A Conversation with CPC 2011 Winner Yaakov Israel





Yaakov Israel’s The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey, complex, multi-faceted project, featuring portraits and landscapes, was my personal pick as a winner of this year’s Conscientious Portfolio Competition. For me, the project captures seemingly disjointed moments in time, offering many hints and as many red herrings. The viewer is invited to come back and re-look at these photographs, to find a slightly different world each time. New details reveal themselves, while old details change their meaning ever so slightly. Instead of pointing at something and saying “This is the way it is” the photographs ask their viewers to discover what is to be found and to ultimately come to their own conclusions. Find my conversation with the photographer about his work below. (more)

Jörg Colberg: Given your statement on your website I was wondering whether you could talk about photography and what it means to you. I’m particularly interested in your approach to storytelling.

Yaakov Israel: I think of photography as a language or tool which can be used in many different ways. I like to talk through it about the act of seeing, registering and experiencing the world. I love adventure both in the real world and very much in fiction. I’m constantly thinking of the world around me, how intensely interesting it is and if or how it may be possible to express this fascination. I am always thinking of reality versus realities. In all this is mixed my personal history and my interest in the history of my country and its population. Together with all the personal and local aspects I find that I’m constantly thinking of the history of photography and how I would like my work to relate to it. In a way I think of myself as a visual collector, an anthropologist, a social commentator and a contemporary story teller.

I am particularly interested in using certain qualities of the medium to try and evoke in the viewers a connection to the image. I would like the viewers to feel that they are standing in front of reality and forget for a few seconds that they are looking at a photograph. Obviously this is very ambitious and not really possible, but it’s still something I think of. Part of what helps me come close to achieving this is the use of a large format camera, in this medium I am able to make certain that the information I choose to portray is there for the viewer to see. This last thing may sound like a technicality but is a real necessity as I believe that information helps create this feeling I’m after, allowing the viewers to understand more about what they feel when looking at the work.

JC: Can you talk a little bit more about “reality versus realities” and how you approach it photographically?

YI: I have always loved the idea that there isn’t just one reality. As a kid I was reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy. In recent years I’ve been reading Haruki Murakami, who deals a lot with reality and parallel realities which exist in the human spirit and influence their reality. I have also been rereading Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which is an unending source of inspiration; this is a book that for me deals with perceptions of reality and ways of experiencing it. These and many more literal influences are imbedded deeply in this body of work. They are always on my mind and affect my everyday life and the way I experience the world. When I speak of reality versus realities I’m simultaneously talking about my personal way of thinking of life and of how I experience my country. I feel that there is no ‘one’ reality in this place. There are as many realities as there are people living here and all of them get mixed together. I’m constantly experiencing these different realities and the more I experience the more they shape the way I think of things. Referring back to Calvino; this all may be the same idea that is experienced and told in different ways but always refers back.

JC: The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey centers on Israel, where you’ve been living your whole life. I’m always very interested in how people approach photographing a place they know so well: How do you do that? How do you know where to look and where not to look? How can you make that interesting?

YI: At the moment I see myself as a photographer who deals with local issues, my work deals with my reality in the context of my country’s reality. For many years now I find that I am interested in doing work which deals with the place I grew up in and live in today. I find it is crucial for me to know a place to be able to say something significant about it. I get excited when discovering the little nuances that can only be discovered by someone who is very familiar with the place. At the moment I am not interested in observing other realities but am deeply interested in looking deeper into my immediate surroundings and trying to better understand this place in which I live. I find that the artists who influence my work are ones that show and discuss places and matters they know well. For me it is not finding the locations, they are right here where I am, the interest is finding the nuance that will shed a new light on it and a new understanding.

JC: What kind of new understanding are you interested in?

YI: It isn’t really a new understanding that I am after, it is more the idea of heading out every time on a new adventure. I never know where I’ll land up and who I will meet. Out of this experiences I build my story, the story is very much connected to these one on one encounters; sometimes with people from completely different socio-political backgrounds and many times with people to whom I as an Israeli represent the unwanted element in their reality. In these encounters all the differences disappear and we become friends, talk or have a meal together always inviting me back. Not always are people that nice and they can be hostile, but the nice encounters are what keep me going, making me feel that there are a lot of good people out there and this allows me to present the human aspects, which I feel are the strong reality of this country.

JC: Israel, of course, also is a very complex place; and most people not living there still get to hear about it a lot given the Palestinian situation. I remember the two times I visited Israel, there was always some politics question, some argument around the corner. To what extent did you want that to be part of your work? Is that easy to navigate?

YI: I consider myself part of Israeli society and am very familiar with the “on- goings” in my country. The fact that I am the son of immigrants gives me a different edge when looking at things. My father was a writer and journalist who came to Israel from Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe), he was always striving for social justice and wrote many articles against the apartheid government in South Africa and Rhodesia. At one stage it was made clear to him he wasn’t welcome in these countries because of his opinions. My mother was from South Africa to and had similar feelings. Social and human rights agendas were a thing we discussed on a daily basis. Growing up in this kind of environment certainly shaped my personality and social matters are very much present in my work. The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey is a story about contemporary Israel, and I show it as I find it. In a way I think of it like a puzzle, each time I go out I find a missing part, the pieces present themselves to me everywhere, my conscience reflecting back to me from my surroundings. And each piece gets me closer to the whole story. Each piece depicts a certain thing or is a metaphor of an issue that reflects on Israeli society. In a way I think this is my responsibility, to create discussions on aspects of the reality I see and share.

JC: With your approach to image making (or taking) how do you determine when you’re done with a project, when it’s time to move on?

YI: For the last nine years I’ve been working on three projects simultaneously, thinking mostly about the ideas behind them, and finding the best way to do the work.

About three years ago I decided I wanted to publish The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey as a book. I came to the conclusion that to understand this project it was important to see it as a whole and the most suitable was in book form. I started editing the project from the beginning. I didn’t understand how much work it would be until I was in the middle of it. As I photograph very intensively, usually making many photographs despite the fact that I work mainly with 8x10 and 4x5 cameras, I found myself looking at and arranging a very large number of negatives and slides. It was very interesting reviewing all the work from the beginning, seeing how the idea slowly evolved into a body of work. After that I made high resolution scans and prepared them for printing. This project now has a deadline for closure as it is scheduled to be published as a book in spring 2012 by Schilt Publishing in Amsterdam. Basically for the last year I have mainly worked on this project knowing that it has to be finished by the end of this year. This is the first time I have decided that a body of work has been finalized.

I have learned many things from this process, amongst them the importance of determining a deadline even if a personal one. Taking this kind of responsibility helps build a deeper understanding of the work. So I’ve decided to put my other two projects into a time frame. I now think it crucial to the fact that I’d like to start new work, I’m always thinking of new things under the umbrella of my interests that I would like to explore photographically. To do so it seems I need to finish the majority of my current photographic endeavors.