With its roots in the early 20th century, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the Middle East’s most contentious sources of instability. The conflict has taken the lives of thousands of people, but—despite being such a serious issue—mass media outlets only feed us a small mouthful of the greater picture.
As part of Canon’s “Shine a Light” campaign I talked with Gili Yaari, an Israeli photojournalist, to see how he aims to shine light on the pressing social and humanitarian issues of his environment.
Otto Reitano: What got you into photojournalism?
Gili Yaari: I always was interested in … covering issues in the news. It is a means for me to personally experience the important events and developments that take place around us. It is also a way to add my point of view, raise awareness about issues I find important and a way to impact the public agenda. I believe that this is something burning inside every journalist.
OR: You mainly cover the social and humanitarian issues that surround you. What is it like living in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
GY: It has two faces; the conflict is always present and at the same time, … it has somehow become a natural part of life in this crazy area.
For example, going in the alleys of Jerusalem's Old City, you can see Jewish and Palestinian pilgrims, going to visit their holy places, mixing together. When driving around Jerusalem, one realises that Palestinian villages and cities are so close … to Jerusalem. And there you see the separation between them. This view became a 'normal' part of the life here, but for someone else it looks absolutely different.
OR: With people so used to the conflict, why is it so important to cover? What role do you, as a photojournalist, play in the whole conflict?
GY: Unless covered, people, locally and around the world, will only know about that which they are directly exposed to, which is generally close to nothing. Yet, this issue is so important because it affects everything that happens here and in the entire Middle East. Covering it provides the public with information that is based on facts and it constantly puts the issue on the public agenda, where it should be.
Photojournalism, specifically, provides the audience with visual information about the events and people, adding emotions and drama through the visuals. I see my role, as a photojournalist, as bringing the most accurate, objective and balanced information to the audience.
OR: Do you feel like you’ve succeeded in bringing light to these issues? What’s been the overall response to your work?
GY: Well, I would like to think so. My images are constantly being published, in local press as well as in international press, adding pieces to the big puzzle. There was no single publication that had a specifically extraordinary impact, but rather many ongoing.
OR: Creative expression is often used as a means of dealing with emotions, but in your case I can’t help but imagine the emotional stress involved in your work. How does photography serve as a means of both evoking these emotions and dealing with them at the same time?
GY: You must be inside a situation in order to cover it authentically, in order to let the viewers feel like they are inside the situation themselves. Inside means, in many cases, being physically close and being emotionally affected. I try to channel my private emotions into the pictures through the visual means of photography. Sometimes emotions erupt after shooting ends. During the months I was shooting in a mental health centre for holocaust survivors … I had some nights without sleep.
OR: What inspired the project at the mental health centre?
GY: As a second generation Holocaust survivor, I grew up in what I used to think of as a “normal” house. As many Israelis, it was only when I grew up did I understand that I was actually raised in a house where there was no happiness, where joy was illegitimate, where the driving forces were fear and survival. During my work on this project I felt again and again as if I was documenting my own family, knowing that all that stands between sanity and insanity is a thin, fragile wall.
OR: Last question. What has been the most memorable experience in your career as a photojournalist?
GY: The first time I arrived into that mental health centre for holocaust survivors, I sat down to speak to one of the patients—a Hungarian-born holocaust survivor. This is the photo I took of him:
He was so similar to my late grandfather, who was also born in Hungary and was a holocaust survivor, looking similar, speaking similar. Since I speak Hungarian, we started talking in Hungarian. I felt for a few minutes as if I speaking to my grandfather again, one of my strongest experiences ever.
Gili Yaari is an Israeli-based photojournalist and contributing photographer at Flash 90. His work has been published in The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, and other Israeli and international magazines. You can find more of his work on his website.
*All photos belong to Gili Yaari.
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