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Heidi Levine hugs her driver Ashraf Al Masri after his home in Gaza was destroyed. Photo: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis
It can be tricky to talk about photojournalists’ work without over-simplifying, romanticising or glorifying. Thankfully, this piece Bearing Witness does none. Writer Doug Bierend does a sterling job of describing the decade-long work of Heidi Levine and teasing out the bittersweet award of the inaugural Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award for her coverage of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014. Levine knew Niedringhaus and an award is a strange thing in the face of societies destroyed by war:
“This award has made me reflect, and spend a lot of time thinking back and understanding — I have been very lucky. We were talking about experience — sometimes it’s not even how experienced you are, it can boil down to just having bad luck. I guess I’ve always felt committed to bearing witness, and feel that is just so important to give people the opportunity to know what’s happening in the world, and I don’t believe that there’s any excuse anymore for people looking the other way and claiming, as they did in the past, in history, that they were just unaware and didn’t know.”
Wounded Palestinian Rawya abu Jom’a, 17 years old, lays in a hospital bed at the Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, July 22, 2014. Rawya was seriously injured when two Israeli air strikes hit her family’s apartment. Her sister and three of her cousins were killed in the attack. She is suffering from shrapnel in her face, her legs have perforated holes in them and the bones of her right hand were crushed. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Some photos we feature are gorgeous and some are gory. In Levine’s case she manages to combine to the two. As Bierend puts it, Levine makes pictures in “a subtle or even artful way requiring a high degree of sensitivity [that] sees through the violence to the dignity of the subjects suffering at its heart. At its best, this skill can convey the true stories of conflict, the hidden personal and private lives shaken to their foundations by the nations, militaries, and leaders which tend to be the sole subjects in any discussions about war.”
It’s a sobering piece. Levine talks about risk, fixers and luck. I’ll leave you with another statement of hers:
“If you’re not trained, it’s really, really important to become trained, to take a hostile environment course, to take a combat medical training class … I have seen a lot of people out there in the field that are very inexperienced. It’s not like rockets or bullets discriminate between who is experienced and who’s not experienced. As you saw, Chris Hondros, who was one of the most experienced conflict photographers, was killed in Libya.”
Read in full at Bearing Witness.
Women mourn during the funeral of the boys killed by an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza, Gaza City, July 16, 2014. Four boys died instantly during an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza, a fifth boy died shortly after the attack in hospital. Israel stepped up its attacks on July 16 by bombing the homes of Hamas leaders after the Islamist movement rejected a truce proposal and instead launched dozens more rockets into Israel. Photo: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Palestinian men run with a white flag in the Shejaia neighborhood, which was heavily shelled by Israel during the fighting, in Gaza City, July 20, 2014. At least 50 Palestinians were killed on Sunday by Israeli shelling in the Gaza neighborhood, and thousands fled for shelter to a hospital packed with wounded, while bodies were unable to be recovered for hours until a brief cease-fire was implemented. Photo: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Palestinians collect religious books in the rubble of the Al-Qassam mosque in Nuseitat camp, located in the middle of the Gaza Strip, July 9, 2014. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Hidya Atash stands on the top floor of her home as she overlooks the destruction in Shujayea, at dawn Aug 8, 2014. Her family’s home was hit two weeks prior by a warning rocket and the family of 40 people fled. When they returned during the cease-fire, they discovered their home was heavily damaged during the fighting. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Neve Tirza, which houses 180 women, is Israel’s only women’s prison. In 2011, Tomer Ifrah, a photographer based in Tel Aviv, spent one day a week for three months photographing life inside. Ifrah’s series is Women’s Prison.
“The prisoners come from diverse social backgrounds, and mostly who belong to powerless minorities,” says Ifrah in his artist statement. “They must share their lives in close quarters. Most women in Neve Tirza Prison are serving their second or third terms there, trapped in a vicious cycle.”
