A shot at the world

The ‘Local Testimony’ press photography exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum digs deep – evoking drama, history and emotion.

Alex Libek’s emotive work showing sand-stained remnants of plastic-encased greenhouses in a failed agricultural enterprise in the Arava. (photo credit: ALEX LIBEK)
Alex Libek’s emotive work showing sand-stained remnants of plastic-encased greenhouses in a failed agricultural enterprise in the Arava.
(photo credit: ALEX LIBEK)
This year’s Local Testimony press photography exhibition is a grand, impressive affair. The layout at the Rothschild Center section of the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv is polished and alluring, with outsized prints suspended at a convenient height from the ceiling.
This is the 12th edition of the annual press shot display, with local works exhibited alongside contributions from reporters around the world who participated in the annual competition run by the Dutchbased World Press Photo Foundation.
As Israeli show curator Vardi Kahana noted, the local and international images are proffered in the same hall for the first time this year.
“The burning issues, the major world problems, have stopped being specific to some locale or other,” says Kahana. “Terror is global, the refugee problem is global, and the dialogue [between Israeli and foreign images] in the photographic idiom is a familiar dialogue. There are different dialects, but basically we all speak the same [photographic] language in Israel and all over the world.”
Kahana, a celebrated artist in her own right and a Sokolow Prize for Journalism laureate, has the street cred for passing such judgments, and she was joined by an eminently qualified panel of professionals in sifting through around 7,000 entries to this year’s Local Testimony competition.
These were pared down, by stages, to 250 items pertaining to seven categories: News, Nature and the Environment, Religion, Community, Urbanism and Culture, Sports, and The Photographed Story.
Here-and-now stuff sits cheek by jowl with images that echo historic events and, together, they offer a wider picture of how we got to where we are today. One fascinating fly-on-the-wall snap, taken in December 2014 by Emil Salman of Haaretz, shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about to enter Harel Hall at the Prime Minister’s Office, where he held the press conference announcing his decision to dissolve the government and hold new elections. Netanyahu’s facial expression and body language could be variously interpreted as anywhere along a spectrum from menacing to apprehensive.
One of the cast-iron rules governing entries into the global and local competitions is that the works must not be manipulated in such a way as to alter the composition, by adding, rearranging, reversing, distorting or removing people and/or objects from within the frame.
That point was reiterated by the curator when a member of the group that took part in a press tour of the exhibition last week suggested that the Israeli winner of the Photo of the Year had been doctored to produce a more dramatic effect. The stunning shot, taken by Menahem Kahana of the French-based AFP news agency, shows three Palestinian women standing in the fire-damaged house of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank town of Duma, shortly after the arson that led to the deaths of an 18-month-old baby and his parents.
“Like the three sirens of mythology, like three angels witnessing abuse, stand three Palestinian women, stricken at the sight of the horror unfolding before them in the house of the Dawabsheh family, burnt to the ground,” says the curator. “The photograph, which was selected unanimously by the jury, was taken by Menahem Kahana three days after the terrorist attack that was carried out by Jewish extremists.
The photograph expresses, in one image, not only the shock, the sorrow and the pain over the family members, who were burnt to death, but also the horror from the extremists, whose actions will push us all into the abyss.”
The level of drama that exudes from the top-placed local entry is echoed, to some degree or other, in numerous other photographs in exhibition, both from here and abroad. These days, of course, with myriad-channel TV and masses of media options offered by the Internet, competition between reporters is all the more fierce. After all, by definition, all media professionals have to get their work out there. So one wonders whether, in the constant struggle to grab headlines, journalists may be drawn into seeking out ever more jarring images to catch the attention of a consumership that is undergoing a process of desensitization through overexposure to horrific images.
Laurens Korteweg, Amsterdam-based project manager for World Press Photo, who was in Israel last week to expound on the items from abroad in the Eretz Israel Museum show, is keenly aware of the problem.
“Of course the photos that were submitted into the News category are all very explicit and very violent. But we have noticed that, this year, the content or the way the photographers present the events of the world actually seem to be more implicit.
They are less ‘in your face’ and more shown in such a way that you, as a viewer, actually share. It is hard to say whether that reflects a change within the industry, if they are trying to relate to their audience in another way.”
In a nutshell, Korteweg is implying that press photographers are generally trying to get their viewers on board emotionally, and draw them into the subject matter.
Then again, subjectivity also impacts on the way we relate to a visual image. That can feed off personal baggage, and also take in cultural or even national roots.
A strong case in point is the shots taken by Magnum Photos cooperative member Jérôme Sessini, from France, of the aftermath of the missile attack on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which crashed into the countryside in eastern Ukraine, in rebel-held territory near the Russian border.
All 298 people on board died, around two thirds of whom were Dutch. The triptych includes a photo of a dead passenger still strapped into his seat in the middle of a field. While the images were shown around the world, they were considered to be too close to the Dutch national bone to appear in the Dutch media.
“A lot of the criticism we get is about us being too negative, too explicit, too bloody, too violent,” Korteweg continues.
“But I think that things are slowly changing.
I think there are so many creative ways that I can talk with my audience and actually make an even bigger impact, instead of showing horrific attacks with bombs and war and conflict.” Amen to that.
There are many emotive items in the exhibition, too. Arash Khamooshi’s entry, which won third place in the Spot News category, shows the amazing process of an aborted public execution in Iran. On April 15, in the northern Iranian city of Noor, a young man was due to be hanged for stabbing a friend to death during a street brawl. The victim’s mother was to be actively involved in the hanging. However, at the last minute, instead of pushing the chair from under the killer’s legs, she slapped him in the face in an act of symbolic forgiveness.
Such an act puts a stop to the execution, though the victim’s family does not have a say in any subsequent jail sentence.
Khamooshi’s work also includes a picture in which officials ask cheering onlookers to remain calm, while the victim’s mother walks away, as the crowd and a police officer look on. It is drama taken to the nth degree.
The large print by Swedish photographer Åsa Sjöström, from the Stockholm-based Moment Agency, provides some blessed relief from the doom and gloom of the news items, sad socioeconomic backdrop notwithstanding. In the shot, a Moldovan youngster called Igor is seen whispering something into his friend’s ear. The picture was taken at Igor’s birthday gathering, and his grandmother has given him chocolate to hand out to his classmates.
The exhibition text explains that Moldova is Europe’s poorest country and that onethird of the working population has gone abroad in search of better-paying jobs, so children often find themselves looked after by elderly relatives or left in orphanage boarding schools.
The refugee problem, of course, features strongly in the World Press Photo section of the exhibition. Surprisingly, Italian photographer Massimo Sestini’s entry, which took second place in the General News slot, does not portray sadness or the tribulations experienced by the fleeing migrants. The colorful print is an overhead shot of refugees jam-packed into a boat some 25 kilometers from the Libyan coast, prior to being rescued by an Italian naval frigate. “If you look closely you will see that the refugees are smiling, because they know they are safe,” says Korteweg.
Closer to home, Israeli prize-winning photographer Alex Libek’s emotive work showing sand-stained remnants of plastic- encased greenhouses in a failed agricultural enterprise in the Arava conveys the painful message in no uncertain terms. Then there’s Avshalom Levi’s more statuesque work comprising a dozen monochrome portraits of former leaders of the Black Panther movement for social and political change from the 1970s.
As usual, Local Testimony makes for compelling viewing.
Local Testimony will run at the Eretz Israel Museum until January 16. For more information: (03) 641-5244 and www.eretzmuseum.org.il/