Sometimes you just get lucky: Tsafrir Abayov

aba gun 298 abayov (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov)
aba gun 298 abayov
(photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov)
What a series of reversals Tsafrir Abayov has undergone. Having suffered an eye injury as a teenager, the Ashkelon native realized he would not serve a combat role in the military. So, with some photography work for a local newspaper already under his belt, Abayov joined the air force and took aerial photographs. In 1988, he went to an arts school in Montreal to study news and fashion photography and then, after three years, went to Los Angeles to pursue his fortune. The problem, he says, was that he "didn't know anything" - not even how to write up a resume. He worked odd jobs in Hollywood while trying to break into the business; his first assignment was to photograph a celebrity leaving a hospital for the tabloid The National Enquirer. From there it was a lot of celebrity chasing, movie premieres and college sports - to this day Abayov is hooked on sports, and shoots soccer and basketball for Yediot Aharonot - until hisbig break came with the Rodney King riots in 1992. When the Northridge earthquake of January 1994 (the most costly earthquake in United States history) struck, Abayov's photojournalism career was just hitting its stride. The photos that he took of his neighborhood, two kilometers away from the epicenter, would appear as a two-page spread in Life. And then came the car accident. After he woke up from the coma, Abayov still had to spend a few months in a hospital in California before returning to Israel for rehabilitative therapy at Beit Loewenstein. In all, he didn't work for close to three years. Abayov's return to action came, he says simply, "because I wanted to feel like a photographer again." He was sitting at his parents' home in Ashkelon, watching TV, he recalls, when he saw on television that Yasser Arafat was going to meet Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres at the nearby Erez crossing. Heading out on a whim, Abayov arrived to find just one person awaiting the VIPs' arrival. It was Barry Iverson of Time, a photographer who had already earned his stripes by the time an Israeli shell shattered his leg in Lebanon in 1982. That Iverson could return to photojournalism after suffering such a serious injury inspired Abayov to relaunch his own career - which he has done, working as a freelancer for more than a decade for Yediot, AP, The Jerusalem Post and others. Since his pep talk from Iverson, Abayov has experienced more ups and downs. On the up side was the highly publicized release from prison of Mordechai Vanunu in 2004. It started out poorly, too: Scores of photographers from all over the world had crowded around the small spot in the prison parking lot where Vanunu, Israel's so-called nuclear whistleblower, was to meet the press. Unsuccessful in his attempt to jostle his way into the crowd, Abayov instead stood off to the side, next to the prison's outer gates, somewhat dejected. But as all the others struggled to get a decent angle, Vanunu suddenly ran to the gate - straight toward Abayov - to greet his supporters who had gathered outside. Abayov's exclusive photo of Vanunu climbing the bars and thrusting his arm forward with a "V" gesture was picked up all around the world. Sometimes, he says, you just get lucky. On the down side, though, was the time when he was sent to Pe'at Sadeh in Gush Katif to cover the murder of a middle-aged Israeli entrepreneur by a Palestinian terrorist. "I'll never forget this," Abayov recalls. "I was standing next to the body of the terrorist when a friend of mine called. As soon as she heard that I was in Gush Katif, she hung up the phone. I didn't understand why. But a few minutes later she called back and said, 'That was my uncle.' There I was, standing next to the terrorist's body, as about 40 Palestinian workers were standing there in their underwear, being searched and interrogated… What was I supposed to say to her? "Later, she asked me to come to the family's home. As soon as I pulled up, her father came out - it was his brother who was killed - and gave me this terrible stare. God, what could I possibly say to him? What could I say to the family? Shortly afterward my friend asked to see my photos from the scene, but I refused… "The next time there was a terrorist attack," Abayov says, "I was afraid to go cover it. I was afraid I would know the victim. And to this day, I have that fear."