Ifrah says that the relationships between the prisoners, the staff and he were rooted in mutual respect and trust. Cursory Google searches of Neve Tirza Prison reveals a history of abuse from 10 years ago; in particular threats to Palestinian prisoners; a recent influx of white collar criminals; and ongoing inhumane allotment of physical space. Neve Tirza has falsely been cast as a “paradise” by American TV. Conditions, on the evidence of our conversation, have since improved significantly.
Scroll down for the Q&A. Right click any image for a larger view.
Prison Photography (PP): Tell me about how you got access to Neve Tirza Prison.
Tomer Ifrah (TI): Going into the prison was such a lucky thing – even to get access for one day. I was sent by a local Israeli women’s magazine to photograph a single prisoner. I went to the prison with a reporter.
I had to wait for the reporter to do the interview, so they kept me in one of the segments of the prison. Of the five segments, I was waiting in the “easiest” one – the one in which you are kept if you have good behavior or committed minor crimes. I could talk with the prisoners quite openly.
I realized there was something in Neve Tirza for a project. I was quite skeptical [at the chances of doing a project] but I found out who was in charge and knocked on the door of the manager of the prison. I told her that I was interested in doing a project and she said immediately that it sounded good. After a few days and a few phone calls, I got in.
In the beginning, they didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do; it was the first time someone had go in and photograph the prisoners. They didn’t know exactly what to tell me. I wanted to go a few times a week, but they told me I could go in once a week.
PP: Neve Tirza is the only women’s prison in Israel. What’s the population of Israel?
TI: More than 7.5 million, perhaps 8 million.
PP: Just a single prison for women from such a large population seems incredible.
TI: What are the figures of incarceration in America?
PP: There are more than 200,000 women incarcerated in America. There are 2.3 million American prisoners in total.
TI: In Israel, there are 25,000 men in prison. Approximately, 13,000 or 14,000 are criminals. The remainder are incarcerated on security related issues – mostly Palestinians.
I watched a documentary by a woman who wrote a book about Neve Tirza. After she researched the topic, she was asked, ‘Why is there such a small number of female prisoners?’ She didn’t have a scientific answer, but she noted that it was the only women’s jail in Israel and so, maybe, they fit the prisoners into the space that they have. If you don’t have a place to keep female prisoners, perhaps they convict them less? I’m not sure, but this was the only answer I have found.
TI: This project was made exactly at the time I got involved with Frames Of Reality, a project that is a partnership between Palestinian photographers and Israeli photographers. Each of the photographers could choose a subject, so I chose the prison.
While I was working on Women’s Prison, I came with new images to the group and each week professional photographers saw them. The main thing that came out of our discussion of the images was that Women’s Prison is about feelings, about sensations, about the prisoners and what they go through. I was photographing emotions.
PP: And what were the overriding emotions?
TI: Neve Tirza is a very difficult place to be. It is a very intense place. The atmosphere is not easy. It’s so small.
TI: Neve Tirza is very crowded compared to other jails in which each prisoner has his or her own cell. The women are kept six to a cell in some of the segments. Just imagine going into a very small cell and you have to live with five others? Most of the time – from 7pm until morning – the doors are closed. Outside of those times, you can go outside, but even then it is very crowded. Imagine the conflicts between prisoners in such a small place?
PP: Conflicts? Was it a violent place or was it pressurized?
TI: I can imagine that sometimes it comes to physical violence but I think that mostly it stays at the level of shouting and verbal abuse. But there’s the other side of it; if you stay close to someone for a long period of time, very strong bonds develop. There is lots of caring and love among the prisoners. It feels like a very close family.
PP: Because there’s so few prisoners, I must assume that the women have been convicted of serious crimes? And they come from diverse social backgrounds?
Most of the women are convicted for drugs issues, caught in a cycle. Most women were serving their second or third term. They don’t have any options when they are released. I think this is a universal fact, not just here in Israel.
PP: What do the women who are trapped in this cycle, as you describe it, think of prison? Is it an opportunity to rehabilitate?
