Yaakov Israel was born in 1974 in Jerusalem, Israel where he lives and works. He graduated in 2002 (B.F.A) with honors from the Department of Photography at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem. Since 2004 he is has been teaching photography at some of the most prominent art and photography schools and colleges in Israel.
In his work he constantly investigates the Israeli identity as perceived through architecture, landscape and the people living in his country.
His first Monograph, “The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey,” was recently published by Schilt Publishing from Amsterdam.
PetaPixel: To start, Yaakov, please give us some background about your career as a photographer, and how your interest in photography first came about.
Yaakov Israel: Looking back I can recall using my mother’s 35 mm camera and then having my own point & shoot camera, a little cheap plastic one that was popular in the 80s. I clearly remember taking the film to be developed and printed and how I would sift through them arranging them in small albums. I occasionally stumble across them at my mother’s house.
To be honest, it was never a serious hobby when I was growing up, just something fun to do. In those years I was much more interested in fiction and books. We were a family of keen readers, this was no coincidence as my father was a writer and a journalist and my mother was an English teacher, so our apartment was packed with books, newspapers and magazines from floor to ceiling. Naturally I tried my hand at writing, but in my early 20’s after trying to write a novel, which wasn’t as good as I’d hoped it would be, I understood that I wasn’t that good at it and decided to stop my literary attempts.
I guess I didn’t completely give up on the idea of being a storyteller, because after a while I found myself developing a “new” interest: photography. I started with no serious aspirations, just out of curiosity and a wish to record things I saw. After a year of trying to learn photography by myself I decided to take a black and white course, the person who was running the place and was there all day, saw that I was serious and decided that I was able to grasp more than the basics, so I stayed on after hours, learning how to print.
At that point I was already hooked, I still wasn’t sure I would take it up seriously, but I decided I wanted to learn more, so I enrolled in first year photography studies at a small photography school in Jerusalem. In the middle of the first year I decided I was serious enough about photography to apply to the photography BFA course at the Bezalel academy of art, the rest is history …
PP: Please describe your creative process, beginning with how you decide where to start shooting, and ending with how you decide a piece is finished.
YI: I find that I am very interested in social and political issues that are connected to my life and most of my work revolves around these topics. I’m always thinking of new ideas for projects and I write them down in a notebook, the ideas that keep resurfacing are the ones I usually end up doing.
A bit about the way I work: I’m constantly thinking about many things related to my photographic work, but when I’m out exploring and photographing I focus on enjoying the adventure of discovery and enjoying the fact that I don’t know what will come next. After developing the film I take a quick look at the negatives on a light table before storing them away in a box.
The last stage of my process is editing, I usually do this during the summer. July will roll around and I will take all the boxes of images and start organizing them by project and topic, that is when my ideas about what it is I actually have been doing crystallize and sometimes new ideas are instigated from within the work itself.
PP: What type of equipment do you most enjoy working with?
YI: 8×10 and 4×5 inch cameras, because they help generate a photographic moment, they force me to work slowly and accurately plus the financial restrictions keep me very focused.
PP: What photographers working today have influenced you the most?
YI: Well, my influences are many and many are not contemporary… or photo related. I find literature the main source of inspiration, but also cinema and life in general.
When I started out in photography I was influenced by many amazing photographers and as I changed so did my influences. The more time goes by, the more I feel that the external world is my main source of inspiration and that I’m less influenced by other artists. I feel that there is a kind of velocity or energy that is self-generated by my work and self-contained in my work.
To answer your question directly I will list a few examples of contemporary photographers that I find interesting, compelling and thought evoking: David Goldblatt for his social awareness and dedication; Robert Adams for his respect for the past and hopes for the future; Robert Frank for his epic journey of the Americans; Henry Wessel for his love of light and poems of everyday life, Stephen Shore for the portraying of the ordinary; Joel Sternfeld for his Wanderlust and Alec Soth for keeping the road trip alive.
Some of these photographers are so well-known that they are already clichés, but they all are interesting photographers that changed the way we see and work within the medium. Some of my recent discoveries of photographers of my generation are Tobias Zielony, Qingjun Huang and Greg Miller.
PP: Let’s talk a bit about your project, “The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey.” How did this project come about?
YI: Fresh out of art school in 2002 I was not sure how to get started, so I decided it would be best to stop thinking about starting and just jump into a new project. My first serious project was about the neighborhoods of South West Jerusalem, a relatively small geographical area that I knew very well, as I had grown up there and live there today.
Following this experience I wanted to try and work on a larger geographical area, pursuing my interests in the social and political aspects of everyday life and this lead me to the starting point of my photographic journey and my “Quest”.
