Zooming in on the Schalits

In a student project, Tiltan College’s Anna Geda shadowed the parents of the captured soldier, photographing their facial expressions, hand gestures, and even a rare smile.

Crowds in Mitzpe Hila await Gilad Schalit’s return 52I (photo credit: Courtesy Anna Geda)
Crowds in Mitzpe Hila await Gilad Schalit’s return 52I
(photo credit: Courtesy Anna Geda)
Many of us can remember the joys and challenges of conducting a long, involved student project to fulfill our major subject requirements and graduate from college. This reporter for example, a former anthropology student at New York University, dimly remembers celebrating his 21st birthday at a wildlife preserve in Ethiopia, observing the social behavior of baboons. For 24-year-old Anna Geda, however, this school project went beyond academics and became part of history in the making.
A native of Kiryat Haim, Geda became interested in graphic design in high school, and became involved with photography while in the army. She went on to study photography at the Tiltan College of Design and Visual Communication in Haifa. Geda’s senior project was an up-close and personal photographic study of the Schalit family – Noam and Aviva Schalit in particular – as they fought to bring their son Gilad home from Hamas captivity in Gaza.
Determined to do her intensive photo documentary by hook or by crook, Geda was doubly fortunate to find both a family receptive to the idea, and a somewhat idiosyncratic, open-minded college willing to guide and support her every step of the way.
Tiltan College is refreshingly unusual, even in the way it began.
“We started in 1994 at a small place at the entrance to Haifa, with just 12 students,” recalls college president Erez Issacharov. “Tiltan started because my then-girlfriend and present wife wanted to learn design. We didn’t find any good colleges. So I became very romantic and said to her, ‘I will open a school for you.’ The first courses catered to a total of 12 students, with me and her included among the 12. I never imagined that this would one day become the biggest college in all of Israel dedicated to graphic design. Today, we have 1,145 students learning graphic design, animation, photography, post production, 3D presentations, interior design and more.
“Every year, each of our graduating students must do a senior project. Last year, we had 78 students finishing their studies. Each student here learns graphic design and one special program. Anna chose to specialize in photography in addition to graphic design. For her project, she chose to do a photographic study of the Schalit family, and spent seven months with them, taking thousands of pictures. When it came time for the senior projects to be displayed, Anna was crying, right here in my office, because as only one of 78 students, she had only one wall to exhibit her photos. She had to choose just 10 or 12 from her thousands of photographs.”
Not surprisingly, Geda remained emotionally committed to the project even after it was “officially” over and on display at the college. She continued to photograph the Schalits right up to the moment of Gilad’s homecoming, for a total of 10 months.
Why did she choose the Schalit family as the focus of her project? With a shy smile and a very soft voice, Geda explains, “Gilad and I are the same age. We started in the army at the same time. I, however, was able to finish the army and go through college during the time he has been held captive. I identified with this emotionally and wanted to do something for Gilad and his family.
This is how I started to think of the project.”
Geda, who is normally quiet and rather reserved, was far from certain that she would have enough chutzpah to even approach the Schalits.
“I met Noam Schalit for the first time when he was speaking at a demonstration in Tel Aviv,” she recalls. “I went up to him and told him that I was a student of photography, and that I had chosen his family’s struggle for my project, and that I would like to continue along with them. He was very quiet, but he finally said okay.”
From that point on, Geda became the family’s shadow, accompanying them to demonstrations all over Israel, and sharing space in their protest tent in front of the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.
“Every time I came there, they seemed almost surprised that I hadn’t yet finished my project. Noam joked that I might keep my photography project going long enough for me to get a PhD out of it. I told him that the project would be finished the minute Gilad returned home.”
That minute came, of course, at Mitzpe Hila on October 18.
How did it feel, after 10 rigorous months of intensive work? Geda bursts into a smile and says, “Wow!” “It started really a week before,” she says, “when they said he was going to be released. Every night, I was getting up in the middle of the night, almost unable to wait until the big day. Then I was waiting with my sister at Mitzpe Hila. It was all very exciting, being part of a big happy crowd waiting for him to come home. Of course we could not get closer or take any pictures, because all of the entrances to the Schalits’ home were blocked by security people. But we were still very happy to be there.
“I’ve never met Gilad Schalit, but this project has made me feel that I know him, it’s made me feel very close to him, being there for him all that time. I want to take photographs of Gilad, but I know that it will be some time before I am able to do this.”
Geda acknowledges becoming quite emotionally involved with the Schalits, so much in fact that she began to worry that she was losing her professional detachment. She seriously considered quitting the project several times, until a talk with her photography teacher provided a different perspective.
“My teacher convinced me that emotional involvement makes for better photographs, and that there’s no real conflict between emotional involvement and professionalism in photography.
Being closer and more involved emotionally also made me more comfortable with myself while taking pictures.
Before, I had been very shy and reserved. When I was finally able to make peace with the issue of my emotional involvement, I was able to really loosen up and become more assertive as a photographer.”
Says Mali Alon, head of the graphic department at Tiltan, “I also feel that ‘objectivity’ and ‘detachment’ are not really necessary for this kind of photography.
And I can tell you that when Anna resolved this conflict between her personal feelings and her professionalism as an artist she began to take her best pictures.”
Those pictures are indeed compelling.
Geda’s pictures of facial expressions, hand gestures, and brief, unguarded moments convey almost everything in the broad gamut of human emotions.
Throughout Geda’s photographs, we see anger, fear, hope, hopelessness, determination, exhaustion and even rare smiles on the faces of Noam and Aviva Schalit, as well as almost unutterable tension recorded in close-up images of jaws being clenched and hands being wrung.
So what is ahead for Anna Geda? In the long term, she says, “I have a big hope to be able to combine design and photography together, and to succeed in this area.”
In the short term, she plans to reacquaint herself with her boyfriend, with whom she has not had much free time to spend during the past 10 months of intensive work with the Schalits.
“It will be okay,” Geda says, laughing. “He has been very supportive.”