exhibit to be considered either of the Left or of the Right," says Gillerman, who describes herself as a "left Zionist." Nonetheless, she continues, the political is at the center of everything that happens in the country today, and it would be facile either to try and work around it or to take sides. "One has to show the tensions in everything," she asserts. Gillerman, curating the exhibit for the first time this year, is an experienced art writer - she was formerly art correspondent for Ha'aretz and now writes about the art business for Calcalist. She is also a lecturer at the Kalisher School of Art, a freelance curator and an art consultant. This involvement with the Israeli art scene might well have posed a challenge to curating the exhibit, but in fact, it worked to the contrary. "This knowledge, this awareness, gave me the opportunity to appreciate the submissions 'from the inside,' as it were, while still being able to maintain a distance. If one is too close, it becomes impossible to be objective," she says. Her awareness of how the mass media operate served as the cornerstone for shaping the exhibition and the impact she hopes it will have on those viewing it over the four weeks it will be open to the public. Gillerman does not consider photojournalism intrinsically superior to other forms of reportage, but believes it possesses a fundamental quality that enhances the audience's engagement with the content: "What it offers to the viewer is the capacity to contribute to the interpretation; it is what the viewer brings to it that is important." Photojournalism, in newspapers, magazines and elsewhere, is as a matter of course accompanied by information, captions that define and interpret the image for the viewer. Declaring that she wanted to "do something different with the texts this year," Gillerman explicitly sought to move away from this mediation with "Local Testimony." She explores this intent at length in the exhibition catalogue. "The photographs in the exhibition enable the spectator to tell their story, and are open to additional interpretation. There is a great deal of strength, almost liberty, which is taken away from readers in everyday life, and is now restored to them," she writes. The photographs are accompanied by a minimum of text, just enough to set the immediate context of the picture. "It is factual text with an open ending; it serves as an anchor, and no more," she writes. "It does not allow the so-simple manipulation of language." One might interpret this approach as a challenge to the media at large. Gillerman cheerfully agrees. "The connection between text and image has bothered me for a long time," she says. "The mass media should reflect, but not interpret the situation. This is always a danger, particularly with the pressure to churn out content. If, through removing the mediating influence, I can make the audience think without their being told what to think, then perhaps we might be able to think differently about the challenges facing contemporary Israeli society, the situation and the media's role in contributing to this." The decontextualization of the images is taken one step further in the final exhibit, with the photographs deliberately curated almost arbitrarily, emphasis placed on the similarity of form rather than the categories under which they were submitted. "At first, photographers send in their photographs according to categories in order to create a semblance of order: news, politics, society and community… but in the exhibit itself, all these definitions unravel and all the images become one collection devoid of hierarchy," says Gillerman. The picture the exhibition paints of Israel today is not necessarily a pretty one. Can it actually change anything? Gillerman is emphatically positive on this point. "Art offers up to the public a reflection. It is like a mirror. People, the viewing public, can look at this mirror and see their reflection, and it does something. I cannot say what exactly, but something happens," she affirms. "Perhaps it is the first or second step toward the healing of a fractured society. First, one must acknowledge that there is something that needs to be fixed." And the overall ambitions of the exhibition? "First, to give the power back to the viewer; and second, to help us - the country - to recognize that we are not in a good period. It is not yet too late, but if nothing changes…" She leaves the sentence hanging for the listener to complete. Local Testimony - The Local Photojournalism Exhibition, Israel will take place at the Eretz Israel Museum, Ramat Aviv, between December 16 and January 16.