As thrilling as it may sometimes be, excess of anything is plainly unhealthy. As the age-old adage has it: “everything in moderation.” These days that can apply to numerous areas of life, particularly to being constantly bombarded with visual data. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but what happens when news outlets on TV channels, websites and social media constantly compete with each other to get us to exclaim “Wow!”? The Machiavellian idea is to grab our attention – even if only for a couple of nanoseconds of our continually shrinking attention span – and, hopefully from their point of view, get us to consider the content of some commercial enterprise or other that pays for advertising space and time on the means of communication in question.
How the shifting “thrill” factor affects us, and our ability to consciously absorb and relate to information we are being incessantly spoon-fed, was uppermost in my mind when I recently visited the current “Local Testimony and World Press Photo” exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv.
As the double-barreled event title indicates, the pictorial spread incorporates images captured by photojournalists in Israel and around the globe during the course of the 12 months prior to the exhibition. The annual World Press Photo show has been doing the rounds of the international circuit since the 1980s, when it was founded in the Netherlands with a view to encouraging free press and excellence in the field of photojournalism and documentary imagery. Over the years it has become the blue chip berth in the field and the most prestigious platform for photojournalists to strut their stuff outside the media.
How photographers go about their work in a news-oriented world
That shows and, for the past 19 years since Local Testimony was founded by Dana Wohlfeiler-Latkin, Israelis have had the chance to see what our own press snappers, as well as their colleagues overseas, have been up to over the years. It is also intriguing to monitor developments in the profession and how photographers go about their work in a relentlessly news-oriented world.
LEAH ABIR, who assembled this year’s layout, is keenly aware of that side of the exhibition conundrum. The 44-year-old Tel Aviv-based curator and contemporary arts writer, who also serves as artistic director of the Arad Center for Contemporary Art and is co-founding editor of independent online art magazine Tohu, feels that the museum presentation setup helps to offset the sensationalism factor. “Local Testimony is not a news broadcast. At the end of the day, it is an exhibition,” she notes.
That is clearly the circumstantial case, but the images on show all relate to what could be loosely, or purely, defined as news information. “It was possible to submit a series in each competition category,” she continues. That, she believes, helps to momentarily prise us away from our addiction to breaking news updates and from the tendency to become ever less conscious of the street-level drama being reported, and the ensuing emotions. “There is, for example, a category called Long Exposure. There, the emphasis is not only on news events, but there is also material by photographers who have invested time in their work, returning to a place repeatedly.”
The winner of the Long Exposure contest section is an eight-parter by Oren Ziv called Housing Conflicts. Those who have visited Local Testimony shows since the event’s inception have seen their fair share of violence, destruction and gore. Interestingly, there is relatively little of that in the Ziv set. But there is plenty in the way of emotional expression. The narrative behind the prints centers on residents of Givat Amal, Kfar Shalem and Jaffa doing their damnedest to stymie plans to evict them from their modest dwellings in order to make way for the construction of luxury tower blocks.
The pictures were taken between November 2021 and April 2022, thereby allowing Ziv to get to grips with human and other conditions on the ground. This was clearly not a click and run photo shoot jaunt, and the emotional current is palpable. “The series format allows the photographer to gain, and impart, the broader deeper picture of all sorts of themes.” says Abir. “And there are series with animals and nature.”
One from the latter doesn’t just tug on the heartstrings, it rips them to shreds. Eran Gissis, who came second in the Nature and Environment Singles category, took a picture of a young wild ass nuzzling its mother’s body after she had been run over by a motorist on Route 40 in the Arava. “It is a sad story but also one of interaction between humans and nature,” Abir explains. “They took the young animal to a wildlife reserve because it wouldn’t have survived on its own. The picture has a very complex subtext. It went viral.”
THE STORYTELLING facet of the series format is fully exercised by Amir Levy in his coverage of activity surrounding attempts by settlers to reestablish the Homesh settlement in the northern Samaria hills in the West Bank, which was dismantled in 2005 as part of the disengagement treaty in Gaza. Seventeen years on, it is still a burning issue. “I just read that a petition has been submitted to the High Court to see whether the settlement can be rebuilt,” says Abir. “Amir Levy’s series shows people returning to the site, which is actually trespassing on private land. That allows us to take a step back and take our time to consider the events taking place. We can just look. We don’t have to react.”
That, the curator feels, leaves everyone concerned with more room for emotional and cerebral maneuver. “I am sure [the series creation mindset] affects the photographers. I think that exhibitions like Local Testimony enable photographers to adopt different ways of working and relating to events taking place around us. That is in addition to documenting terrible things that, unfortunately, occur here all the time.”
