Wine Therapy: The power of a picture

Nati Shohat, of Flash90, speaks of the value and the costs of getting the perfect shot.

A fish fillet is marinated in Asian miso sauce and served with bok choy, seaweed and mushrooms (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A fish fillet is marinated in Asian miso sauce and served with bok choy, seaweed and mushrooms
How far would you go to make your secret dreams come true? Would you leave your comfort zone, take real risks – no cutting corners – to go all the way? For Nati Shohat, extreme is his daily reality. Shohat, 51, is the founder and owner of Flash90, the largest and most influential photojournalism agency in Israel. His photos are seen in every Israeli home and have been part of our lives for close to 30 years.
It’s as though Flash90 photographers are everywhere at once, every newsworthy event, and their photos appear in all existing media outlets, in Israel and around the world. They have become an inseparable part of this happy-sad place we live in, part of our here-and-now history. While prime ministers change, governments rise and fall, wars and peace treaties occur in cycles, Shohat and his team of dedicated photographers witness all these events up close. Very, very close.
The goal: To reveal how far Nati Shohat will go for the sake of an incredible photo.
The means: A gourmet dinner at Jerusalem’s famous Angelica restaurant, accompanied by Gevaot Merlot 2013 and Gofna Petit Verdot 2013.
How did you get into this realm of photography?
I was one of those kids who really didn’t want to study. At 14, I switched to the Lifta Open School, which was an option for “problem kids” like me. That’s where I received my first Nikkormat camera, and encountered the darkroom. I just fell in love with it all at first sight.
Why do you think photography, of all things, caught your interest?
This tool, given to me at Lifta, the act of photographing, allowed me a very unique avenue of self-expression. My photos spoke in my stead, and together with the camera, I went through processes that led me to where I am now. By the way, that’s true for everyone in this field. You can see with any photographer that there are periods when they’re more delicate, more blatant, more allusive. We photographers undergo our psychic processes with our cameras.
How did you get to where you are today – with such a successful and influential agency?
In 1990, when I was 24, I opened my own agency. At the time, there were a number of very large and veteran agencies, such as Zoom 77 and Scoop 80. I was a tiny fish in a sea of sharks, but I realized very quickly that in this world, you can’t even blink. Every morning I got up, rolled up my sleeves, and set out to wage war. They’re the Goliath. I’m the David. It was actually a lot of fun to fight them and win. Even though these days I’m sad that none of them survived.
How is it that you did survive?
I’m great at working hard, consistently, and I love my work. And also because it’s my life dream. I always make sure that my employees feel the same love for the profession that I have. Currently I’m trying to choose projects with high levels of added value that I can more easily connect with psychologically.
How about an example...
For two years I was planted deep in an undercover unit in Judea and Samaria. Not because they paid me. It was certainly not financially worthwhile. But it was simply an unbelievable experience. I felt as though I was a combatant in the unit. They kept me safe, they encouraged me, and on the other hand, I saw things that no citizen ever gets to see unless he’s part of that unit.
What’s the best photo you’ve ever taken?
My best frame is the one I haven’t taken yet. That’s my motto. That’s the way I keep standards up to their top levels all the time.
Let me put that differently. When did you feel particularly pleased with a photo you took?
I’m never pleased.
So you’re a type of ‘Polish mama,’ it’s never quite good enough...
This profession’s secret lies in thinking this way, always thinking that you can get an improved result. The bar needs to constantly go higher. Of course it’s often hard to catch the photo you’re looking for, but you must never submit to that difficulty. You need determination and willpower, and sometimes you need to be a bit manipulative, or comic, or tough, but nothing should stop you from getting that image.
Isn’t it hard to maintain that level of intense focus for so many years?
On the contrary. What’s kept me in this business is that the work’s never boring, not for a moment. I’m sure that if I was tested, I’d come out with top marks for ADHD!
A large number of your photos manage to capture a moment in time that reflects reality.
Reality dictates our “marching orders” in a way.
We’re constantly on the alert. To catch someone stabbed in Jerusalem’s Old City, you first of all need real time information and be able to get there as it’s happening. You also need some pretty steely elbows to argue your way past anyone trying to prevent you from taking photos. It’s tough work, Sisyphean.
There are so many terrorist attacks. Doesn’t that frighten you personally on some level?
The term “afraid” doesn’t exist in a photographer’s lexicon. Maybe we’re a bit crazy. Some years ago a terrorist stood on a rooftop shooting, everyone scattered and we were the only ones left, standing in a room facing him and looking for the best position for a photo! Suddenly the door flew open, and the anti- terror unit ran straight to the window we needed for that frame.
I assume they got what they needed.
Of course. When they turn up we move away. There’s no discussion even. But [smiling] they’re the only ones we give precedence to.
