Keeping an open frame

The annual Local Testimony press photography show is more than just pictures.

A RELIGIOUS Jew who turned his car into his home recites Psalms in the Bukharan neighborhood of Jerusalem (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz)
A RELIGIOUS Jew who turned his car into his home recites Psalms in the Bukharan neighborhood of Jerusalem
(photo credit: Noam Moskowitz)
If a picture is, indeed, worth 1,000 words, then there are tens of thousands of words, of the most eloquent and stirring nature, on display at the Eretz Israel Museum right now.
The annual Local Testimony press photography show has garnered increasing popularity over the decade of its existence and, when I did the tour of the spacious second floor of the museum’s Rothschild Building with curator Moran Shoub, there were plenty of visitors around.
For Shoub, Local Testimony is about much more than just the visual content of the items on display, from here and around the world, however captivating or alluring they may be. “If I just want to see the pictures, I can open the catalogue,” she suggests.
“An exhibition is more than pictures, it is about the whole experience of the space.”
That comes across in crystal-clear fashion as soon as you enter the exhibition area. For starters, you are immediately struck by the dramatic content of some of the shots; but, in a sense, that is a given once the adjudicating experts have done their job, by sifting through the thousands of entries and whittling them down to the final 100 or so pictures.
You know you are going to be impressed by the individual items you see.
The true added value of the exhibition is that, before you know it, you are drawn into the core of the show and, almost willy-nilly, coaxed into seeking out the next shot, and then the next. That is down to Shoub and the way she has set out the press image stall.
“The Israeli exhibition is assembled like a building site. You can enter the space from various places.
It is always open,” explains the curator, adding that her foreign counterpart from World Press, the Dutch-based international press photography agency which sponsors the event, took that on board before getting down to work himself. “He hung the international pictures in relation to the Israeli exhibition.
For instance, he placed the pictures that relate to Syria and Gaza close to the Israeli photos. War is a constant in Israeli photos, and there are pictures from all over the world on the same topic.”
But there are plenty of uniquely local themes in Local Testimony, too. Miriam Alster’s Photograph of the Year-winning shot, for example, of a prayer service conducted by the Women of the Wall protest group, which took place in June last year, could only have been taken here. The juxtapositioning of praying women in tallitot and tefillin, ringed by female Border Police soldiers wearing facial expressions that run the gamut from weariness to don’t-messwith- me looks, makes for a robust-looking image that conveys much of what life is about in this part of the world.
Is that the epitome of Israeli photography? Can one define one print or another as fundamentally Israeli? Is there such a thing as “Israeli photography?” Alster’s work may well fit the bill. “You have here composition of very human-female presence, and there is one character missing from the frame,” notes Shoub. “That’s the photographer whom you sense, because of the gap in the shot. But the whole frame is typically Israeli, because of the theme. You have solidarity of women here, but you also have conflict and struggle. The women Border Police officers are blocking the praying women.”
Shoub suddenly backtracks a mite. “Actually, I am not sure you can say there is such a thing as Israeli photography, but I can look at a particular photograph and explain why it is Israeli.”
Shoub has been in the photography field for many years, both as an artist and as a curator, and she does not air her views lightly, without due consideration.
One of the enduring characteristics of photography from this country, she notes, is the prevalence of walls.
“The vast majority of Israeli photographs there are walls, and a human story. In the city, of course, you will generally find walls, but even when a photographer goes to take pictures of, say, Beduin, Palestinians in firing zones, with their herds, there are always walls in the pictures.”
Is that because, in the Middle East, the issue of a home is of such paramount importance? “I think so,” says Shoub.
“You can have a picture of policemen sheltering behind a concrete defense walls, or children playing inside a migunit protected area, but at the end of the day, a wall is a home.
For a Beduin it may be plastic sheeting or corrugated iron, but it is still a home. Here we are, fighting for our home.”
Shoub takes the home theme into the realms of metaphor.
“I suddenly understood that a photograph is like a home,” she proffers. “A photograph commemorates or perpetuates. If you walk through a city and you see the walls, you sense that the walls have witnessed everything that has happened there.”
Then there is Uriel Sinai’s Series of the Year collection, portraying people in the South of the country taking cover during Operation Pillar of Defense, or surveying the damage caused by Palestinian rockets. Of course, we do not have the monopoly on global hostilities, and presumably press photographers working in other arenas could produce similar images, but there is a definite Israeli flavor to Sinai’s shots.
Sinai also took third prize in the Portraits, Singles category, for his endearing photograph of an IDF soldier taking a quick break during a training exercise in the Golan Heights. The contrast of the young man’s almost dreamy facial expression, the limpid position of his hands, notwithstanding his uniform, ammunition pouches and hefty rifle, produces a strong oxymoronic end result.
