In a corpus of 312 pages, a dense story in pictures (and in letters in Arabic, Hebrew and English) dating 2000-2014 tells to the world how the Arab-Israeli conflict – the never ending bloody war in a miniature territory, sacred for the main three monotheistic religions – permeated people and territories in the most subtle way. In the sake that ‘absurd became norm’.
This is a fantastic book, entitled Hush (Sternthal books, ISBN 9780992133733) and what follow is the story of her author, Noa Ben Shalom (1971). She also studied in the same school where another Slow Words story graduated, Omer, and she comes from the same country she depicts, Israel, as a story we found and told few weeks ago, Nir and as another published last year – the one of Alon. We’ve recently interviewed also the publisher who put in the market her first book, Ian.
We deeply got in love with Noa’s storytelling philosophy.
Your story (biography) in 10 lines
I was born in a suburb of Tel Aviv. My childhood and teenage years were happy and conventional. After I finished my military service I started studying photography at the Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem. As an Israeli Jew, my student life was good, although there was a lot of violence in Jerusalem, still it seemed to me that for a brief moment there was a possibility for some co-existence. Of course if you were a Palestinian life was – and still is -very different, but at the time I would go to Bethlehem & Ramallah or East Jerusalem just to hang out with friends. During my last year of studies, the Second Intifada broke out. With it, the violence and the aggressive reality entered my own private worlds. I started to photograph more and more my surroundings: I went to the checkpoints and to the West Bank. I tried to figure out and depict what was going on.
As it was my graduation year, I chose to buy the advertising space in over 60 bus stations around Jerusalem, and to present the photographs I took during the Second Intifada in the public sphere. It was the summer of 2001, Jerusalem and the West bank were literally bleeding, and it seemed pointless to me to display the photos on the white walls of the Art Academy. The photos dealt with a helplessness in which everybody seemed plunged into. The photos never showed direct violence, yet did intend to create a slight irritation: instead of a Coca Cola commercial suddenly there was a portrait of a Palestinian, portrayed as human, not like a terrorist, or of a young soldier, standing helpless in a checkpoint, not knowing exactly what he is actually doing there.
That moment in my work, marked the beginning of the journey I took, that was (for now) concluded in the book, Hush, Israel Palestine 2000-2014.
Your way to portray the subject (a never ending war) – maybe this impression is stronger, given the subject! – dictates a new semantic in war photography: enriched by a true passion on interlacing the personal and the universal, the local and the global, the very private and the very public, the laicism and the orthodoxy far from the evidence of blood.
Words for you are absolutely not a mere title for pictures or for an artistic projects; you seem to sculpt with words as well you carve landscape with imaging!
Why do you have chosen this uncommon register? Can you quote a master at whom you got inspired?
Is it because you were born there and not neutral enough with the subject?
During the years I made two decisions regarding my work.
One choice was to linger with the subject and the images. The majority of the photos from the book were never published or exhibited. Because there is something so aggressive about everyday life here, people are sort of forced into an immediate reaction, to choose sides, to have a determined opinion. I felt it is important for me to actually distance myself from the moment in which the photographs were taken.
I was not interested in creating ‘a reportage’ – the news agencies are doing it better than me. Here perhaps lies the difference between photojournalism and documentary photography. My photos do inherently deal with events that actually happened but they are not dealing with reporting, they aspire to create a moment of introspection and to depict a physical and mental condition.
Another choice I took was to stop working (as a method) in the format of a photo series: I was photographing in the Golan Heights and I saw something in the landscape that I saw before in a different place, in a different time – some sort of a remaining from an old war – that I photographed in the Gaza Strip. In that moment I understood that actually my photographs are part of one big project rather than a few series. Every image I took was then collected and filed into my archive, waiting for the moment in which the mass of images will form a body of work that echoes my experience of this place, and the story of this conflict. An intractable conflict, that seems to never end.
The tragedy of this conflict, lies in its daily, mundane reality. Wherever I reached with my camera, I found a bleeding wound, a scar left in the landscape, architecture, and the people of this land. For me it is not about the moment when a rocket hits a house or the start of a riot but how you to rebuild life, time and again, when the dust of violent events settles.
What was your first reaction to know about that your first book was shortlisted at Paris Photo this year at the Aperture Foundation Book Prize? Can you tell us more about also the reaction of the audience to your publication in that fair and, so far, after the first months of publication?
I had the opportunity to talk about the book in Israel, New-York and a bit in Paris.
It was interesting to experience how the book was received outside of Israel and Palestine. I was lucky to meet people from neighboring countries (like Lebanon, The United Emirates) who I don’t have the chance to meet in Israel. It was very moving for me to see that the book is able to cross the borders of politics, and to create a space for introspection and dialogue. I received many reactions, many people who expressed a genuine thirst for the book’s tone, which is steadfast in its discretion.
