Doing it his way

Ever since he first encountered it as a child in Ethiopia, Gideon Agaza has been fascinated by the camera. In ‘Our Way,’ an exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum, he points it at his own people.

An Israeli child (photo credit: GIDEON AGAZA)
An Israeli child
(photo credit: GIDEON AGAZA)
The role played by photographic documentation in our individual and collective memory can be a boon, but also something of a contentious issue.
Seeing things “as they were” clearly triggers strong recollections, but naturally, we view past events from a different juncture in time, and probably from a different personal perspective. After all, time marches on and we change with it.
That said, Gideon Agaza is keen for us to know something about the past life and experiences of the Ethiopian community, both here and there.
Agaza will take a significant step toward achieving that objective when his new exhibition opens, later today, at Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum. The show goes by the name of “Our Way,” and the title suggests multiple interpretations; it could refer to the way Ethiopian Israelis choose to express themselves, and could also have something to do with the odyssey they undertook in making aliya.
“But, more important – and this is what I address in my work – is the process which the community is undergoing in Israel,” says the photographer. “As soon as we got here we started a process of learning about the Western world, and how we learn to cope with it.”
“Coping” is the operative word here. Agaza came on aliya almost 20 years ago, at the age of 11, and says he, his family and the rest of the community went through – and are largely still going through – a challenging learning curve.
We all know that moving to a new country – even one that has been the object of our collective dreams for many years – can be a trying affair. It is also now common knowledge that the political hierarchy and administrative powers that be have made umpteen mistakes in the way various waves of olim have been absorbed and integrated into Israeli society since 1948, even taking mountainous logistics into consideration.
That has certainly been the case with the Ethiopian community, and there were large demonstrations as far back as the mid-’80s against the demand by the Israeli rabbinate for Ethiopians to undergo conversion in order to be accepted as Jews.
In her new book, Just Not in Our School, Tsega Melaku, former director of the Reshet Alef radio station, unleashes a litany of stinging accusations against various official bodies that were involved in bringing thousands of Ethiopians here, both on Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991. If her claims are true, some terrible injustices have been committed against Ethiopian olim, both in transit camps in Ethiopia and after they made it here.
But Agaza says he wants to concentrate on the positive side of life here, and the customs and traditions that members of the community continue to observe in their new country. “I want to show the good aspects,” he states. “There are plenty of bad things around, and everyone has their good side and bad side. Through my art I document the community and what it experiences – the religious holidays and the traditional ceremonies, the Sigd and the remembrance day, which commemorates the ones who didn’t make it to Israel.”
Our Way features several dozen prints – most in color, some monochrome. There are pure documentary shots with, for example, groups of people wearing festive clothing, marking the Sigd at the Armon Hanatziv promenade in Jerusalem, atmospheric images clearly designed to convey emotion, and some more quirky frames.
“My job is to document all these events and sensibilities,” explains Agaza, adding that he has a longer-term objective, too.
“I am creating a photographic archive so that ultimately people will be able to learn something about the community from my photographs.”
Looking not too far into the future, it would be nice, at some stage, if a heritage center were created for the Ethiopian community where Agaza’s prints could find a permanent and easily accessible home.
“Yes, that would be wonderful,” he affirms.
“That is really my main aim, to establish an official archive. No one paid for my studies and I don’t see a penny from my work on this, but the supreme goal is to establish a respectable repository of photographic material about the community.
“I don’t take these pictures for commercial gain. This is an artistic venture, with a documentary motive.”
Agaza got his first look at a strange-looking object, which he eventually realized was a camera, as a young child back in Ethiopia. “I was very curious about what you could see from the back of the camera,” he recalls. “I wanted to see what the photographer saw. It was a big cumbersome thing.”
The next time Agaza saw a camera was a year or so after he made aliya; it was a smaller apparatus but still far from the cutting edge of photographic hi-tech. “My sister bought a really basic camera and I started taking pictures. It was an analog film-based camera, and I think my love affair with photography began then. I am glad I started out with film, rather than with a digital camera.
“Throughout my studies at Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem] – I was there from 2008 to 2012 – I used 35-mm. film. I was so captivated with the process, and not knowing what I’d photographed until the picture was developed. There is something so wonderful and romantic in that, which you don’t get with digital photography. I also like taking black-and-white pictures; I think you can express so much in monochrome.”
The new exhibition indeed includes a number of black-and-white images. “Those are pictures that I planned and staged,” he says.
So, it’s not just about capturing a fleeting moment in the community’s life? Agaza maintains he has no ulterior motive behind his self-designed work – and that, in fact, it is all part and parcel of his documentary oeuvre. “They are reconstructions of things from the past,” he explains, “things from Ethiopia. There is a picture of a shepherd in Ethiopia, as it were.”
It is not just about proactive reproductive documentation, but also a matter of conveying some of the subject’s thoughts and feelings, which pertain to the entire community. “The shepherd is looking towards the horizon, as if he wants to get somewhere, or maybe doesn’t really know where he wants to get to.” That “somewhere,” reveals Agaza, is Jerusalem – which has always been the ultimate goal of all Ethiopian Jews.
Agaza says he wants to continue documenting the Ethiopian community, and producing reconstructed images – and that he is the person to get the job done.
“I know the community from the inside, not like some press photographer looking to get a shot – if possible, a scoop – of some event of the community. And that is often about the negative side of the community’s life.
“I want people to know about us, and to appreciate the beauty of our traditions and customs and lifestyles. I hope Our Way will help with that.”
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