As this is the 10th Local Testimony show, this year’s exhibition also features works taken at various times during the last decade, the most powerful of which was shot by Natan Dvir. The photograph, which was adjudged the best of the last 10 years, was taken during the evacuation of the Homesh settlement in the West Bank in August 2005, and has a bearded tallit-wearing settler in the center, ringed by flames, with red-roofed houses behind him. The picture was presumably taken at some distance, through the flames, and the sense of destruction and violence is consummately counterbalanced by the settler’s smile of unconcern and his relaxed pose.
Ohad Zwigenberg’s show of a hassid desperately trying to protect himself from jets of blue spray aimed at him by riot police appears to tell a multitude of stories, and deserves much more than a fleeting glance. The photograph was taken at a protest by hundreds of haredim, members of the Natorei Karta community, protesting in Beit Shemesh against the proposed construction of a new neighborhood for the ultra-Orthodox on a site which the protesters claimed contains ancient Jewish burial caves. It is a highly dramatic shot, for which Zwigenberg won first prize in the News, Singles classification. The image is almost surreal- looking and appears to have been manipulated in Photoshop, or by some other computerized means of visual enhancement.
Shoub is keen to point out that this is definitely not the case. “No, this hasn’t been touched up or altered in any way from the original print. None of the pictures on display have been changed.”
In this day and age of user-friendly and ever-accessible cellphone photography, Shoub notes that Zwigenberg’s entry is a prime example of how the professional photographer should go about his business. “You can see Zwigenberg was very close to the hassid,” she says, pointing out four more distant figures looking on from safe range.
“That’s the difference between the professional and the amateur,” she continues. “Those four, I’m sure, did not get anything like the impact of this picture.” As legendary Jewish Hungarian photographer Robert Capa once famously said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
While photography is a powerful vehicle for capturing a poignant moment, Shoub cites late journalist, writer and art critic Adam Baruch, with whom she collaborated for many years, in offering a seemingly enigmatic observation.
“He said that a photograph is never faithful to the original intent. There is a shot in this exhibition, from 2008, of a young girl from Sderot whose home was destroyed by a rocket. It appeared in the next day’s paper to convey what happened to the family during a bombardment. But today, when we look at the photograph we have no information whatsoever about the actual event, and we use the photograph as an illustration for all the other things symbolized by the photography – war, destruction, grief and that sort of thing. But it does not tell the story of the girl in the picture.
No one knows anything about her, and no one really takes an interest in her. So the original intention of the photographer has been lost.”
It is a fascinating conundrum. “That is what you call a commemorative photography,” adds Shoub. “It doesn’t tell the story of the little girl’s sorrows. It has taken on iconic value.”
Shoub returns to the analogy of walls, the home and construction. “They call Jerusalem the eternal city, but it comprises civilizations that have been built on top of each other, covering each other. That’s what a photograph does – instead of perpetuating something, it conceals the original story. We pile our understanding and interpretations on top of the photographer’s work.”
All told Local Testimony incorporates some 180 images, with around 140 from 2013. The four jurors worked their way through about 7,500 pictures submitted at the start, with around 2,000 making it to the next stage. The experts are given no information about the person behind the work. “All they see is a frame and have the story of the shot, and they end up with 500 photographs, when the four judges – including myself – consider all of the remaining photographs together. The final selection is made after discussion between all the judges.”
The adjudicators have done an excellent job. Besides the drama, the scenes of woe, terror and despair, there are tantalizing portraits, comic items and touching ones, too. The curator’s choice in the Portraits, Singles section features a charming shot of a 92-year-old new immigrant from Russia who was a paramedic in the Russian army. And it is difficult to contain a smile, let alone a raucous chuckle, when viewing Abir Sultan’s first-placed picture, in the Community, Religion and Faith, Singles category, of a tiny baby boy peeping out from a ritual silver bowl during a pidyon haben ceremony in Bnei Brak.
There are some surprising stories in the Local Testimony mix, too, such as independent photographer’s Gai Shtienberg’s sequence on the family of Meir Berko, which placed third in the Community, Religion and Faith, Series section.
To all intents and purposes Berko looks like a regular Mea She’arim-born and bred haredi. While the fun shot of the black-clad, bearded Berko taking a photograph of his wife and two of their six children in a playground may fit the standardized bill, the one of him merrily zigzagging his way between four of his kids on a skateboard is certainly an eyebrow-raiser. The stock haredi image is put to bed once and for all when you see Berko with arms aloft, holding a windsurfing board, and then in the last shot on the board paddling his way out to sea to catch a wave.
Maybe that is the most enduring message you can take from Local Testimony. With the proliferation of news-disseminating media, both electronic and in print, we are almost constantly exposed to a barrage of visual information.
That can dull the senses somewhat, and make us impervious to the subtler and brighter aspects of life. You can’t miss that at this exhibition.  Local Testimony closes on January 18. For more information: (03) 641-5244,, and