″Local Testimony″

Every autumn, when the World Press Photo Award comes to Tel Aviv, some of the best press photographs by photojournalists from Israel and the Palestinian territories are chosen for display in the exhibition's "Local Testimony" section. Felix Koltermann reports from the Eretz Israel Museum

By Felix Koltermann

The wave of knife attacks carried out by Palestinian youths and the response of the Israeli army, has meant that Israel has remained a regular feature of major news media reports since late summer. However, much of what goes on, both politically and socially, throughout the year in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories never makes it into the international media.

The Israeli press photography prize exhibition, which opened last week in Tel Aviv's Eretz Israel Museum, offers visitors a fascinating insight into some of those events and their photojournalistic representations. It also makes very clear not only the range and complexity of the political and social issues currently facing Israel, but also the potential that photography has to tell us about them.

The professional eyewitness

An example of this is provided by the winning Israeli Press Photograph 2015. It was taken by veteran Israeli photojournalist, Menahem Kahane, who works for the French news agency AFP and depicts a small group of women in a burned-out room clasping handkerchiefs to their shocked faces.

The Israeli Press Photograph 2015 (Menahem Kahana/AP)
The Israeli Press Photograph 2015: Palestinian women dismayed at the sight of the house of the Dawabsheh family, Duma village, south of Nablus, 3 August 2015

The picture was taken at the beginning of August 2015 in the house of the Dawabsheh family in a small village close to the Palestinian city of Nablus, on the West Bank. The house was set on fire by a Molotov cocktail thrown by Jewish extremists. A baby and both its parents perished in the blaze.

Another classic picture won the first prize in the "News" category. It shows the face of Orthodox Jew Yishai Schlissel as he is pinned to the ground by police following his knife attack on Jerusalem's Gay Pride parade in July 2015. A sixteen-year-old girl later died from stab wounds.

The most disturbing aspect of Emil Salman's photograph is the confused, abstracted look on the face of the assassin. It is an image that reveals the potential of the moment and the importance of the professional eyewitness brought together by the presence of the Haaretz photographer in the right place at the right time.

Impressive too is a series by Oren Ziv of the ActiveStills collective on the unrest in the Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev Desert, where violence broke out following the deaths of two Bedouin after a drugs raid. Ziv's pictures tellingly reveal the potential for explosive consequences to be triggered by relatively minor events and the series deftly exposes the fragility of the region's political situation.

Funeral of Sami Ziadna in the southern Bedouin city of Rahat, Israel, 19.1.2015. Sami died a day earlier following clashes with Israeli police during the funeral of another Bedouin man who was killed a week earlier by Israeli policemen in the city (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills)
Funeral of Sami Ziadna in the southern Bedouin city of Rahat, Israel, 19.1.2015. Sami died a day earlier following clashes with Israeli police during the funeral of another Bedouin man who was killed a week earlier by Israeli policemen in the city

The work of freelance photographer Dan Haimovich turns the spotlight on a very different community in Israel. Here the focus is Ethiopian Jewish immigrants, who took to the streets of downtown Tel Aviv in the early summer of 2015 to protest against racist attacks on members of the Ethiopian community.

Wide range of subjects

In addition to the "Photo of the Year" and "Series of the Year" sections, prizes were also awarded in the categories "News", "Religion and Faith", " Nature and Environment", "Urbanism and Culture" and "Sport". The curators of the exhibition also present their personal choice of photographs to feature alongside the award winners. This year, a total of 7000 submissions from 300 photographers had to be sifted through by the jury to select the winning images.

The vast majority of those participating this year are Jewish Israelis, the Palestinian boycott movement having reduced submissions from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to a mere trickle. Among the award winners is one Palestinian, Reuter's photographer Ammar Awad from East Jerusalem.

A unique feature of the exhibition is the decision to show these photographs alongside those from the World Press Photo Award competition. The venue, the Eretz Israel Museum, is one of the country's top museums, and for the younger generation of photographers in particular, it provides a wonderful opportunity to show off their work to a wider audience.

It also provides a platform for public discourse relating to some of the spikier political issues, such as the Israeli occupation, or the situation of the Bedouin in the Negev, subjects often marginalised by the mainstream Israeli media. Visitors to the exhibition find themselves confronted with the sorts of issues they can normally choose to ignore.

Knife-wielding assailant is wrestled to the ground at Jerusalem's Gay Pride Parade (photo: Emil Salman/ Haaretz)
Police holding down February Yishai Schlissel, a few seconds after he stabbed and severely injured seven participants of the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem on 30 July 2015

Supporting local photojournalism

Founder of the prize competition is Dana Wohlfeiler-Leikin, a long-time supporter of local photojournalism. Co-operation with Palestinian colleagues was very much a part of this, with four series' of workshops organised for Israeli and Palestinian photojournalists between 2008 and 2012. The workshops each ran over a period of several months and enjoyed a high reputation. They would conclude with an exhibition and a publication, and produced some impressive outcomes in the form of long-term, in-depth documentary projects.

Unfortunately, at the present time, there seems little prospect of the co-operation being resurrected. The messy political situation in the Middle East is just one of the reasons for this, with the Palestinian boycott movement rendering it more and more difficult to attract Palestinian participants. It is a problem too for the "Local Testimony" competition.

Many of the prize-winning photographers featured here work almost exclusively in the local context, although their pictures are very much for international consumption. In other words, these are photographers who exemplify what the Hamburg political scientist Elke Grittmann refers to as "glocal" photojournalism: local photographers who produce work on local subjects for the global photo market, taking on the classic role of foreign affairs reporters, particularly for the European and American photo markets.

What the exhibition impressively demonstrates is the fantastic pool of picture and news stories created by this phenomenon. Nevertheless, it would be nice if a few more of these pictures and stories, with their revelations on what is happening in the region away from the attention of mainstream news reporting, could find their way into the international media.

Felix Koltermann

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

The exhibition can be seen at the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv until January 16. A selection of the winning pictures from the past few years can be found on the "Local Testimony" website.