That is a given and is perennially displayed in the photojournalism offering. And, even with the growing apathy that naturally results from constant exposure to high drama of the unmitigated feral kind, the exhibits manage to move us.
Local Testimony also manages to put some of the photographers in the spotlight, not just the fruits of their labors. That is demonstrated in the most shocking of circumstances. The News category includes a quartet of shots of the same occurrence in the Old City, taken by different photographers. “I intentionally included the picture taken by [Uruguayan-born Jerusalemite photographer] Quique [Kierszenbaum] because I wanted to have more than one photo of the same event,” Abir explains. “You can see the other photographers in his picture, at the back.”
Therein lies a moral-professional conundrum. Photojournalists make their living from documenting events they, or their editors, feel should be shown to the world at large. That might be something unashamedly commercial and designed to serve the media outlet’s bankrollers, or it may be an incident or a state of affairs the photographer feels should be conveyed to viewers and/or readers around the world.
But where does one draw the line? Would, for example, seasoned photojournalists stand to one side to allow a murder to take place so that they can snap it and send it over to their employers for global circulation? In such a case, would they consider the preservation of life more important than documenting its violent loss?
While no one was killed during the Flag Parade episode on Jerusalem Day in May 2022, there was some cruel punishment inflicted on an innocent defenseless bystander, which was caught on film The victim was a middle-aged Palestinian woman who encountered a group of far-right activists and was attacked with an aerosol self-defense spray and beaten up. That was shocking enough, but to see three other photographers making sure they captured the brutality makes you balk, to say the least. “The idea was, of course, to show the incident but also to show that there were other photographers there,” Abir notes. “The photographer is a human being caught up in a particular situation.”
I wondered whether the photographers in the frame were actually there in a conscious feeling sense. They were certainly there physically, but they must have switched off emotionally to allow such an act of violence to take place and not intervene. “That’s their job,” says Abir, “and part of that is dealing with very tough ethical dilemmas. The job of the photographer is to capture what is taking place so it can be shown to others.”
That may sound shocking, but when you consider that so many of us automatically reach for our cellphones to take a picture of this or that – possibly a stunning sunset – rather than experiencing it fully in real time, perhaps it is not too big a step to take to snap such distasteful goings-on rather than acting to prevent the injustice from happening.
CONTRASTS OF an oxymoronic nature feature in quite a few of the exhibits, perhaps none more glaringly than in Ohad Zwigenberg’s shot of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid caught in the mid-leadership handover in the Knesset plenum. While the incoming caretaker PM could not possibly have looked more thrilled and appreciative at the turn of events, Bennett looks like a little boy who has just been told he is grounded for the week. The onlookers also cover a wide arc of expressions. Zwigenberg, quite rightly, received the Curator’s Choice award in the News section for his effort.
Expressive and aesthetic disparity also come through in Noam Revkin Fenton’s snap of a couple out on the town on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street in May 2022 as they pass a bunch of IDF special forces soldiers searching for a terrorist who killed three people in the vicinity.
Zwigenberg seems to have a knack for catching conflicting demeanors and surprising encounters. His picture of a small Palestinian boy holding a Stop the Occupation placard offering an insouciant hand to a genial-looking IDF Yasam Special Patrol Unit soldier at a demonstration against the eviction of Arab residents from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah district won him first prize in the Society and Community Singles category.
There are also several screened works dotted around the museum display area. One shows stills and video clips from the war in Ukraine, which made for challenging and emotive viewing, despite the absence of actual violence. On one of my rounds of the hall, I saw a little girl, aged around six or seven, sitting on her own on the bench in front of the screen. That got me wondering about the effect the dramatic images in the exhibition have on such young, pliable and impressionable minds. Perhaps some parental guidance is in order.
In view of the aforementioned ceaseless barrage of images of violence that abounds across the Internet and TV channels, it was heartening to see that the Photo of the Year award went to an intriguing and compelling work by Itai Ron. It was taken during the funeral of Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, a leader of the Israeli haredi community who died last March at the age of 94. While Haim Goldberg’s delectably crafted frame of another notable funeral, of Rabbi Avraham Erlanger, makes for stunning viewing, the strength of Ron’s work stems from his decision to point his lens away from the centerpiece of the procession. By shooting young black-clad haredim perched on the branches of a leafless wintry tree, he allows us to complete the funereal picture, resulting in a powerful and enduring image.
The thought-provoking, fun, touching, surprising, shocking and enlightening Local Testimony and World Press Photo exhibits will be on display at the Eretz Israel Museum until February 11. For more information: www.eretzmuseum.org.il/