Yesterday it had been suggested I go into one of the Orthodox neighborhoods to see the various Thursday preparations for Passover: the stair scrubbing, the silverware boiling in the streets. "I'd really love to bring my camera and shoot that," I replied, "but should I be concerned that they might not want to have their photos taken? Does it go against their religion?" "Oh!" my peer replied. "Good question. You'll ... probably get yelled at or spit upon. But also," and he laughed, half-serious, half-shrugging, "who cares what they think? F#$% them."
"Ack!" I cried, a response that had me immediately feeling self-righteous as a person and inadequate as a reporter.
The conversation illustrates an issue I struggle with a lot: in what scenarios should someone's understanding and consent be given the absolute first priority, and in what scenarios do you as documentarian override an individual's wishes in favor of representing a larger truth? "Shoot first, ask permission later," as we were taught in documentary school, but also "first and foremost: gain trust."
Pictured: children burning bread in Jerusalem, 11am
I have always been drawn to longer-form stories which absolutely necessitate that latter relationship (for example: naked people backstage), while warily admiring from afar the photographers capable of the former — often at the risk of all else, including their own safety. But as with all things there's also a grey area of often even greater difficulty, in this case the Venn overlap required for most photojournalism, which is the sweet spot I've been striving towards — in which consent and understanding of the larger story are exchanged in seconds and some wishes are respected and others are ignored. There's an amazing documentary about the photographer James Nachtwey, which I've now watched maybe five or six times, where you see him (often from a video camera mounted directly above his shutter) photographing people whose language he does not speak, and who, at first glance, you think might not want to be photographed: they're swatting flies and sleeping just off train tracks, they're wailing over their son's dying body. Through eye contact and demeanor alone, Nachtwey communicates that he means no harm, only to tell their story. He intuits when to go in for the shot, when to back away and give someone space, and when endangering himself may be worth the story it reveals.
This morning I got a text: "they're burning all their bread right near the dance center, if you want to get some photos!"
Despite finding Jerusalem to be one of the most beautiful and interesting cities I have ever seen, I have taken very few photos here. I am constantly aware of being an outsider, occasionally one to be taken advantage of, and occasionally one who is entirely unwelcome. The other day, tired of sweltering in the 90 degree heat with my leggings and cardigan over my summer dress, I decided to finally ditch the leggings, and thirty minutes later I was back at the apartment to put the leggings back on. It turned out that for all of my active disregard for all things virgin/whore complex and my belief in expressing a purely practical body — the kind of body men get to have by default everywhere they go — my protest whithered under the nasty looks and comments I experienced in the few block radius of the apartment. ("It's not that you can't wear weather-appropriate clothing here," a friend said, "it's just that when you do, you are aware of it, every minute.")
In general I've been trying not to draw any attention to myself as an outsider, to feign blending in. To look, but not to stare. And never to engage — that immensely tricky if only momentary Venn overlap that's required in raising one's camera to a stranger. But it's also been weighing on my mind with every passing day this week that tomorrow, I leave Jerusalem, and everything I've been seeing — the Old City, the Shabbats, plate after plate of Shakshuka, the teenagers gathering in the alleys at night — has already been subjected to the diaphanous traitor of memory and loss.
So after some deliberation (always risky, deliberation, I've missed shots to it before), this morning I put on my summer dress, my leggings, and my cardigan, despite the air heavy with heat. I grabbed my widest lens, to force myself to get close. I wanted it to be clear I was taking a photo, and what that photo was of, and the response would clearly be permission, or not. I left my apartment to follow the smell of burning bread to a fire pit, where kids were poking the now-charred remains of everything that had been left in their pantries.
I slowed as I approached. I got closer, just a few feet from the kids, and looked into all their faces. I pulled out my camera, began futzing with the settings. I looked toward the adults, some of them watching behind me, several of them coming and going to manage the fire — they would be the ones I was most concerned about and who would be most concerned about me. I looked back toward the children. I was clearly an outsider, clearly someone preparing to take a photograph. No one seemed alarmed. I got closer, crouched and framed the shot. Nothing happened. So I took twenty more, then got up, smiled at everyone, and left.
Obviously images of children burning bread in the street doesn't carry half the weight of war photography, but this was my small step onto the moon, a deliberate and strangely difficult turn in the kind of direction I'd like to be going.