My idea was to get to know my country by car. Growing up we never owned a car and I was always envious of my friends who had this freedom. Come Saturday they used to jump in to the car and drive away to picnics, barbecues or camps, while I most stayed home yearning for an adventure. Very quickly I realized that the idea of an extensive geographical journey, in the tradition of the American journeys, which was the blueprint of my project, wasn’t going to work, because Israel was just too small. After driving through the same places again and again I redefined my geographical journey as an in-depth personal one.
PP: Who is the man on the white donkey? What does he represent?
YI: I was working on this project for a few years before I came up with the name. I was trying to find a name that would convey my ideas, but couldn’t come up with anything satisfactory.
One day I was working near the Dead Sea when a Palestinian man on a white donkey rode out of the heat waves towards me and stopped to have his portrait taken before fading into the landscape. Making this image took very long as the donkey was constantly moving and I was focusing and re-focusing, sure that none of the images would come out sharp. To my surprise all three plates came out sharp and this got me thinking: about the strange encounter that reflected simultaneously on our time and the biblical myth of the Jewish messiah, who is supposed to arrive dressed in white and riding on a white donkey.
In the next few days I thought about modern-day manifestations of religious stories (Christian, Islamic and Jewish). This was the turning point for this project and from that moment on I started looking, not only for the social and political but also for aspects of religious stories that could surface in everyday life. This understanding generated the name of the journey: ‘The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey’, which simultaneously represents the type of journey I had undertaken and the fact that my work is rooted in the idea of observing reality while searching for that elusive invisible layer, maybe nonexistent, and placing it within reach of reality.
PP: It seems that this project was a lot about the act of exploration and discovery. Do you have any stories that happened during the making of it you would like to share?
YI: Every image that found its way into the final edit of this body of work is backed by a lucky turn of events. The images that I like most are the images I was given, not the images I have taken. So many things have to come together for a good image to be captured that it really is quite amazing when it actually happens.
Exploration and discovery is what gets me out of bed and into the world and what I love most about photography. There are as many stories as there are images. I do occasionally tell some of these “behind the scenes”, but mostly I prefer to leave them up to the viewer’s imagination and interpretation.
PP: What’s the key to making a great portrait? What about a great landscape?
YI: I don’t believe there is a formula to follow. For me achieving a great portrait has been rooted in my ability to figure out the core of my interest and to deal with it in my work. I built a system that is the basis for all my image making. I try to work freely within this frame of mind, to avoid repeating myself. This is something that I always think about. I believe that if you listen to your subject it will tell you how to portray it.
PP: Many photographers have regrets about a particular moment that they weren’t able to capture, whether due to timing, equipment failure, or some other factor. Might you have a story about “the one that got away?”
YI: I’m no different than the rest. I have missed many moments and am haunted by them: people that didn’t agree to be photographed, elements and objects within the landscape that changed their meaning as the light changed, the occasional double exposure during a rushed photo session…
The worst misses for me are the ones I managed to get on film, but were then ruined in the developing process, because the machine broke down, or some other technical failure. This just happened to me a week or so ago when I started developing film I collected this summer, the processing machine broke down and I lost five plates. Amongst the ruined plates was a very banal but interesting image that I was looking forward to seeing how it turned out. I have learned to move on and I jokingly refer to these mishaps as sacrifices to the gods of photography…
PP: Do you prefer to take many photographs quickly and discard most of them? Or would you rather spend more time planning one or two shots and then move on to your next subject?
YI: When I’m out making images there are times that I can drive around all day and not find anything interesting and then there are days that I can work for hours at the first place I stop.
I work very freely, I don’t plan in advance and I don’t go scouting for locations. Not that I have anything against such methods, it just doesn’t work for me. When I try going back to a place that seemed interesting, I hardly ever manage to get excited again when I get there. Fresh discoveries are vital to my process. Coming back to your question; I’m neither type of photographer. I don’t make many images and then discard most, once I find something that interests me it can take anywhere between 15 minutes to a full day to make the image.
PP: If there was no such thing as photography, what do you imagine you would be doing?
YI: This thought occasionally crosses my mind, but I never even come close to thinking of something that gets me ticking in the same way. I have always had a lot of respect for people that deliberately choose to do nothing with passion. Who knows, maybe I would be one of these people.
PP: Lastly, what new projects or events are coming up for you over the next year or two?
YI: I am working now on finalizing the two ongoing projects ‘South West Jerusalem’ and ‘The Legitimacy of Landscape’ in the next year or two. I’ve been working on them since 2001 and 2002 respectively, and feel it is time to reach closure.
Funnily enough, every time I think that it is time to wrap things up, the work comes to life along with a new excitement and enthusiasm. At the moment I am enjoying the new twists these ongoing bodies of work are taking thanks to the new images. Next will come the final edit and I am looking forward to find out how the stories come together. Plus I’m working on a few new projects, but it is way too early to be talking about them.