Fishing for the unexpected: Menahem Kahana and Gil Cohen Magen

arrest clash 298 gil (photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen)
arrest clash 298 gil
(photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen)
'There is a problem with our business," says Menahem Kahana. He should know, too, having worked more than two decades for AFP, covering not only events in Israel but also Olympic Games, the pope, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and much, much more. "Most of Israeli news photography," he explains, "is centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and politics, with a few holidays thrown in and a little bit of sports here and there. And even that is covered in as superficial a manner as possible. "As a professional photographer you may aspire to shoot deeper subjects [Kahana has been photographing haredi life, as a personal project, over a decade], but you don't have any time for it. You shoot 20 funerals every year, or more. You try to be creative, but how creative can you be at 20 funerals a year?" Gil Cohen Magen nods in agreement. "You become like a machine, like a factory, producing the same old pictures over and over," says the seven-year veteran, who started out at Yediot filling five or six assignments a day before joining Reuters. "But, if you're as experienced as Menahem, you can cover an event and sense exactly when the right moment to shoot is coming." "Actually," Kahana retorts, "if you know that something is going to happen, it's generally not very exciting. After all, if you know something is bound to happen, someone else probably does, too. So if you shoot that, what have you created, really? The idea is to 'fish' for the strange moments, the unforeseen moments, the moments that no one expects." That both men have seen so much helps them identify the shot that their editors will want, even as it makes them somewhat immune to the dramas they capture on film. "You can be very close to something physically, and the camera will give you emotional distance," Kahana explains. "I'm a lot 'rougher' than I used to be. Once I would take everything seriously, but after a few years of this you don't cry anymore." Even so, both hard-nosed veterans admit that the job has an emotional cost. "At one of the Mahaneh Yehuda bombings in Jerusalem, I saw a man lying on the ground with part of his leg blown off. He was not only alive but still conscious, and screaming terribly," says Kahana. "Well, you keep shooting and move on… but it haunts you in your dreams." Cohen Magen's breaking point came in late 2002 at Kibbutz Metzer, where a Palestinian infiltrator shot dead five people - including a mother and her two young children, as she tried in vain to shield them from the terrorist's bullets. It was a particularly shocking murder, at the end of a year riddled with atrocities. For Avi Ohayun, the ex-husband and father of the victims, it was a thundering blow; over the next few days, the entire nation would be gripped by the tremendous depth of his grief and pain. When Cohen Magen arrived at the home that night, though, Ohayun was just arriving as well. "There was so much blood… so much blood," he says now, still in disbelief. "[Ohayun] was absolutely torn to shreds inside; he had found his children's pacifiers and was sucking on them and weeping. My first child had just been born, and I just couldn't bear to see that. I couldn't manage to take a single picture in focus." The next day, Cohen Magen was assigned to cover the Ohayuns' funerals, but he refused. He couldn't do it. Of course, such incidents are extraordinary. "But you can get called to an event at any time, 24 hours a day. You definitely have to have a supportive family," says Cohen Magen. "And the desire to do this job has to flow in your veins." Kahana recalls the funeral of a terrorism victim that got out of control. "It was absolutely absurd," he says. "The family had invited the press to cover the funeral, but man, they had no idea what they were in for. Photographers were on all sides of the coffin, pushing and shoving and making the mourners really angry. Suddenly the father stopped the funeral in the middle and told us all to get the hell out. He was yelling, 'Shame on you!' But listen, news photographers aren't passive. They're very aggressive." Cohen Magen can tell you that Israelis don't care much for cameramen, either. "Oh, wow, the Likudniks during the elections - do you remember, Menahem? 'You're blocking my view!' They don't care that you're from the press. They'll beat you up, man, they'll punch you. They'll scream, 'Get the hell out of here, you liars!'" "That's the difference between Israelis and Palestinians," Kahana answers reflectively. "When you go to a demonstration by Palestinians, all of a sudden you are as welcome as can be. They will open up the morgue refrigerators and take out the dead bodies just to show you what the 'Zionist occupiers' have done to them. There is incredible cooperation with photographers on the part of Palestinians. "But when we arrived to photograph the evacuation at Amona, the Israeli settlers nearly killed us. They slashed my tires. Photographers were injured, some intentionally. The settlers had no desire whatsoever to have their pain shown to others… they wanted no part of us."