American, European photographers invited to document Israel through popular photo-sharing application. 'Your pictures reflect the beautiful side of the State of Israel and its peace-seeking citizens,' president tells them during meeting in Jerusalem
Will Instagram photos bring peace to the Middle East? An interesting meeting was held Wednesday at the President's Residence in Jerusalem between President Shimon Peres
and 10 Instagram photographers from the United States and Europe, who were invited
to document Israel
and share their photos with millions of followers across the world.
Peres had a short conversation with each of the photographers,
who showed him the pictures they had taken over the past few days in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
"Photography is not just art," the president said. "It's also education. When a person looks at himself it makes him improve himself. Israel is a very photogenic country filled with history, following an exile of 2,000 years. Feel at home here. Your photos reflect the beautiful side of the State of Israel and its peace-seeking citizens."
The photographers' representative, Joey Mena of San Francisco, thanked the president for his hospitality and asked to take pictures of the garden at the President's Residence from different angle and share them on Instagram.
Peres is a rather interactive president, who has adopted online innovation. Apart from his own active Instagram account, he also has personal Facebook and YouTube pages and has made use of the Interlude application to allow users to hear his opinions on a variety of issues.
The Instagram project, Once in a Lifetime HD,
is the private initiative of international organization StandWithUs. Through programs, conferences and missions to Israel, the organization strives to ensure that "Israel's side of the story is told around the world."
Ofer Levy, 26, a law and accounting student volunteering in the organization, spoke about the decision to focus on Instagram.
"We believe that pictures are a very strong medium for conveying messages, and the social media allows us to spread these messages across the world. During the 10-day journey, all the photographers have to do is upload pictures presenting Israel as we see it, the beautiful Israel."
Levy said a lot of thought was put into the candidate selection and screening process.
"We located them online and approached them, but we also posted a video and information on the website inviting them to register. It was important for us to have candidates with as many followers as possible, who would not just focus on food or shoe shots and would be influential in the social media.
"As part of the project's admission process, candidates were also asked to take a picture reflecting a value related to Israel's president, such as peace or technology."
Does the Instagram nation like what it sees?
"In the meantime, the photos are very popular. Within hours from the moment a photo is uploaded, it receives thousands – and sometimes tens of thousands – of 'likes' and comments.
"Yes, there are negative responses sometimes, but a dialogue is created as well. The photographers themselves are very involved and explain exactly what can be seen in the photos and their location.
"We are not trying to create propaganda or explain who is right and why, but to show the real life here. We didn't take them to Sderot for empathy and we didn't take them to the checkpoints."
Can beautiful pictures even have an effect on political opinions?
"The photos reach an audience of more than two million Internet users, an audience which is not particularly hostile or particularly sympathetic, and it is from this place – of neutrality or indifference – that we can definitely influence Israel's image."
Photo: Mark Neiman, GPO
French-born VuTheara Kham, who is of Cambodian descent, joined the delegation after being approached by the organization members. VuTheara is a sort of celebrity when it comes to social networks. His Instagram account has the biggest number of followers in France, and every day he uploads photos on a variety of issues.
"I received a lot of negative responses, mainly about the Israel-Palestinian conflict," he said. "I completely removed the radical and strongly hateful comments. I was somewhat surprised to discover such political comments on Instagram. This is my first time in Israel, I'm really enjoying myself here and I'm proud to be representing France in this project."
"We've received all kinds of responses from all over the world," said Stephanie Goralnick, who has Jewish roots and has already visited Israel in the past. "Some of the users appeared to be curious and liked the photos I uploaded, but there were also those who objected to the project and criticized it.
"I like to start and participate in interesting discussions, and it's fine for different people to have different opinions, but the moment I came up against a hateful or offensive response – I just deleted it."
Asked whether Instagram photos have the power to change people's opinions, Goralnick explained that any photo telling a story could have an effect. "In Tel Aviv, for example, I took a picture of one of the other participants in the project swimming in the pool. That way I present a different, not news-related, side of Israel."
Although the photos are impressive and may even surprise native Israelis, this interesting initiative will likely not turn the world's non-political citizens into pro-Israeli activists just because of a number of beautiful photos of graffiti or old buildings.
And yet, as they say here, whoever causes one person to develop a favorable opinion about us – saves an entire universe.