What the Local Testimony (Edut Mekomit) exhibition reveals about Israel

The Local Testimony (Edut Mekomit) exhibition currently on display at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv is a microcosm of the Israeli reality.

ILAN BURLA’S shot of the IAF flyover on Independence Day succinctly captures some of the contrasts in Israeli society. (photo credit: ILAN BURLA)
ILAN BURLA’S shot of the IAF flyover on Independence Day succinctly captures some of the contrasts in Israeli society.
(photo credit: ILAN BURLA)
The Local Testimony (Edut Mekomit) exhibition currently on display at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv is, by all accounts, doing pretty well. On a personal note, that proved to be something of a double-edged sword. When I went over there to see the outsized prints, I had to work hard to get a view of the exhibits and the accompanying wall texts, because the place was simply inundated with groups of school students and adults – plenty of enthused individuals.
The continued success of the local press photography and video showing, which has been hosted at the above institution annually for the past 17 years, is both surprising and natural. The latter stands to reason because the prints on show run the gamut from stunning, shocking, alluring, exciting, moving, dramatic delightful, thought-provoking and much in between. Then again, aren’t we constantly bombarded with images of all visual and emotional ilks, online, and – still – in physical publications? Surely, by now, our nerves and emotions are more than a little frayed at the edges, and we are becoming increasingly desensitized and, at least, consciously oblivious to the actual drama of life about us.
Curator Eldad Refaeli says there is no shortage of interest on the professional side of the tracks, either.
“There were around 7,000 images submitted for this,” he notes.
But the goalposts have shifted. It seems that themes that were once considered “sexy” and hot visual property are gradually fading into the background of public consciousness for a variety of reasons.
“If I only relate to the photographs that were sent in, there is no Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore. It just doesn’t appear in the pictures. Out of, say, 6,500 images, only eight – eight – were about that.”
Does that mean that, indeed, that aspect of the regional enmity has cooled, or have we just become bored with seeing the same old shots of, for example, IDF soldiers taking cover behind a wall while Palestinian youths hurl stones in their direction, or Palestinians fleeing as Israeli soldiers lob tear gas at them? Refaeli puts the dearth of visual documentation down to more prosaic reasons.
“They don’t go to all sorts of places in the territories because, first, freelance photojournalists, who make up the vast majority in the field, are afraid to go there. Second, they haven’t got anyone to sell their pictures to.”
That is a matter of supply and demand, with the accent on the latter.
“Newspapers like Maariv, Yediot and Haaretz are not so interested these days, and send fewer photographers there, so you see less of what’s happening there.”
Clearly, this is not just a case of not hearing a tree fall in a forest.
Refaeli does go along with the notion that most of us have been overexposed to gripping, shocking and titillating shots.
“We don’t get emotional about anything anymore,” he declares. “Today, it is all about the interest of this newspaper or the other, in the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict has vanished. There may be some peak, such as a war or a lethal terror attack. Then events in the territories come to the fore again. But that’s it.”
THIS YEAR’S curator says he was eager to stir things up a little, and selected a new jury of seasoned professionals from the fields of photography, curatorship and the media to plow their way through the thousands of entries, which were taken by some 356 photographers. As usual, the images were divided into a number of categories, including news, nature and the environment, religion and faith, society and the community, sports, urbanism and culture and the photographed story. Special awards were made for Photo of the Year and Series of the Year.
Refaeli’s jury appointment philosophy was designed to try to offset the thrill weariness factor.
“I chose these people because I know they are very sensitive,” he states, adding that he aimed to shake up the general public, too.
“I changed the look of the exhibition layout with different display formats. I have a lot of respect for the photographers and their work. Curatorship is important, but first and foremost, the work of the photographers is the most important.”
One of the dangers of such exhibitions is the very nature of the items on display. They are, after all, photographs, shots generally taken at lightning speed that are liable to hold the viewer’s interest for an equally fleeting moment. Refaeli tried to combat that hit-and-run ethos by introducing a new section that relates stories rather than anecdotes.
“I am very proud of having initiated the Long Exposure category,” he says. “That invites activity that is not snapshot-oriented.”
The wall text conveys that succinctly.
“The subjects appearing in Long Exposure have an everyday, maybe even humdrum character: people or objects that we see in everyday life, at the pool, by the side of the road, on the beach, in different areas and along borders. The photographer’s way of looking at things, with attention and sensitivity, helps us, the viewers, pay attention to details, focus our glance and take a hard look at things.
“This is not about a newsy approach,” Refaeli points out. “As far as I am concerned, capturing news images is about you and me. Anyone with a smartphone can get snaps like that. The chances that you will be on the spot with your phone, just as something extraordinary happens, are much greater than a news photojournalist being there at the time.”
Fair point.
That given, Refaeli was looking to imbue Local Testimony with significant added value in the bottom line, regardless of the means.
“The responsibility of this exhibition has to be artistic. When I am asked why people shouldn’t take pictures with their telephones, I say I don’t have a problem with pictures taken on a telephone. That isn’t the problem. The question is how you take the picture, what approach to take, how you observe the subject, and what you express in your photograph.”
There is an abundance of expression in many of the Local Testimony exhibits that, as befitting the work of a professional curator, are arranged in intriguing sequences and contexts. A striking case in point is a picture of young haredi boy near a fire where the last crumbs of hametz are being burned on Passover eve. It is, after all, a pretty mundane annual occurrence, but the photographer caught the youngster with an anxious look on his face. It might just as well been the scene of some terrible tragedy. Real estate professionals are wont to intone “location, location, location.” The photographer’s version would be “context, context, context.”
REFAELI SAYS the major themes in this year’s exhibition are the social aspects of life and, naturally, the two general election campaigns we endured in 2019. Politics is generally considered a sexy area of life, and the Photography of the Year features Avigdor Liberman caught in a pose that could be construed as apprehensive or determined. Either way, it makes for compelling viewing, as do the rest of the prints across their categories, themes and subtexts.
Unsurprisingly, ecology and humankind’s inroads into its natural surroundings makes its presence felt in several works. Eyal Fried’s Series the Year category winner “Mono/Mental” portrays some of the damage we wreak on Mother Nature in our back yard in a somewhat comical but no less stark, manner. And there are quite a few chilling reminders of the global environmental crisis in the World Press Photo section.
Refaeli observes that, in the aforementioned area of our lives and the exhibition, as our perceived level of sensitivity continues to drop, the documenters have their work cut out for them to grab our attention, and to make us sit up and think. So, how far does the curator think the photographer needs to go? Are we already into the realms of visual pornography where the gloves are permanently off?
“I think my job as a curator is to ask questions. I don’t always have the answers,” he says. “I can only say that, in the Israeli section of the exhibition, there are lots of questions about that. I am not against showing terrible things, because I think they have already become a part of us.”
Even so, Refaeli does feel we can still make our choices.
“Luckily, we can still consider what kind of world we want to build around us, but all these things are part of our world. We can opt not to see them, but they are there.”
Local Testimony runs until February 8. For more information: www.eretzmuseum.org.il/
www.edutmekomit.co.il and