Shooting wars from the hip

Photographer Micha Bar-Am’s photos of battle unfurl a fascinating narrative.

A soldier reflects (photo credit: Micha Bar-Am)
A soldier reflects
(photo credit: Micha Bar-Am)
War photographers are a strange and wacky breed. While soldiers are ordered to do their bit on the battlefield, the men and women with the cameras are out there of their own volition, risking life and limb to capture the drama and pathos of the evolving violence and destruction, and get the images to the media-connected public as quickly as humanly and technologically possible.
Micha Bar-Am certainly belongs to that special professional genus. Now a sprightly 83-year-old, Bar-Am has documented almost every war in which Israel has engaged since the Six Day War in 1967. He has been a member of the world-renowned Magnum photographers collective, a photographer for The New York Times, and head of photography at the Tel Aviv Museum, and has gone to great lengths to record regional hostilities for posterity.
Bar-Am currently has a highly impressive exhibition of prints running at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, called “Dividing Line – Photographs from the Yom Kippur War.”
The titular symbol of demarcation does not just refer to the country’s borders, which were infiltrated in early October 1973, but principally to the mind-set watershed that Israelis, and many Jews around the world, were made to traverse when the Israeli political leadership was caught dithering. “It was a terrible shock for all of us, when we were caught by surprise by Egypt and Syria,” Bar-Am recalls. “Nothing, absolutely nothing, was ever the same here after the Yom Kippur War.”
Bar-Am knows a thing or two about our wars. He was a member of the Palmah and saw action as a soldier during the War of Independence. “I was a soldier back then,” he notes. “Then, I had a gun in my hands, not a camera.
That is a completely different way to experience a war.”
Not that taking pictures of battles is any safer. “Yes, I took pictures of people shooting, running between the mines and dodging bullets,” he says, none too excitedly.
But surely he must have felt some fear. “Of course I was scared. In fact I was petrified, but you just get on with the job you came to do.”
Bar-Am’s work has not gone unnoticed over the last half century – not just by art lovers and media consumers, but also by the Establishment – and he was rightly awarded the Israel Prize for Photography in 2000. The jurors’ grounds for the selection noted that Bar-Am’s “extensive and extraordinary oeuvre as a photographer extends over many years. His unique work follows the history of the state and its inception, and powerfully and sensitively resonates Israel’s wars.”
The octogenarian’s images are captivating and enchanting.
Some are chilling – such as a shot of a dead Egyptian soldier, seemingly comfortably ensconced in his foxhole; and another of a group of blindfolded Egyptian prisoners of war, sitting or lying in a trench with their hands tied behind their backs. More than anything, however, Bar-Am’s shots always unfurl a fascinating narrative. That is also true of the Dividing Line exhibition, which takes us through many of the seminal stages of the war, ending fittingly with a highly evocative shot of a motley group of chairs arranged in a circle around a bonfire. The fire is, in fact, one of the chairs going up in smoke, and Bar-Am’s calls the print “Ghosts – Last night before the withdrawal, west of the Suez Canal, January 1974.”
“That was the end of the war,” explains the photographer.
“Yes, it conjures up a lot of emotions.”
If anyone had any doubts at all that Bar-Am is the consummate professional, then Dividing Line should put that particular uncertainty to bed. Robert Capa, the iconic war photographer, who was one of the founders of the Magnum group, once famously said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” That is a tenet which Bar-Am appears to embrace.
This is manifested in one of the most evocative pictures in the exhibition, which Bar-Am describes as “Artillery barrage on the ‘Courtyard’ – the Israeli crossing point to the western side of the Suez Canal, October 1973.” The photograph features a bunch of Israeli soldiers and Egyptian prisoners, huddled together and clearly doing their best to stay out of harm’s way.
Meanwhile, Bar-Am was busy taking pictures from Capaesque proximity. The emotions that the soldiers must have felt while they were being bombarded are palpable. “There is no more extreme a situation than this,” notes the photographer, “in terms of the people there lying on the ground, and then you have the photographer. I am sitting on someone’s sleeve here.
That’s really crazy,” he admits.
By the time the Yom Kippur War came around, Bar-Am had paid his battlefield documentation dues in the Six Day War, and at various stages of the War of Attrition, which lasted around 18 months through 1969 and 1970. He was no stranger to front-line action and bullets whizzing past him while he tried to get the action into focus, but even so, there must have been moments when his professional guard dropped? “You work intuitively when you’re out there,” he states. “You don’t have the time to think about composition, or aesthetics. You simply react to rapidly changing situations. What can you do, as a crazy photographer stuck in the middle of some inferno? All you can do is lift up your camera and hope that your eyes pull through.”
The documentation equipment did not just provide Bar-Am with some kind of – albeit flimsy – protection; it also allowed him to keep his emotions in check while he kept his eyes glued to the viewfinder. “Maybe the camera does protect me from getting too emotionally involved in the things I was photographing, but I am not absolutely sure about that,” he offers,