Following in the tradition of American travel photographers, Yaakov Israel (1974) started taking trips in Israel, his own land of birth, ten years ago and documented the encounters he had on the road. With his 8x10” camera he captured wide deserts and nearly empty landscapes with usually not more than one person present. GUP Magazine invited him for a conversation: about seeing beyond borders and the complicated connection between man and land.
Your first project, South West Jerusalem, is an ongoing series about Kiryat Hayovel, the neighbourhood where you grew up. What are you looking for while photographing there?
I grew up discussing social and political issues around the dinner table. My father was from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and my mother from South Africa, and their awareness of politics influenced me a lot. So when I started doing photography, I wanted to deal with how political and social issues affected my own life. This resulted in a project about the place where I grew up and still live today, a working- class neighbourhood; many of the people who maintain the city live here. It’s not one of the celebrated parts of the city; it’s not on the tourist itineraries. I photograph this place from my own experience of living here. Even though I started the project back in 2001, I’m still always looking for new images and adjusting the narrative. I’ve been working on it for such a long time that it now also reflects the history of the place and how it has changed over the years.
Your second project, The Quest For The Man On The White Donkey, started out as a road trip. What is it about that approach that appeals to you?
As a kid, I only knew Israel through public transport, because my parents didn’t have a car. I remember that I was always envious of my friends whose parents would take them places in a car, but it wasn’t the vehicle itself that I envied, rather the idea of the adventures I was missing. So, after I graduated, I got myself a small shitty car, and just started to drive around Israel, getting to know it better.
I was inspired by the idea of a journey that was rooted in American tradition, starting with topographic photographers like Jackson and O'Sullivan, Walker Evans and the FSA, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, and also by American writers such as Jack Kerouac.
But while American photographers could go on for months in their cars, I would usually reach one of the borders of my country by noon. It made me realise how complicated the connection is that we have to our land. In Europe, you just go from one place to the other, and you’re still a European. But that doesn’t exist here. In Israel, I feel that the evidence of the past is strongly intertwined with the marks of the present and the questions about our future. These lines of thoughts helped to shape the final project.
What do your working days look like when you are photographing?
I usually wake up at 4am, starting with first light, and return after the last light, and sometimes I go for a few days. Once I’m out there, things start happening. When I find something interesting, I stop. I always work on a few projects simultaneously. So when I’m somewhere, I can be making images for different projects. Often somebody stops me to ask me what I’m doing. And when that person is interesting, I may ask him to pose.
The whole thing has a certain rhythm to it. I never schedule my destinations; I just plan my direction and see what I stumble across. Sometimes I don’t find any images and sometimes I stop for the whole day in the same place and can’t stop working. In a way, my work has an element of serendipity as well as intuition that help narratives of a similar type to surface.
What do you think is the advantage of such serendipity or method of ‘stumbling’?
One of the things I consider the real work is trying to capture the things that interest me attentively. A few times I decided to go to a specific place, to make a specific image that I thought existed there. But the moment I got there, everything was different: the light, my mood, and also the atmosphere. I wasn’t interested anymore in the thing that I had noticed when I was there previously. It’s not that I go out only to make images. The photographs are the by-product or evidence of the work.
In what way?
I very much enjoy this feeling of going out and just seeing what will happen, and I also like photography for its quality to expose more than we actually see when looking at the same things. Let me give an example: There’s a picture I took of a carpet, which was literally embedded in the ground of an archaeology site. Sand was already covering parts of it. To me, this image refers to the layers of history embedded in the land here: scrape off a thin layer and you may encounter the accumulation of cultivation over time.
You take a different visual approach in these two projects, South West Jerusalem and The Quest For The Man On The White Donkey. What was the thought behind those two approaches?
For a long time I had a very tight structure in mind for the visual appearance of images. In South West Jerusalem I was always photographing the back or the side of the buildings, to give a similar look to the images, building the meaning by accumulating images that share the same visual language. With ‘The Quest’, I decided I was interested in building a different kind of visual language, one that would connect many types of images around a narrative, but it took me a while before I figured out how to actually build that underlying narrative.
So what is the story?
Three years into the project, on a very hot day, in the hills in the Judean Desert something interesting happened. I had been taking pictures for hours in the heat of the desert, so I was a bit tired, and maybe even dehydrated. I saw a guy far away in the landscape, coming towards me on a white donkey. He posed for an image, but I had to focus and refocus because the donkey was moving so much. After I finished, we said goodbye and we each went our separate ways. When I developed the plates I was amazed that all three images that I’d taken were sharp. I remember thinking: what are the chances of this happening? I thought of the Messiah in old orthodox mythology, arriving on a white donkey, and I couldn’t stop laughing. It was almost a Monty Python moment. And then
I understood that many of these religious stories and myths are still such a large part of our lives and our consciousness in this land. I liked the idea of showing the modern day materialisation of those myths, sometimes adding a little humour to it, because for me humour became a must when referring to such loaded topics.
Your third project, The Legitimacy of Landscape, specifically deals with conflict in Israel. Could you explain a little bit about it?
This project is about the way Arab villages exist in the Israeli landscape, physically and mentally. Physically they exist, but mentally, they don’t, for a lot of people. You can see that these villages are not acknowledged as part of the landscape, sometimes in a very literal way. For example, the Israeli government built the separation wall, which in a way defines the legitimacy of the landscape by defining what you can or cannot look at. Some of the images were taken before the wall closed off villages and thus they include views that are no longer visible. The work revolves around the question: when a certain part of the population is doing its best not to acknowledge these places, can they really be part of the landscape?
I don’t think of my photos as landscape images. I’m interested in how all the people living in the world are all connected to the land, and how those different connections become visible in the physical environment.
Are you always conscious of the fences and other restrictions, either natural or manmade?
There is a need for borders in the part of the world where I live, but I don’t like them. Every time I’m near the borders, I find myself going on the roads intended for military use. There are places that I am really not supposed to go to, but out of curiosity, I go anyway. And still, it’s not as if I think about borders constantly. I think about them only when somebody tells me to stop.