Being around youth in any country is often a window into where that culture is headed. The time I recently spent in Israel has given me the opportunity to be around both Arab and Jewish students, going to high schools to conduct photo workshops in a variety of communities that reflect the socio-economic, cultural and ethnic diversity of this small country. I have observed the divisions amongst people in Israel grow since 1991 when I first began my travels there as a documentary photographer. The gaps are filled more by distrust and prejudice, but spending time with high school students revealed an almost separate universe where these feelings were not shown. The youth manage to remain bright spots as the politicians continue to cast clouds over the seemingly intractable political situation. My past travels to Israel have been of a geopolitical nature, often serious, tough, and disheartening. I accepted the return to Israel to conduct these workshops with an open mind and discovered youth who are filled with hope, positivity, and the tenacity to make changes.
For me photography is engagement. With the world, people, issues, events, and with life itself. Being a photojournalist serves my desires to tell stories, reveal issues, make the world a slightly better place. By changing one person’s mind, my work is a success. To illuminate is my challenge, whether by casting light on unknown issues or shedding new light on what we think we know. From an early age I wanted to tell stories. My work has become a personal exploration and expression of the dynamics of the politicized America I grew up in, molded by the culture, politics, social action and concern of the time. Living the life of a photojournalist has brought me into contact with places, people, cultures and ideas that have enriched my life. My photographs serve as a testament to this way of life as a humble and curious individual who cares deeply about our world and its people.
The language of photography is more powerful and pervasive today than at any time in its history. With social media we can now reach people across the globe to share both personal and professional visual stories. The opportunity to spend time with Israeli high school students from a variety of backgrounds was a chance to share some of my knowledge and experience while also learning a great deal from them.
My first stop was in Jisser Al Zarka, a Muslim conservative community, the poorest Arab town in all of Israel and its last Arab village along the Mediterranean coast. In some ways it feels as though it exists outside of time, cut off physically from the rest of the country, unable to grow or change. The students there were fantastic, with beautiful faces reflecting the different hues of Arab identity. The girls in their hijabs had infectious spirit and enthusiasm, and the boys demonstrated a desire to learn and connect. They were all bursting with questions and curiosity as I shared my work from other parts of the world.
One of my assistants was an open-minded and liberal Israeli college student. She arrived late one day to our workshop in Jisser Al Zarka because her taxi driver did not want to drive through the Arab town. I was surprised to hear her say, “he’s a racist…and so am I in a way.” This anecdote represents my sense of how things have changed in Israel, as I would not have heard these thoughts from a young liberally-minded woman 20 or 30 years ago; a reflection on the hardening of both sides from decades of conflict, occupation and war.
In the beautiful, ancient seaside city of Akko, my workshop took place at the “American Corner”- a cultural center supported by the Embassy. There I engaged with mostly Muslim and some Christian Arab youth that represented another socio-economic class. They were all dressed in designer jeans, had stylish modern haircuts, and reminded me of teenagers I would see in my own town in New Jersey. These students were initially bored and uninterested in the work I shared from other parts of the world. This all changed when we ventured around their town to photograph and then review their work. Their spirit, innocence, and youth blossomed and I was able to see beyond what I originally assumed were jaded attitudes. It was refreshing and humbling to observe how wrong first impressions can be, and how time and compassionate attention can provide space for people, especially youth, to open their minds in such inspiring ways.
The next day I visited Kiryat Gat, a Jewish technical and science high school in what would be considered a middle to lower class community in southern Israel. Here, the kids were very engaged, albeit more self-conscious and even pushy in their desire to look good and perform well. The boys and girls were from diverse backgrounds and origins, including Russian speakers, Ethiopian, Arab, secular and religious traditions. At first they appeared disinterested and lackluster, but by the end of our session they were bubbling with questions, excited about the work they had created and reflecting the warmth and good nature of bright youth.
At Kfar Saba, I worked with only Jewish girls, members of the “Young Women’s Parliament,” a youth leadership program. These girls were confident and smart, open to learning and eager to photograph. It was refreshing to see no spoilt or entitled behavior. During the drive there, the conversation turned to the situation in Israel and Palestine, the verdict being that “it’s complicated.” Given the trend of the past 10-15 years, this complicated situation grows more surreal in my mind. We were able to join the celebrations of an annual cultural holiday, with kids dancing to Elvis Presley songs, while both a jazz band and classical music were playing. Clowns, Philippine caregivers with their elderly clients, beautiful families, and people of all ages were enjoying the community while the gentle, cool breezes of spring created a peaceful and tranquil dusk. This idyllic, modern community is about 7 miles from the West Bank, yet a million miles away in terms of the socio-economic conditions and quality of life; besides the fact that it is not under military occupation. These alternate realities continue to rob me from completely appreciating the excellence of what Israel has achieved in a place like this.
Rahat is a conservative Muslim community in the southern district of Israel’s Negev Desert. Rahat is a predominantly Bedouin city with a population of 62,000, which makes it the largest Bedouin settlement in the world, and the only one in Israel to have city status. Once again the students were mainly female and full of enthusiasm and unbridled energy, but the cultural differences in this town were immediately drawn into sharp relief once we headed out to make pictures. The restrictions on the girls made it hard to photograph very much. We stumbled upon a bakery, with young men working, but once the girls started to photograph, the men got upset and refused to allow girls to photograph them. Once we intervened, things smoothed out, but at every turn it was clear that this was not normal for women to go around their community taking pictures.
The incongruities of life in Israel and the occupied lands have always been difficult for me to accept. How can you see past the parallel universes that exist so close to each other? Israel has achieved an extraordinary country but at what cost? I remain opposed to the occupation and it’s heartbreaking impact on the people of both sides, but with the youth I encountered on this trip, there was none of that toxicity. They are full of life and ambition and a clear desire to learn and cooperate with one another. If we can change only a few minds and bring people closer by using photography and visual storytelling, then this is success. Efforts like this by the International Photography Festival based in Tel Aviv, Israel should be commended for their efforts to staunch the cynicism and fear that too many politicians today are using to gain and hold onto power.