Yaakov Israel • Photographer, Israel

The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey

© Yaakov Israel - The Sea of Galilee, 2004

Landscape Stories: Please vote: three artist who are interesting to you? Three directors relevant to you? Three writers remarkable to you? Three musicians seminal to you?
Yaakov Israel: Ed Ruscha, Rachel Whiteread and William Kentridge. Federico Fellini, the Coen brothers and Clint Eastwood. Italo Calvino, Michel Houellebecq and Sayed Kashua. I thought this last would be the easy question, but when trying to answer I realized that my past idols have all evaporated… I can’t pin point any specific names… these days I listen to the radio, the stations small local stations change as I drive through different areas and they make me feel as if I’ve travelled back in time to my childhood frozen in the 80’s.

© Yaakov Israel - Homeless, The Gazelle Valley, Jerusalem, 2004
© Yaakov Israel - Yitzhak, The Dead Sea Hilton, 2006

Landscape Stories: Who are today your favourite artists and why?
Yaakov Israel: Maya Israel, who is a truly amazing painter (and accidently also happens to be my wife), our conversations enrich me and subsequently have a strong impact on my creative proses.

© Yaakov Israel - Triangle, The Golden Beach, Caesarea 2005
© Yaakov Israel - Kalia Beach, Dead Sea, 2006

Landscape Stories: How did you arrive at photography? Do you think it is germane to have a formal training, and could you maybe tell us some anecdotes about what drew you to this medium?
Yaakov Israel: I grew up in a home in which literature was part of our daily life. 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. At a certain point even the coffee table was stacked so high with books that we had to shift some when we wanted to watch TV. Growing up my mother used to read to us every evening and all of us kids became avid readers thanks to this. Naturally I tried my hand at writing, but by the age of 22 with an attempt of a novel and a few short stories behind me I came to the understanding that I was not as good as I would like to be, so I decided to stop. In retrospect I understand that I didn’t give up on the idea of telling a story but I was looking for other ways to do it and I found photography. After teaching myself for a while I decided to do a short course, which lead me to do a BFA in fine art, specializing in photography. Going to Art school was very interesting for me as I had the possibility of talking and showing my work to some of the most interesting photographers in Israel. I was lucky to have super dedicated teachers that helped shape my photography and influenced my ideas about teaching, it was really a fantastic period in my life.

© Yaakov Israel - Malachi & Gur Arie Yehuda, Jerusalem, 2007

Landscape Stories: Do you ever take portraits with the viewer in mind, maybe thinking about what other people might see? Or you never think about it? How many pictures do you usually take for one single subject?
Yaakov Israel: My creative process is divided into three main parts:

First I’m constantly thinking about what I’m trying to do and how to do it. This is happening literally all the time, not only in the studio, but also during my daily activities that are not work related. I can find inspiration at any given moment and then I jot down notes in my notebook, which I review and talk about with my wife Maya, who is a painter and who is an important part in my work – we talk a lot about what we do, what we want to do and most importantly – why we do. At any given time I am working on several projects simultaneously, constantly crisscrossing between the ideas that are behind each project and joining the dots in my mind.

The Second part in my process consists of going out and making the images, during this time I do not consciously think about what I’m doing, I’m just very attentive to what I’m seeing and what is happening in front of me and responsive to it. In this period my focus is on making the images, but as the first part of the process is so intensive it is evident in everything I decide to do.

The Third stage is editing, reviewing all the images and thinking how to weave my story with them. So to get back to your question I never take portraits with the viewer in mind, because I’m not consciously thinking about this when I’m working. When I’m out and making images I’m thinking more about practical issues of getting the images I’m after, but I do edit my work with the idea of building a narrative and then I certainly think of the stories each image tells and of course I think of how the work will be related to by others.

As to the amount of plates I expose – when shooting people I really believe that if I don’t nail it in the first few exposures then I will never nail it, no matter how many more I take. So with portraits I usually take two exposures and my max is four, if things get complicated. If my subject is an object or landscape I usually take just one exposure, any more means I have decided to make a variations.

© Yaakov Israel - Nili asleep, Nebi Musa, 2010
© Yaakov Israel - Gateway, Metzokei Dragot, 2010

Landscape Stories: What’s the piece of work that best represents your research and in which you see yourself in, the most? How did you find your subjects; was there any kind of selection?
Yaakov Israel:In many ways I think of myself as a visual collector. The photographic act is the actual act and the editing and archiving finalize the act of adding the piece to the collection. The images I’m collecting surface from an umbrella of interests that are anchored in the social, political situation in my country and which I am part of. My system of editing and grouping of images is based on the idea of telling stories that are connected to my personal experience of these realities turning truth into fiction and fiction into truth. I try to use photography to build a narrative that comments on the way I perceive reality. As all of my projects reflect inward in a very biographical way, just as much as they reflect outward, so I wouldn’t consider one project more important than another. They all generate from the same place and each one represents a path of research that is both personal and a part of a bigger idea.

© Yaakov Israel - The Man On The white Donkey, HaBiqah, 2006

Landscape Stories: On what are you concentrating with your personal research? What is the most rewarding thing in your work?
Yaakov Israel: As time goes by I find that my work could be divided into a few main ideas and interests; Social commentary, in which the visual collecting is key. Curiosity, as I’m always looking to go out and explore the world. And storytelling, as I’m always thinking of shaping experiences and images into a story. The rewarding parts are the small discoveries I stumble on and the eventual results I reach by persisting.

