© Yaakov Israel
Israel’s political, historical and religious significance makes it one of the most heavily scrutinized nations in the world. Much is written and said about Israel in the global media, by academics and by politicians, and a lot of that discussion and analysis ends with fierce declarations from experts, pundits and armchair analysts about what Israel should do politically, militarily and socially. It seems as if everyone has an opinion about Israel, but how much do they actually know about it?
For those who’ve seen his large-format landscapes and portraits, photographer Yaakov Israel has provided an opportunity to look more closely at Israel in a way that is curious rather than hypercritical, inquisitive rather than conclusive. His new book, The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey (Schilt), is the product of a years-long exploration of the nation of Israel that focuses on small details in the landscape that reveal something of its inhabitants—past and present—and on Jewish, Christian and Muslim people the photographer has come to know along the way.
Israel, who was raised in southwest Jerusalem, says he was initially inspired by the tradition of American photographic journeys made by the likes of Timothy O’Sullivan in the 1800s and Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shore in the latter half of the twentieth century. After embarking on the project, however, Israel realized that the small size of his country, which allowed him to travel to its borders and return home at night, meant that his journey would be quite different. “I understood that this wouldn’t be a journey in the conventional, geographical way,” Israel recalls. “It’s more like a mental journey through the land.”
What he wanted to do with the work, he says, is tell a story that would convey his experiences of people and places, and how those encounters affected his personal understanding of “the place that I was born in and live in today.”
Israel wanted social, political and religious issues to “exist in the work in a very subtle manner.” But he warns, “This is not a collective understanding, it doesn’t represent Israel in any way. It represents the way I was discovering it, and tells a story that is built around this journey and the experiences that came with it.”
The book’s title is taken from the Orthodox Jewish belief that the Messiah will return dressed in white robes, with a white beard and long white hair, astride a white donkey. During the course of his work, Israel found and photographed a man on a white donkey: a Palestinian farmer wearing worn shoes, gray jeans and a blue work shirt and baseball cap. “The day I took that picture I understood that all these myths and stories that are connected to all religions somehow exist in this place,” Israel says. “But not in the way they’re written … There are quite a few images that reflect all kinds of aspects that deal with religious myths from Christianity, Islam and Judaism. They materialized in various ways in front of my eyes during my quest.”
Conflating the Messiah with a Palestinian farmer reflects a subtle sense of humor. “When I thought of the name [of the project] and all of these small paradoxes, I thought it would be nice that all of these [political, social and religious] issues would be dealt with, but with just a touch of humor,” Israel says. “Sometimes I do feel that this area and all these religions that are part of this land are taken a bit to0 seriously.”
“You can’t help but be conscious of [Israel’s conflicts] all the time,” he adds. “But I think humor is a strong part of living like this in a way.”
In his photographs we see the entrance to an underground bunker in the Judean Desert, a concrete gateway that seems to open onto nothing but a hilly, barren expanse. At a beach on the Dead Sea, he photographed a road that seems to lead straight into a barbwire-topped, chain-link fence. There is an image of burnt palm trees, and another of an abandoned water park.
“These things talk about the people who occupied these landscapes,” Israel explains. Photographing human interventions in the landscape functions in a similar way to archeology, he adds. “It reflects what used to be there and who used to use it.”
Israel’s portraits show a young Bedouin man against a backdrop of trees, a female soldier standing on a bridge with the dome of a Christian church in the background. He photographed a pair of police officers, one sitting in their car and the other standing with a rifle, and a girl wading naked into the Sea of Galilee with her arms outstretched.
Israel works with an 8 x 10 field camera, which he says he chose more for practicality than any romantic notion about the medium. “It makes me stop and look slowly,” he says, “which isn’t something that I do a lot because we all live in the twenty-first century, running around like mad.” The field camera also encourages people to notice and interact with him. And if he asks to take their picture, the process often takes 20 minutes or more. “I respected them,” Israel says of his subjects. “They understood that it was important for me and agreed to do it. That also affected me, because you start getting to know people. I can be in Israel or in the territories and some of the people are Palestinian, some are Bedouin and I’m Israeli, and it got me to think that once it’s on a personal level, most people forget about politics.” He notes, however, that was not always the case, and some people reacted negatively.
When he set out to create his personal survey of his country, Israel wasn’t quite sure how to approach it. His previous work had relied on consistent compositional choices to bind individual photographs into a series, but he “wanted to do this project in a looser format” while still connecting all of the images through common ideas. As he edited and re-edited the work over the past five years, he says, “I was thinking a lot about the actual journey, where I went and what happened and how these things shaped my experience. Each image in the body of work represents a certain aspect, hint or metaphor that is crucial to the narrative that was accumulating as the journey continued.” Israel says his understanding of the work was altered “by the people that I was meeting and the places that I went through.
“It’s a place that you can get up in the morning and think one thing and then two hours later you’ll think the opposite,” Israel says of his country. “And that happens again and again. So [the work] is personal and combines all these quests to try and figure out this place that I’m living [in] and I am a part of.”