TI: It goes both ways. The staff and the manageress are doing their best to help them; you can see it in their interactions. They treat them the best they can. The administration has the best intentions. But on the other hand, it is hopeless, because they don’t feel that they can ultimately help them.
There also is a lot of criticism because most of the people in Neve Tirza are not supposed to be in jail; they are supposed to be in psychiatric hospitals, possibly. When you’re inside there you understand that immediately. A big percentage of the women have mental disorders. If you put people who are unhealthy in their minds together it can be hell for them.
My personal opinion about it is that it doesn’t help anybody. The system must be changed if you want to really help them and not just lock them up away from society. If you really want to help them there are other ways to do it.
PP: What did the women think of you and your camera?
I was surprised. Some of them at first told me that they weren’t interested in being photographed, but there were very few. For the whole period of time, I respected that and didn’t photograph them.
The women I did photograph felt very comfortable being photographed or didn’t give it any special attention. For me, it was excellent because I could document as I wanted.
PP: Did they ask what you’d do with the pictures?
TI: Yes. I told them they were going to an exhibition by Frames Of Reality (the Palestinian/Israeli photographer project) and that it would probably publish in magazines. They were okay with that.
The bigger thing was to get the approval of the warden. She was more difficult [to satisfy] than the prisoners. There were some photographs she didn’t allow to be published.
PP: What photographs did the administration censor?
Photographs that they felt that the families of the victims would be hurt by. If I showed a prisoner sentenced to murder, it would cause difficulties as that a very sensitive issue with the family of the victim.
PP: What I find is quite common in American prison photography projects is there are different levels of complicity and expectations between the prisoners and the staff. And also there can be different motivations for inclusion in – and accommodation of – a photo project between the management of a prison and the staff of the prison.
TI: In the beginning I was helped by both management and staff. Towards the final stages of the project they felt they were taking a chance with me, and with my security. They were worried I might get hurt. They probably have a good sense about what’s going on there, but I felt it only in the final stages.
I feel I didn’t have enough time to photograph the project as I wanted. Even with several hours a week, many things could get in the way. I could lose hours of time making photographs if there was something going on in the prison [that restricted my access]. I can often feel that way with projects, but particularly this one. I said thank you for every minute I had to photograph but still …
PP: Do you know of other photographers who’ve photographed Israeli women in prison?
TI: I only know of one student. It was done well, but not a full body of work. The photographer probably didn’t have much time inside.
PP: Magnum photos has a single lonely image made by Micha Bar Am from 1969.
PP: Is Neve Tirza Prison an ignored topic?
TI: No, no. Everybody wants to get access. I was very lucky. I think if I’d asked six months before I wouldn’t have got access. It was perfect timing. They felt comfortable with me and they trusted me. I wanted to return that trust so every image that I photographed I immediately showed them. I was very honest with them.
The thing that helped me to photograph there most was the fact that the prisoners trusted me. They understood that I would not take pictures that they did not want me to take; I would publish it in an an honest way.
PP: Obviously, a lot of imagery that comes out of the Israel/Palestine region is politicized. I’ve seen some work of Palestinian political prisoners. How does your body of work fit into that visual territory?
TI: I was not allowed to photograph the Palestinian female prisoners, of whom there were very few in Neve Tirza. If it were to cause problems for the prison staff, I was happy to not do that.
PP: Why were you not permitted to photograph Palestinian prisoners?
TI: There is a single image of an Arabic woman praying in her cell. She gave me permission as did the prison. It was okay with her but in one or two cases it was not allowed. The modesty in Arab culture is more strict. If it is men, it is usually okay, but if it is women it is more problematic.
There are many minorities in prison. In my images, you’ll see that many women are not Israeli born. Some of them are from Russia, or Ethiopia, or South America.
PP: Is that because minorities are generally marginalized in Israeli society?
TI: Exactly. I think this is also common in societies other countries.
PP: How many images did you make in total?
TI: I was photographing with medium format film. I made about 500 images in total.
PP: Tell me about Frames Of Reality, the joint Israeli/Palestinian photography project in which you are involved.
