The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey

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Yaakov Israel, from the series The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey, 2012

The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey is the messianic title of Yaakov Israel’s series of photographs brought together in a recently published book. The series tells the story about both Israel the country, and Israel the photographer exploring his country. Taking his cue from photographers documenting the vastness of America ‘on the road’, Israel habitually returned to locations he encountered since his childhood.

One image perhaps functions as a self-portrait: it shows a young boy, apparently unmoved by the presence of the photographer, holding a bird with one hand while photographing it with another. Many photographs in the exhibition have a similarly candid appearance: a naked girl jumping into the turquoise waters of the Sea of Galilee, an elderly man collecting herbs, a woman sleeping in the desert. The candidness of these apparently innocent records of everyday life camouflages very effectively Israel’s method of working with a large format camera. That the photographs in the exhibition are in fact carefully constructed images is best highlighted by blurry leaves blowing in the wind – a visual effect caused by a photograph taken with a tripod and a long exposure time – juxtaposed with an otherwise razor sharp focus in the photographs.

August Sander, Pastry Cook, 1928

The ‘constructedness’ of Israel’s work becomes most apparent in a number of full body portraits which mirror the typological photographs of August Sander. The people that Israel photographs in this way are, perhaps like the photographer himself, lone drifters. While Sander photographed mostly workers in their social and economic environment (a baker in a bakery, a farmer on his farm etc.), the relationship of Israel’s subjects to their environment is mostly unclear. Why is a young man called Ali standing by himself in the desert? Why is a soldier named as Ytzhak standing in the skeletal remains of a destroyed building? Similar ambiguities are raised by the landscapes photographed by Israel. Why are water parks abandoned? Why is a carpet buried in the sand? Why does a road look as if it leads to nowhere?

These questions, mixed in with the scarred appearance of both the natural and the man-made landscape in the photographs, relate to the religious, political and ideological frictions at the very centre of this project. The landscapes, and the people traversing these landscapes, are visibly marked by the constantly shifting power dynamics of a peace process that has no end in sight. The road does not simply lead to nowhere, but rather, it signifies the uncertain future faced by the citizens of Israel and Palestine.

Amidst the abandoned spaces, Israel’s photographs also reveal an unexpected sense of beauty. His images flatter those willing to be photographed by him. Even the landscapes, as scarred as they may be, are flattered by the light, the colours and the textures revealed on the photographic print. In one photograph, depicting a young Arab woman called Eman, Israel combines the narrow focus of the camera with the sunshine streaming in behind the woman to create an image that equals the intensity of his subject’s gaze. The luscious green shoots of grass growing out of the desert in the background of the photograph tell the story of a land that is unpredictable and constantly in flux. III The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey is available as a book.

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