I call it Kitab al-Balad – the Book of the City. I’ve been circling in the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City for 15 years. This is a transformation of the City and myself, the story how we became the one. Some time ago conflict and politics where important to me, now I just enjoy good tea with menta leaves, looking at old men and children; doing what I do the best – my photography.
Julia Komissaroff interviewed by Maria Kapajeva
Maria Kapajeva: We have known each other since 2007. I know your story but let me ask you about it to introduce you to the readers. Tell me, how long have you been living in Israel, how did you come to emigrate there and how did it affect your life and your interest in photography?
Julia Komissaroff: My family moved from Latvia to Israel in 1991 when I was 14. It was still the time of the Soviet Union, which was about to collapse. My mother was frightened that my elder brother could be sent into the army because of his age. I think that fear helped us to leave for Israel for good. Also, we had many other friends who had emigrated to Israel in the 1970s. I think this move split my life in two: one in Riga, the other in Jerusalem. I am not sure I am able to answer how it affected me as these two lives are completely different.
Speaking of photography, the first thing that impressed me a lot was a book by Madeleine Riffaud Your Special Envoy… I was only 12 and this book was one of a few which we managed to take with us from Riga to Jerusalem. So, I don’t remember how many times I read it but I kept reading it again and again. When I was 16 we were allowed to choose some art courses at the school to learn various techniques. I really wanted to do photography but I couldn’t dare ask my mother for money to buy films and paper. So I chose sculpture instead because clay was given for free if you attended the course.
MK: When did you start to take pictures?
JK: I had my small pocket-camera since I was 14. I photographed everything around me: my friends, cats, family etc. At 19 I was discharged from the Israeli army due to illness. As soon as I got back home, I started to attend meetings of local photographers and I found them incredibly interesting. My family’s friends got to know about it and gifted me a Canon analogue camera and one black and white film. I think this was my real start in photography.
MK: How long do you think it took you to find your own language in photography? Was it straight away from the moment you got that camera or after some practice with it?
JK: I think my photographic language started to form in 1998 when I was expelled from Hadassah College of Photography in Jerusalem. I was pregnant with my first son and I missed some classes because of it. But the main reason I was expelled, I think, was the fact that they didn’t want to have a mother studying there. Children depend on their mothers for their health etc., so it was impossible for a mother to be present at the college eight hours a day for the classes plus extra time in the darkroom. College somehow ought to help women like me with their tuition fees or a scholarship, but they didn’t want to do it. So they expelled me three days before my son was born. At the same time it made me free of their rules and I could photograph anything I wanted, to make stories about things I care about, not them.
At that time I started to use colour film as well as black and white. I learned how to print colour photographs in the college darkrooms. They were open 24/7 and usually guarded by the students themselves. So I brought my own easel and lens for the enlarger and learned quite quickly how to print colour. I guess knowing all these processes helped me to understand better the aesthetic of the photographic images and find my own language.
MK: Is it important for you to distinguish these two types of photography: monochrome and colour, and how do you decide which one to use?
JK: I am just guessing as I never know what the result will be. But they are very different approaches for me. When I photograph with colour the process of building a show is different, it is based on colours which are getting into the frame. When I have a black and white film in my camera, the colours do not exist for me, I look at the world differently.
MK: So, how do you describe your language in photography?
JK: I am not sure what it is but I know I am on the border of a journalistic approach and art photography. I enjoy the fact that I am free of any artificial framework and I do what I do and what I like: I love colour and I admire people around me.
MK: You run some photography courses together with your husband David Dektor, who is a photographer as well. Do you teach your students to define their own language or what do you teach them?
JK: I don’t think it is our purpose but we try to help them to find themselves in photography. Sometimes it works but it requires a lot of hard work from their side. You need to be a bit fanatical about photography, I think, if you want to achieve something in it.
MK: Nowadays there is a lot of debate about photojournalism being dead since digital technology arrived, so everyone who has a camera can take pictures which are good and quick enough for the mass media’s needs. Do you feel it affected you as well?
JK: I feel that quality has lost its relevance and it is sad. I think quality is essential and now it is achievable more than ever with new technologies, but it is not required anymore. I am not sure where it goes but definitely it became harder to earn money with photography.
MK: What do you mean by ‘quality’ and how it lost its relevance?
JK: Quality for me is the language or aesthetic of Sebastian Salgado, Don McCullin or Eugene Richards. It is still acceptable to produce this kind of work if you are an older generation. But if you are in your thirties/forties, you just cannot do that kind of photography anymore, it won’t be published. For me, the statement “photojournalism is dead” relates to another: “humanism is dead”, the first one cannot exist without the second one.
MK: Do you think photographers can contribute to a change in a political /social situation they work in?