TI: Frames Of Reality is in its third year. The meetings are held in Beit Jala, a place near Jerusalem that is easy for both Israeli and Palestinians photographers to get to. We meet once a week with guest photographers or lecturers. It is financed by another country … I don’t know which. At the end of each year Frames Of Reality has a big exhibition and publishes a book.
TI: I’m not surprised people know Israeli photographers because the region is such a strong place to make photos.
PP: Specifically with Frames Of Reality, you’re trying to lead by example? Does photography have role to play in bringing different communities together.
TI: I just returned form the Israeli press contest where I saw all the core issues in the photographs – from photographs of East Jerusalem to Palestinian photographers working in Tel Aviv. Photography has role but I don’t know how much influence it has.
PP: Well, I encourage editors to get in touch so your photography can be seen. Thank you, Tomer.
TI: Thanks Pete.
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Life’s A Blast is a personal meditation on Israel and Palestine as seen through the lens of a young Swedish visitor. Linda Forsell visited Israel, Gaza and the West Bank several times between 2008 and 2010. She returned with a selection of images that read like a journal.
I first became aware of Forsell’s work when Life’s A Blast was shortlisted for the 2010 Magnum Expressions Award. I’m a big fan. I, therefore, did not hesitate to write a foreword when invited to do so by Linda. Below, punctuated by Linda’s images, is the I essay I wrote the new-release book Life’s A Blast.
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“He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.”
— Cormac McCarthy, The Road
It’s fair to speculate that all photography surfacing from Israel and Palestine is about land. Knowing what we do about land disputes, settlements and segregation in the region, it’s difficult not to ascribe images a political position favoring the land claims of either the Israelis or Palestinians. This is understandable in a climate of contemporary opinion that has roundly rejected the idea of photography and photographer as objective agents.
Linda Forsell’s photographs are not landscape photographs in the traditional sense. However, the beguiling vignettes within the pages of this book do return us to issues of land, and to the discomfiting realisation that no one in Israel or Palestine has a grounded or reliable relationship to the land.
In considering the surety of land-claims – claims backed with violence – in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, it may seem absurd to describe peoples’ connections to land as without root. Perhaps, the word ‘ambiguous’ more faithfully describes the disconnect. Between the certainty of established political positions and the uncertainty of physical existence in the region there exists a vast gulf of ambiguity.
Life’s A Blast is a challenge to convention and photographic authority, a sustained and deliberate visual wobble.
Within a photograph of an older man teetering atop a wall, the wobble is literal. In the photographs of children wielding weapons and playing among destroyed buildings, the imbalance is allegorical. Men, women and children in Forsell’s work maintain relationships among themselves, but struggle to find their feet.
The tropes of photography – particularly photojournalism – in Israel and Palestine are well known; the checkpoint; the rock-slinging youth; the huddled mother; the wall; the distant settlements on a desert hillside; the coffin raised high at a funeral; and – perhaps with most appearances on international newspaper front pages – the flag. The flag is often accompanied by some billowing smoke.
These tropes persist because, within the boundaries of a news story, these scenes are the illustrative of the quote/unquote action. As consumers of images, we must keep at the forefront of our minds that living in Israel and Palestine goes on outside the boundaries of news column inches.
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We have begun to see a small but noticeable response by contemporary photographers who have consciously moved away from “crisis photography” – I’m thinking here of recent work and publications by Irina Rozovsky and Yael Ben Zion – toward subtler observations of subtler gestures.
Forsell’s concern for the individual is noticeably different to the drawn back and almost cartographical response by celebrated photographers such as Sophie Ristelbuehler, Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright, Simon Norfolk and Richard Mosse. Of this group, curator and critic Charlotte Cotton says:
“Rather than being caught up in the chaotic midst of an event, or at close quarters to individual pain and suffering, photographers choose instead to represent what is left behind in the wake of such tragedies, often doing so with styles that purpose a qualifying perspective.” 