These days there are cameras with zooms all the way to outer space. Why would you get so close to danger?
You want to be able to see the whites of a terrorist’s eyes. You’ve got to get up close.
Your office is located in the heart of Jerusalem, very close to the terrorism epicenter.
Around half of the terrorist attacks occurring recently I managed to photograph from the office. When the triple attack on Ben-Yehuda street [in 2001]occurred, I realized from the first “boom” exactly what was happening. I grabbed my equipment and ran out, and by the third “boom” I was at the location. If I’d run faster, I might even have been killed in that blast.
What’s changed in the world of news photography over the past 30 years?
Public leaders didn’t have image consultants way back when. I really miss those times. It was a period when photographers could snap whatever they wanted, and no one cared much. Today, everything is a “production” and a “release.” Those consultants have totally ruined the profession’s spontaneity.
Which prime minister was the most spontaneous?
In the past, when I still had hair, I turned up at my barber and he “let slip” that prime minister Yitzhak Shamir would be coming the next day to get his hair cut. Of course I waited for him at the barber, and when he arrived I asked if he’d let me take his photo. His answer was, “Of course, if that’s okay with the barber.” Nowadays, you can forget spontaneity of that sort.
Share a particularly compassionate story with us.
Near Bethlehem there’s the Dehaishe refugee camp, which was fenced. When the IDF left Bethlehem, the entire village came out with wire cutters, hoes and whatever else they could find, and tore the fence down. It was such a moving sight. I’m not relating to the political aspects involved.
Another incident that is burned in my memory was our disengagement from the Gaza Strip. My heart was torn, because I became so closely connected to these people. They were removed from their homes after having built an entire life there. Again, without getting into the politics, the act of uprooting tore me to shreds. I also saw how the soldiers in charge of handling the situation were so upset. Everyone’s souls were torn forever, and the images came out showing exactly that.
In our neck of the woods it seems that the most moving stories are an outcome of the political reality.
But what stories! One of the most emotional projects I photographed was for the Save a Child’s Heart organization. I photographed an Israeli surgeon in Jordan checking Iraqi children dying of heart disorders.
He checked who he would be able to save, and the most amazing visual came from that, because in the end these children are indeed saved! Can there be anything more incredible? In this instance, too, the camera constituted a protective layer, restraining me from letting my emotions get the better of me.
Was there an occasion when you felt that the camera didn’t protect you?
In the past we’d listen in to the rescue forces’ band wave. One day I heard a report come through about a gas canister that blew up in a man’s hands. I set out right away and got there first. I saw the guy, completely burned, trying to douse himself with the fire extinguisher.
I stood there, alone, facing him, and just couldn’t take that photo of him. He started talking to me, and asked to see himself in the mirror. I said, “No, don’t move, just wait for the ambulance,” and I helped direct the driver to the location. Only after they arrived was I able to take any photos. It’s a shocking image, but the most raw of images I’ve ever taken.
What’s the craziest photo you ever took? One day I came across two daredevils who had a “bug” – they loved climbing cranes. I was really curious about that and decided to join them. We snuck into a skyscraper construction site in Tel Aviv, got past the guard without him ever noticing, climbed 40 floors up by foot, and then another 50 meters up on the crane itself, on the crane operator’s ladder. And all that with the crane swinging back and forth... very, very unpleasant!
What did they do up there on the crane?
Up there is where they got “psychotic”... it started with walking along the crane’s arm, at a ridiculous height, and no security measures... they hung from the end by one hand, and shook hands with each other, and when I thought that was all done, they even hung from each other. They really taunted death. But it led to the most awesome photos.
Two weeks later your breathing return to normal...
The peak of this whole apocalyptic craziness came when I wanted to calm down with a cigarette, and one of the guys says to me, “Bro, please, do you mind not smoking near me? I’m asthmatic.”
About Angelica restaurant:
Location: 4 George Washington Street, Jerusalem
Specialty: Chef meat restaurant, kosher
Chefs: Erez Mergi and Marcos Gershkowitz
Starter: Quinoa salad; Endive and lettuce salad; Salmon Sashimi
Main course: Nectarine chutney chicken with plums, apples, mashed potatoes and a brandy sauce; miso fish fillet with bok choy, mushrooms, wakame seaweed, ginger and lemon grass; roasted sirloin and fillet with cornichon and caper salsa, cured onions and a mustard vinaigrette; maple glazed lamb spare ribs; hanger steak served with charred potatoes, roasted onions, bok choy and horseradish cream; grilled beef fillet with a mushroom potato pie, leeks and beans, simmered in veal stock with red wine.
Dessert: Tapioca pearls, summer fruit dressed with cherry syrup; a chocolate dome with perlina crunch, crumbled cocoa and whipped ganache.
Shohat’s score of the meal and the wine: 10