© Yaakov Israel - Gas Station, HaBiqah, 2006

Landscape Stories: Do you prepare everything, or do you go around without equipment and then return for the shot? Or do you observe things through the camera?
Yaakov Israel: I’m a big believer in things being interesting to me at a specific moment that is very dependant on mood, the light and many other variable parameters. So I do not go looking for locations I just decide on a destination and head out. But I hardly ever reach the destination that I set, I find that I get side tracked by the things I see on the way. Over the years I find myself stopping and photographing in some places again and again. I find making new discoveries in places I already know very exciting.

© Yaakov Israel - Morning Prayer, The Dead Sea Hilton, 2006
© Yaakov Israel - Carpet, Northern Israel, 2009

Landscape Stories: Are you commenting on society, contemporary culture, or consumer culture? To what extent does your work represent and reflect the present?
Yaakov Israel: I’m certainly taking a deep look into the society of which I am part and this type of gaze conveys elements that are connected very much to contemporary culture, but my viewpoint is a subjective and it reflects my interests just as much as it reflects my subjects so I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it represents anything except for my reflections on the present.

© Yaakov Israel - Zohar With Pied Kingfisher, 2010
© Yaakov Israel - Sinkholes, Ein Gedi, 2011

Landscape Stories: What significance can we attribute to ‘landscape photography’ today?
Yaakov Israel: Fundamentally I do not think of the medium in this manner, but in a more democratic way I see it as way to try and answer questions one may not know how to ask. Photographers have always been good at looking and Photography has always been good at showing / exposing. With this in mind I believe that images allow us viewers to get a glimpse into different realities and I hope that they make us want to look deeper and find an understanding. Photography that serves only for aesthetical enjoyment has never been of interest to me.

© Yaakov Israel - Eman, South-western Negev, 2011

Landscape Stories: Can you speak a little about your book “The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey” … What were the main steps to shape this kind of narrative? Please tell us about your process of editing?
Yaakov Israel: Growing up we never owned a car, so I got to know Israel via the main bus routes. Following my graduating from art school in 2002 I felt the need to start a new project that combined my social and political interests. Eventually I decided to set out on a journey to get to know my country by car. Up till then I was working on my first serious project ‘South West Jerusalem’ which dealt with a very small geographical area; the working class neighbourhoods of South West Jerusalem, where I lived, and I felt the need to start a project that wasn’t so restricted geographically. The second thing I wanted to challenge was my idea of restricting myself to one place, using the same set of laws and visual structure for all of my images in order to connect them. I wanted to try and build a new visual dialect or even a language with my imagery, which wouldn’t rely on this type of logic and would somehow still connect, and so “The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey” was born. In the beginning I didn’t really know how to verbalize what I was after, but I was fresh out of art school and full of energy, with a strong feeling that I was doing something that I was supposed to be doing, I kept going out, driving around the country and making images. I remember I didn’t have a name for the project, even though I was already working on it for two or three years, and I was worried that I hadn’t figured it out by then. 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 picture taken before disappearing into the landscape. I remember thinking how strange the encounter had been and reflecting on the biblical connotations. Making this image took very long as the donkey was constantly moving and I was focusing and re-focusing again and again. I was sure that the image wouldn’t come out sharp, but to my surprise all three plates came out sharp and this made me think even more about the strange encounter. This led me to understand that the religious myths and stories (Christian, Islamic and Jewish) are not only remnants of the past, but an actual of our daily life. From this moment on I started looking not only for the social and political aspects in my visual quest, but also for the modern day manifestations of religious stories. I chose the title as homage both to the actual ‘man on the white donkey’ who triggered this understanding and to the Jewish messiah, who according to Jewish faith is supposed to arrive dressed in white and riding on a white donkey. As to the quest, this represents the fact that my work is rooted in the idea of observing reality while simultaneously searching for that elusive invisible layer and placing it within reach of reality.

© Yaakov Israel - Riad and Mahmoud, Almog Crossroad, 2010
© Yaakov Israel - Breslav Hasid Praying, Petrol Station, HaBiqah, 2011

Landscape Stories: How do you imagine the development of your work?
Yaakov Israel: My mind doesn’t really think in that manner. I’m always making lists of projects I’d like to do, but I only land up doing a few of them, usually the ones that stick in my mind and re-surface again and again till I have to start doing them. At the moment I’m very keen on doing a project that is completely based on building a narrative, but I’m also enthusiastic about working on more thematic projects. Because I work simultaneously on different things I can’t really say which will be finalized first. So I guess I let the images pull me along.

© Yaakov Israel - Shimon, The Jordan Valley, 2001
© Yaakov Israel - Police, HaBiqah, 2011

Landscape Stories: Last question. What are you currently working on in your photography? What’s in store for you in 2013, photographically or otherwise?
Yaakov Israel: Well 2013 is nearly over, so not that many plans to share. I am just waiting for winter to set in properly and then I can set out on a few winter journeys. Otherwise photographically I’ve decided to try and finalize 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 and feel it is time to reach closure. It is really funny that every time I think that it is time to wrap things up, the work comes to life and I get so enthusiastic about it all over again. So I’m quite hyped-up at the moment by the 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 end. Plus I’m working on a few new projects, but it is way too early to be talking about them.

The project was published as a book in 2012 by Schilt publishing:

Yaakov Israel “The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey”

Interview curated by Gianpaolo Arena