JK: I don’t think that photographers can change the situation, but they must show the situation.
MK: Are you a politically engaged person? I guess it is hard to live in a country like Israel and not be aware of what is happening there. Do you try to use your photography to express your views or to talk about them?
JK: Well, for many years I believed that this was my mission as a photographer: to notice what is going on and try to bring it to people. I cannot really separate myself from photography: I photograph what I see and it doesn’t matter if its something positive or an injustice – I just bring evidence of it. The thing is, people prefer to see something different, something they want to see. People don’t like to be witnessed when they do something wrong. At the same time, I know that lots of people want their stories to be told and it doesn’t matter if they are refugees, prisoners or protesters. People want to be heard.
MK: I know you love travelling and you always take your camera with you. Looking at your projects, I can see that you like to go back to the same places you have been before, such as Russia and Georgia. Why is that
JK: My most favorite places are Georgia and Armenia and mostly because of the people I met there and who became my friends. I think Georgian and Armenian hospitality cannot be compared with any other: you want to come back again and again, you feel very welcome. But Russia is a very different story for me. It just happened that I am more known in Russia than anywhere else, so from time-to-time I go there for the exhibitions or to run the workshops. At the same time I don’t think it is my country, if you know what I mean. I can produce good projects there but I do not enjoy being there as such.
MK: So, if you travel somewhere do you usually go to visit some people or do you go to places where you know no one?
JK: In places where I have never been before like Northern Ireland or Belarus, I photographed and talked to people and they opened up their lives and stories to me. Usually I flow with the situation, not follow a fixed plan.
MK: You mostly work with wide lens and go very close to people you photograph. Do you still have a “no fear” sign on your camera, which I remember you had from our last meeting?
JK: Yes, it still represents me.
MK: What do you mean by that?
JK: When I bought my camera in 1998 all professional photographers around me covered the Nikon or Canon logo on their cameras with black tape. It was an idea that the brands didn’t give them a free camera so why should they advertise them? So, I thought that I should put something that represents me. That is how the sign ‘no fear’ appeared on my camera.
MK: It is clear to me that you prefer to work on long-lasting projects. When you go to take pictures, do you always think of them as part of the project or do you just photograph whatever you see around you? Would you call yourself an intuitive photographer?
JK: When I take pictures, I do not think about projects at all, I focus on the images. I like to work on projects for a few years, as places which I photograph tend to change during that time. I tend to change as well, as a photographer and as a person. So I consider it a live process: it is like a tree which grows slowly but constantly. At the same time, when I photograph, I don’t think about projects at all – I just take pictures, observe the surroundings. At some point I start to see the narrative coming up from the images, then I become a prisoner of that sequence but I am never sure when it will end. For instance, on the book Kitab Al Balad I worked on during the last 15 years, somehow I decided that now is the moment to finish it. Sometimes enough is enough.
MK: What sort of sequence or narrative did you start to see in your project and when did it happen?
JK: It’s like a puzzle, at some point you see a picture, it’s not whole but you see it. I don’t remember the exact moment when it came to me, about 8 years ago or so. It is hard to explain, but it is on the level of intuition and feelings.
MK: Most of your images are with people. What about these people – do you talk to them, do you know their stories? Have they even seen your images afterwards?
JK: Sometimes I talk and sometimes I just photograph. Sometimes I want to know the name, if I feel that the photograph deserves a name. Sometimes I bring photographs to them if I know where to find them.
MK: How do you communicate with these people – do you speak Arabic?
JK: I know some words; many Palestinians understand a bit of English. It’s enough for photography.
MK: Have you ever had problems in photographing someone?
JK: Never. Usually I manage to communicate well with people.
MK: Let us talk about your Kitab-al-Balad project. In one of your interviews you mentioned that ‘Kitab-al-Balad’ means ‘The Book of the City’. How did you come up with this title?
JK: My husband, David Dektor, who is a photographer and writer, collected books about the East and Eastern cultures since his childhood. My favorites in his collection are Kitab al-Bukhala (The Book of Misers), Kitab Futuh al-Buldan (The Book of the Conquests of the Lands), KItab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs). These books, as you can guess, are very carefully tailored collections of various masterpieces under one theme. So I decided to borrow that idea and that is how I came up with the title Kitab-al-Balad which means The Book of the City. I think this book is my thank you song to this city and to the people who opened up for me and demonstrated their beauty and tension which is often hidden from outsiders.
MK: Did you have any specific routes you always took when walking around the old city for this project?
JK: Yes, I have some places which never stop surprising or inspiring me. Sometimes I see something different in them, something I haven’t noticed before. These moments are special to me as a photographer and they take my project a level higher. Usually when I walk, I don’t try to find something special, I just observe the places and sometimes I see things, see some happenings. Actually I don’t have to walk all the time, often I just sit at one of the cafes or where the men play cards. There is no rule for what to do if you want to do documentary photography. You just need to follow the situation.
