Being around the youth of any country is often a window into where that culture is headed. My time in Israel has given me the opportunity to be around both Arab and Jewish youth, going to high schools in a variety of communities that reflect the socio-economic, cultural and ethnic diversity of this small country.
I have been coming here since 1991 and observed the divisions amongst people’s in Israel grow, with the gaps filled by more distrust and prejudice, but being with high school kids revealed an almost separate universe, where none of those feelings were shown. These youth are the bright spots, while the politicians continue to cast clouds over a seemingly intractable political solution.
I accepted the invitation to return to Israel to conduct these workshops with a bit of anticipation and an open mind. I normally come to this land to follow stories of a geopolitical nature, serious, tough and often depressing. It was with pleasure I hoped to experience a different aspect. I’m also much more interested now in finding the areas of hope and positivity, not the continued dirge of desperation and violence.
For me photography is engagement. With the world, people, issues, events, life itself. Being a photojournalist serves my desires to tell stories, reveal issues, make the world a slightly better place. By changing one person's mind, my work is a success. Illuminating, whether by casting light on an issue unknown, or by shedding new light on something we think we know, this is my challenge.
From an early age I wanted to tell stories. I also grew up during a politicized time in America, where culture, politics, social action and concern melded into one. My work has become a personal exploration and expression of those dynamics. Living the life of a photojournalist has also brought me into contact with places, peoples, cultures and ideas that have enriched my life. My photographs serve as a testament to this way of living, by a humble individual who cares about our world and its people, and who is passionately curious and carries an open heart and open mind into the void of life.
The language of photography is more powerful and pervasive today then at any time in human history. With social media we can now reach people across the globe to share both personal and profession stories through photography. The opportunity to spend time with Israeli high school students from a variety of backgrounds was a chance to share some of my knowledge and experience, but also to learn from them.
My first stop was in Jisser A-Zarka, a Muslim conservative community, the poorest Arab town in all of Israel and the last Arab village along the Mediterranean coast. In some ways it’s a place out of time, cut off physically from the rest of the country and hemmed in so unable to grow.
The kids there were fantastic, with beautiful faces that reflected the different hues of Arab identity. Many of the girls wore the hijab but their spirit and enthusiasm was infectious. The boys were mainly well behaved and overall I sensed a desire to learn and connect. When I showed work from other parts of the world, they were bursting with questions and curiosity.
When one of my assistants, an Israeli college photo student, arrived late to our workshop in Jisser A-Zarka, she was upset. Apparently the taxi driver did not want to drive into the town to drop her off. He was concerned about driving into this Arab town and as she said, “he’s a racist.” Then, this liberal and open-minded looking young woman said, “so am I in a way.”
This anecdote represents my sense of how things have changed in Israel. 20 or 30 years ago, a young, liberal minded woman would have not felt nor believed such thoughts. It’s a reflection of the hardening on both sides, from decades of conflict, occupation and war.
In the beautiful, ancient seaside city of Acre, my workshop took place at the American Corner—a cultural center supported by the Embassy and located in the beautiful Old City of Acre.
There I engaged with mostly Muslim and some Christian Arab youth that represented another socio-economic class. They were all dressed in designer jeans, nice clothes, the boys had stylish haircuts and the girls were modern and reminded me of young women I would meet in my own town in New Jersey.
At first, when I showed them work they seemed bored and utterly uninterested in other parts of the world, or for that matter photography. But once we went out to photograph around their town and then returned to review their work, there was this blossoming of spirit and opening of attitude. It was wonderful to see this transformation.
I also started to see beyond what I took as their jaded attitudes and eyes, to see their innocence and warmth. It’s also fascinating to observe in yourself how first impressions can be so utterly wrong, and when you take some time with people, especially youth, to listen and give them attention, their minds and spirits can open up in the bright and inspiring ways.
The next day I visited a Kiryat Gat school, a Jewish technical and science high school in what would be considered a middle-to-lower-class community in southern Israel. The kids were very engaged, albeit more self conscious and even pushy in their desire to look good and perform well.
The boys and girls were from diverse backgrounds and origins, including Russian speakers, Ethiopian, Arab, secular and religious traditions. At first they appeared disinterested and jaded, but by the end of our session they were bubbling with questions, excited about the work they had created and reflecting the warmth and good nature of bright youth.
In Kfar Saba, I worked with only Jewish girls, members of the Young Women’s Parliament, a youth leadership program. These girls were confident and smart, open to learning and eager to photograph. There was no spoilt or entitled behavior, which was refreshing to see.
As we drove to this town, the conversation in the car turned to the situation in Israel and Palestine, and what was decided on was that “it’s complicated.” Yes it is complicated, and given the trend of the past 10-15 years, the situation is growing every more surreal in my mind.
We were there for an annual cultural holiday, with kids dancing to Elvis Presley songs, a jazz band playing in one area, classical music in another. Clowns, Philippine caregivers with their elderly charges, beautiful families, people of all ages out enjoying their community with the gentle, cool breezes of spring creating a dusk of peace and tranquility. This idyllic, modern community is maybe 7 miles from the West Bank, yet a million miles away in terms of the socio-economic conditions and quality of life; besides the fact it’s not under military occupation. These alternate realities continue to rob me from completely appreciating the excellence of what Israel has achieved in a place like this.
Rahat is a conservative Muslim community in the southern district of Israel’s Negev Desert. Rahat is a predominantly Bedouin city with a population of 62,000, which makes it the largest Bedouin settlement in the world, and the only one in Israel to have city status.
Once again the students were mainly female and full of enthusiasm and unbridled energy, but the cultural differences in this town were immediately drawn into sharp relief once we headed out to make pictures. The restrictions on the girls made it hard to photograph very much. We stumbled upon a bakery, with young men working, but once the girls started to photograph, the men got upset and refused to allow girls to photograph them. Once we intervened, things smoothed out, but at every turn it was clear that this was not normal for women to go around their community taking pictures.
The youth I’ve met on this trip are full of life and ambition and a clear desire to learn and cooperate with one another. If we can change only a few minds and bring people closer by using photography and visual storytelling, then this is success. Efforts like this by the International Photography Festival based in Tel Aviv, Israel should be commended for their efforts to staunch the cynicism and fear through the language of photography.
Ed Kashi is a photojournalist, filmmaker, speaker, and educator dedicated to documenting the social and political issues that define our times.
‘This Is My Story’ is one of the International Photography Festival's annual social projects, in partnership with the US embassy, which uses photography and digital media as a tool to express one’s identity as a part of his or her community.