Pictures with power

Now in its 11th year, Local Testimony has become the most important exhibition in the field of photojournalism in Israel.

Photo by Miriam Alster (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER)
Photo by Miriam Alster
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER)
Robert Capa was a giant in the field of photojournalism, whose combat photos documented five bloody wars of the mid-20th century – including the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, World War II, Israel’s War of Independence and the war that ended French colonialism in Indochina.
His stark, gut-wrenching picture of a soldier falling in battle – taken from a vantage point just a few feet away – quickly became an iconic war photo, among the most famous in the history of the genre. Describing the craft of photojournalism, Capa famously said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Somewhat less famously, however, Capa also observed, “It’s not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything, except record the sufferings around one.”
This was the challenge facing many of the photographers whose works can be seen in two major photo exhibitions running concurrently at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. Israel’s 11th annual main press photography event offers fascinating and compelling views of this year’s events, as captured through the lenses of some of the best international and local photographers.
The annual “World Press Photo” exhibition comes to Israel again as part of its multinational tour, displaying prize-winning news and documentary photographs selected by an all-star international jury. The accompanying “Local Testimony” exhibition features the best documentary and press photos from Israel, chosen by an independent jury of professional photographers, media professionals and scholars from thousands of entries submitted for competition.
The jury panels for both exhibitions change every year; the photographs assembled in the two exhibitions represent the very best in international and local photojournalism.
Begun in 1955, World Press Photo is a highly prestigious annual contest that this year attracted 5,754 photographers from 132 countries, who together submitted more than 100,000 images. An international board of jurors selected 200 winning images in several categories, along with an overall winning image for the entire exhibition.
The victorious image of 2013, taken by American photographer John Stanmeyer, showed African migrants at the shore in Djibouti city one night, raising their cellphones in an attempt to capture a signal from neighboring Somalia, their only connection to their families abroad. Explaining why this photo won last year’s top award, UK photographer and jury member Jillian Edelstein said, “This photo is connected to so many other stories. It opens up discussions about technology, globalization, migration, poverty, desperation, alienation and humanity.”
Local Testimony exhibits works by the best local press photographers. Now in its 11th year, it has become the largest and most important exhibition of its kind, perhaps the major cultural event in the field of Israeli photojournalism.
This year’s images were selected by an independent jury comprised of leading professional photographers, curators, journalists and editors. They included Zachi Becker, deputy director-general of the Eretz Israel Museum; artist and lecturer Deganit Berest; Noam Gal, curator of photography at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum; Hanoch Marmari, editor of Ha’ayin Hashvi’it magazine; Jon Feder, editor-in-chief of Ynet and head of the Internet division at Yediot Aharonot; photographer Avi Koren; artist Micha Kirshner; and Moran Shoub, curator of the 2012 and 2013 Local Testimony exhibitions.
More than 7,000 images were submitted by some 300 photographers, from which 250 images taken by 69 photographers were selected by the jury. These will be exhibited in the usual six competition categories: News, Religion and Community, Urbanism and Culture, Nature and Environment, Sports, and Photographed Story.
This year, the editorial board decided to include an additional category in Local Testimony, called Summer of 2014. The category, with more selections than any of the others, is dedicated to photographs documenting the period from the moment the three yeshiva students were kidnapped on June 12, through the Hamas missile attacks and Operation Protective Edge, to the departure of the IDF from Gaza at the end of August.
It is interesting to note that the history of war photography is almost as old as photography itself. It began in 1847, when the process of photography was barely 10 years old. An unknown pioneer photographer, his name lost to history, took Daguerreotype images of uniformed, fully armed US soldiers mustering in the streets of Saltillo, Mexico, during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).
The first known war photographer was John McCosh, who captured images of the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-1849). The first official war photographer, and the first to attempt a systematic, photojournalistic coverage of a war, was Roger Fenton during the Crimean War (1853-1856).
But because the cameras and photographic materials of that period needed long exposure times, Fenton and other war photographers were able to produce pictures only of stationary objects. Fenton produced mostly posed pictures; others took photographs of wounded and dead soldiers, destroyed buildings and other grisly images of a battle’s aftermath. It was during the American Civil War (1861-1865) that Confederate photographer George Cook captured what is believed to be the world’s first photographs of actual combat, during the Union bombardment of Confederate fortifications near Charleston, South Carolina. His pictures, taken under fire, show explosions as Union ships fired their cannons at Southern positions.
The complete list of this year’s Local Testimony winning images and photographers will be revealed on the opening night of the exhibition, on Tuesday, December 16. Last year’s overall winner for best image was Miriam Alster, whose photograph of the Women of the Wall was acclaimed by the jury as Picture of the Year. This year, all five of her photographs on display were taken during Operation Protective Edge, and are competing in the Summer of 2014 category.
Born in 1981 in Stockholm, Sweden, Alster currently works as a Jerusalem-based photojournalist with the Israeli news photo agency Flash90. Her work has appeared regularly in Ma’ariv, as well in The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel; her photographs have also appeared worldwide in The Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, The Economist, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and more.
“I came to Israel in 2008,” she says. “I studied photojournalism in Sweden, and part of the framework at school was to do an internship for a year. So I did an internship with Flash90 initially for five months, and after five months I asked to stay for another five months. At the end of my internship I was offered a job there, and I’ve been working there ever since.
“I ended up making aliya, working at Flash90 for the past seven years. This is my home now.”
Asked for the major difference between reporting an event with pictures and doing so with words, Alster replies, “Obviously, we use different tools; most of the time, we have one picture that is supposed to tell the story. We’re working with composition, light, wanting the picture to look aesthetically right, all the while trying to capture a story in one image.”
Asked whether a successful picture is a matter of planning or simply being in the right place at the right time, she says, “Things are not going to just happen right in front of you. You kind of have to assess the situation and see what will happen, then take your camera and try to bring the ‘what’ to you.”
See the World Press Photo and Local Testimony exhibitions from December 16 to January 24 at the Eretz Israel Museum, 2 Haim Levanon Street, Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv. Opening hours: Sunday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. For more information: (03) 641-5244 or