Equally committed to ideas of scarification and dislocation, Forsell, by contrast, takes us closer to people, not further away. In so doing, we encounter the personal and psychological; a soldier who doesn’t want to be there, an old man perplexed by border-point paperwork, the laughter of military-men, a side-street pat down and the confused glances of children. There’s vanity amid the daze and haze, too, in the form of rock-throwing demonstrators that look like they’re dressed for a violent-chic photoshoot. It’s only disconcerting if you accept there are no easy answers for the people of Israel and Palestine.
Too often, repeated news images provide us the excuse to think that events don’t change and can’t change. Worse still, is the trap to think that Israelis and Palestinians are different from us. Such thinking allows us to rationalise ongoing abuses. In discussing atrocities generally, lawyer and feminist scholar Catherine McKinnon characterises attitudes:
“If the events are socially considered unusual, the fact that they happened is denied in specific instances; if they are regarded as usual the fact that they are violating is denied; if it is happening, it’s not so bad, and if it’s really bad, it isn’t happening,” 
McKinnon describes the trap and illogic of apathy. The exit door from denial is to first see the victims of abuse as humans. To identify common emotions and thus ourselves in Forsell’s subjects is our responsibility to them … and her gift to us. Turning these pages is to shake the foundations of our excusatory logic.
Life’s A Blast is a significant contribution to the visual discourse of Israel and Palestine. It abandons literal depiction of the region and, instead, looks toward emotional territories.
It is the prior exploration of these emotional lands that will provide the most reliable base on which to stand for those who desire to debate the geopolitics of the region’s contested borders, laws and land.
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1. Charlotte Cotton, ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’, p.167. Thames & Hudson, October, 2004.
2. Catharine McKinnon, ‘Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues’, p.3, Belknap Press, 2007.
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Life’s a Blast (106 pages) 10 x 13 inches.
Published by Premiss Förlag.
Printed by Elanders Fälth & Hässler.
Available at the Premiss Förlag website.
Life’s a Blast does not yet have U.S. distribution, so if you want to buy a copy in cold-hard-cash-dollars you’ll have to email Linda and ask nicely: firstname.lastname@example.org
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The Oracle gathering? An International Mob of Mystery? Well, not exactly but given that Oracle is the main meeting of the world’s most influential people in the museum/fine art photography scene it is amazing the gathering flies under the radar year on year.
I’ve done some internet sleuthing to tell you some of what you need to know about the Bilderberg of the photography world.
Okay, it might not be so cloak and dagger as I have set it up, but The Annual International Conference for Photography Curators dubbed ‘Oracle’ has no web presence and no connection to the circles outside of the attendees. This (presumably intended) detachment is – simply put – a shame. Granted, these are people predominantly involved in museum curating, but still wouldn’t it be great to know what they are talking about when they meet each November?! Museums still feed into the photography ecosystem, and often define it.
Oracle began in 1982 as an informal gathering. In 2003, Deidre Stein Greben wrote, “Attendance at Oracle […] has grown from ten to more than 100 over the last 20 years.”
With such an organically unhurried growth, why should curators care to share their dialogues? Hell, the week might be the closest thing many of them get to a holiday. Add to that the fact that there’s no external promotion or grand narratives to push, it makes sense that no-one would take on the extra workload of interfacing with the public and all that entails.
I also think of photography curators as a similar breed to university professors; the culture of research, writing and custodianship of department agendas does not dovetail with blogging the discoveries and knowledge from their daily work. (David Campbell summarises well how the reluctance of universities to adopt social networking is to their detriment.) It’s a shame. How good would a Sandra Phillips blog be?!
The 2010 Oracle is ongoing right now in Israel (Jerusalem, I think).
This is where my sleuthing gets patchy but other host institutions/cities have included; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1992); George Eastman House, Rochester (1993); Washington (1999); Finnish Museum of Photogaphy, Helsinki (2000); Goa, India (2003); Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago (2004); Artimino, Florence (2005); Prague, Czech Republic (2006); Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ (2007) and Paris, France (2009).