Our trip to Off Print Paris & Paris Photo was violently interrupted by the deadly terrorist attacks on Paris. It was as if everything the book is talking about – the fragility of life, violence, about life being shattered into pieces and later
reconstructed – “leaked” out of the book into the settings of this beautiful city.
What is your position on the actual so called Intifada of knives, as citizen and as filmmaker?
Is some of this new stage of revolt finding a place in the first documentary movie you’re shooting and directing with a Dutch colleague, Geert Van Keteren, entitled The Movie After the Cease Fires?
Violence attracts more violence and shifts the center of attention from the issue that needs to be addressed, which is how to resolve this conflict, to end the occupation and to reconstruct faith, trust and relations between the people.
My documentary is about uncovering the roots of why peace is so elusive here. If you look at the history of the conflict, you see that huge foreign forces tried to find a solution and invested a lot of money and time in it: several American presidents, leaders from the European Union, alongside countless foreign and local NGOs working on the ground. And yet there seems to be stubborn seed that refuses to surrender itself to the concept of peace. Our documentary tries to depict the psyche and soul of this land, to depict what motivates this unceasing conflict.
How is hard to start and keep on as independent photographer today in your city, and/or in general?
I think it is hard everywhere in the world.
Specifically here I would say the political situation adds additional difficulties. The budgeting priorities are not culture and arts. It also related to the fact that Israel is a young country without a long cultural heritage and tradition. Today there is a very right wing government in power that tries to control and censor cultural content. The atmosphere is very bad: right wing activists campaign to ban movies or theater plays on the claim that they are anti-Israeli. Recently the Tel-Aviv Cinematheque had a Nakba film festival, and the Cultural ministry threatened to cut off their government support. I find this very concerning as I can already feel that cultural institutions are engaging in self-censorship in order to avoid loosing their budgets and public support.
Which is the most important achievement after you started to work as photographer?
For now it is my book, of course. It is an examination of a very significant period of time in my life: my individual journey in the collective past and present of the place in which I live in.
What your city is giving to you and vice versa?
I have lived for the past twelve years in Jaffa, which used to be a separate city before the establishment of Israel and today is a part of Tel-Aviv where Palestinians and Jews live together. I like living here. It was conscious choice, I didn’t move here because I found a nice cheap apartment: it was important for me to live in a place that contains the variety of the people of this land, and Jaffa still offers this. It has of course its own complexities and sensitivities. I am constantly in search of a dialogue with my neighbors, as a Jewish Israeli, examining how we can live together. It is through the daily interactions, like practicing my Arabic with the shop owners in my street, that teach me a lot about culture and life in this neighborhood.
Can you share your favorite cooking passion?
I’m a person who loves to cook – and to eat – a lot. The latest addition to my kitchen is a food processor that I dreamt about buying for years. So recently I’m trying to focus on recipes that involve some food processing. The first thing I made with it was pesto sauce from the basil bush that grows on my balcony. Food and cooking is always an “excuse” to gather around a table with friends and loved ones.
The day following the Paris attacks we gathered a few friends for dinner. We just didn’t want to be alone in that moment. The concept of Comfort Food became very literal that evening. A week after I returned from Paris, we gathered again, almost the same group. I cooked exactly what we had on that dinner, which was very simple chicken, potatoes and salad. I was grateful we could be together.
Which is your favorite wine or drink?
I generally like to drink wine, in the summer I usually stick to white wine, Orvieto classico, or Rose, and in the winter I drink red wine, there are a few Israeli vineries that I like, I try to make sure though that the vines are not produced by wineries that are located in the occupied territories.
Which is your music or the book(s) with you now (and on which kind of side table or desk the book(s) lies down now)?
I have two books now that I am reading the one next to my bed is by Stefan Zweig, the World of Yesterday.
The second book is placed next to me on my desk and it’s a catalogue I just bought at Le Bal, Images of conviction, The construction of Visual evidence, it won at Paris Photo for Best Catalogue of the Year.
In which way do you try to live “slow”, if you like to do so, in a city as yours?
Although in modern life one has to “fight” to live slow I feel that Jaffa offers the opportunity to be a bit out of the rat race: I always shop for food in small private business, the last time I visited a big chain supermarket was many years ago. I love these small interactions with shop owners, walking around in the neighborhood and finding the time for it. Another thing which I try not to give up, is what I call my day dreaming time, it can be an hour or 3 hours, or sometimes just 5 minutes, in which I do absolutely nothing, but day dream.
Which is a talent you have and the one you miss?
I am very good at producing things, initiating projects and seeing them through until their completion. I do however wish that I were a better business woman.