MK: Was it your way to get to know the city which became home for you?
JK: Well, first I went to the Temple Mount and luckily the guard from the Islamic Waqf let us in even though they don’t usually allow it. That was a day when I took my first image for this project; the process had started even though I didn’t know at the time how long it would take me to finish it as a book. So, during the next two years I photographed mostly on the Temple Mount as this place never bored me but amazed and inspired me instead. When the Second Palestinian Intifada happened, the Temple Mount was closed, so I started to photograph the lower part of the city where I found very interesting places and inspiring people. Basically I photographed everything I saw or whoever I met: people and the conflicts in their lives.
In a way this project grew up as a tree or a child together with me. It didn’t matter what I did or where I went or moved with my family during these 15 years, it was always with me. The old town changes constantly. When I started to photograph there, it was a more public place, more Palestinian if I might call it that, with the Palestinian flag and portraits of Arafat everywhere. It has transformed since that time and now it is more religious, including what clothes the locals wear. Old cafes were closed and new shops are open. Old people die and the town’s stories, its histories, go with them. Ramadan, which I photographed these 15 years, is one of the biggest events in the old town – lots of people go to the Temple Mount, hundreds of thousands of people. It is not just an event, it is the major event of the old city.
MK: What about the other communities in Jerusalem – Jewish, Christians and so on – what is Ramadan for them?
JK: For the majority it’s just an obstacle: more traffic and more police. For a few it’s multicultural fun. Actually I have other projects, which focus on the Christian and Jewish communities of Jerusalem. Kitab-al-Balad is not about them, it is about Ramadan.
MK: How did you edit your photographs and select which ones go in the book?
I just know, I always knew when I did something good. I usually do editing by myself, although I am always happy to listen to other opinions. When I work on something which is very important to me, I usually ask the opinion of my husband – he is great at editing.
MK: Do you have captions for your images?
JK: I pretty much hate captions as I am a very dyslexic person and it is hard for me to deal with words. But I have some stories for many of my images.
MK: When did you decide that it must be a book? How do you actually work with your projects: do you think about them in the context of “it must be an exhibition or book”?
JK: It is hard to put into words as it works on an intuitive level: some projects I can clearly see as an exhibition piece, some as a book. The same happened with this project – I imagine it as a book. At the same time my work on this book has just started: I am just at the beginning of editing and I am still negotiating with publishers.
MK: Do you think your project Kitab al-Balad is something that stands outside your usual practice or do you see it in the context of your other projects?
JK: It is different from my other work for various reasons. First of all, it is the biggest and longest project I have ever undertaken. Secondly, it is about the place and relations I am familiar with and that I totally understand. Some photographs are not instantaneous but hopefully deep as a result of long-lasting relations with people or places.
MK: Any possible examples?
JK: The card players or nargila-café, I have series in three different places in the Old City. Three different stories from three places where people played cards. Behind these images is a story of my relationship with these men. It took me several years to make it happen.
MK: Ok, the last question. I don’t know whether your gender somehow affects the way you work – is it a problem or a benefit being a woman photographer?
JK: Usually in most of the countries and places I have visited, people are generous and kind to me. The same thing happened here: it seems people are less frightened by a female photographer, including the police and security services who are always around the old town. Although, I never thought of my gender or what issues women might have. I assume it must be easier for us to get close to people, especially the ones where you meet someone in very fragile situations such as victims of sexual harassment or Pakistani women who were attacked with acid. For example, I photographed refugees in Georgia (a place called Pankisi Gorge), who arrived from Chechnya. I went from door to door with a social worker and heard very difficult stories. Many of these refugees asked not to be photographed because they still had families back in Chechnya and they worried about their safety. So, obviously I didn’t photograph them. But the ones I did were published in a book entitled Heavy Burden published by the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Going back to the gender question, women obviously are more at risk walking around with a camera. They could become a target for people who want to take advantage of them. I think it comes from your own experience of the photographing process as well as working with people: you need to see and understand what is going on and what might happen next.
Julia Komissaroff (b. Latvia) has lived and worked in Jerusalem since 1991. Regarded as one of the most important emerging photographers in Israel today, she began her documentary career photographing Ethiopian children in the Givat-ha Matos Immigration Camp for a project on resettlement communities between 1998 and 2000, and in 2002 photographed the peace movement in Northern Ireland as a model for peace activism in the Middle East. For the last decade, she has been engaged in two large projects: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fortunes of ethnic minorities in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Her photographs have been exhibited regularly in Moscow, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Minsk, Belarus.
(Written by Anthony W. Lee Professor and Chair of Art History at Mount Holyoke College).