My guess is attendance is invitation only or some approximation thereof. Just because I gleaned a smattering of names, I’ll share them. Attendees have included Britt Salvesen, Director of photography and prints at LACMA; Doug Nickel, Professor of Photographic History at Brown University; Sunil Gupta, Artist, photographer, curator and educator; Allison Nordstrom, Curator of photography at George Eastman House; David E. Haberstich, Associate Curator of Photographs at the Smithsonian; Celina Lunsford, Director of the Fotografie Forum Frankfurt; Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, Director of the Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis; Dr Sara Frances Stevenson, Chief Curator of the Scottish National Photography Collection, National Galleries of Scotland (retired); Mary Panzer, freelance writer & curator of photography & American culture; Ms. Agne Narusyte, Curator, Vilnius Art Museum Photographic Collection, Vilnius, Lithuania; Shelly Rice, Professor of Arts at NYU Tisch School of Arts; Enrica Viganò, curator and fine art photography critic; Duan Yuting, founder of the Lianzhou International Photo Festival; Mark Haworth-Booth, Head of Photographs, Victoria & Albert Museum; Anne Wilkes Tucker, photography curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Sandra S. Phillips, Senior Curator of Photography at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Quite the list. And I can think of many other photography curators who presumably would attend (Rod Slemmons, Anthony Bannon, Brian Wallis, Charlotte Cotton, Malcolm Daniel?) Who knows?
It’s not a totally closed shop though. Despite the 2006 shuttering of the Oracle listserv, some plucky “Independents” have set up a NING type forum, Oracle Independents. It is sporadically updated with links to articles and events about historically significant photography. Currently there are 40 members, some names recognisable. But this doesn’t get us to the meat of those dialogues currently ongoing in Jerusalem.
Last thing to say, is that the museum world is separate from the worlds of gallery, photojournalist, fine art, auction house, social documentary, magazine, fashion and art-school photographies. Even if we did have a line in on the world’s leading curators’ discussions, the information may have no bearing on our aims, art or careers. Heck, we might not even be interested. But it’d be nice wouldn’t it?
Not wanting to be pessimistic, but unable to help myself, consider this quote from Marvin Heiferman, freelance author, editor and curator and “champion of the blue-collar nature of the silent majority of photographs.” Bear in mind he’s talking about very early Oracle, but nonetheless, the quote highlights potential disconnects between different orbits of the photography world.
“When I started looking at this new [Postmodern] work, I loved its nonchalance, intelligence and cheekiness, the fact that it was interested in both seeing and seeing through images. The photo world, though, wasn’t as amused, and didn’t have a clue what the small group of us was getting so jazzed up about. Toward the end of my stint at Castelli in the early 1980s—and then when I went off on my own to work with photographers and artists and produce exhibitions—I attended some of the early annual meetings of Oracle. This was a conference of photography curators from around the world who gathered together supposedly to talk about the future of the field, and was funded by Sam Yanes at the Polaroid Corporation. Polaroid supported a lot of progressive photographic projects in the 1970s and ’80s. It was, to say the least, disappointing to me that most of the attendees were more excited to fuss over 19th- and 20th-century work and issues of preservation and storage. But there were a handful of us—including Andy Grundberg, who was writing for the New York Times, and Jeff Hoone from Syracuse—who did our best to raise interest in the new work we were so excited by. No one seemed to care.” (Source)
There are SEVEN cameras in this image.
What an intriguing image. It’s got a foolish mixture of activity that confuses the viewer: slapping; parrying; a sizable unperturbed bunch of by-passers who display amusement, disappointment, indifference and camera-induced detachment.
One lady has a baby under one arm as she strikes with the other. The lady in defensive mode raises an elbow so as to not inconvenience the cameras she holds in each hand nor the pacifier on her middle finger.
The lady on the right has just been evicted by Israeli settlers. The situation is obviously tense, but who’d bet against me that without the cameras this confrontation would not have occurred?
Photograph by Ahmad Gharabli / Agence France Presse / Getty Images (Source)