Israel, Caught In All Its Complexities


On Tuesday, Andrea Meislin, an art dealer in New York, was on her way to Washington. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, asked her to help decorate his new home, knowing that she represented some of Israel’s most prominent photographers. But Meislin, unsure of Oren’s politics and his artistic tastes, was packing light. She was bringing only her laptop for this trip, she said, which contained images of all her artwork, instead of carrying just a few select prints. She did not want to offend him with any of her own choices.

When asked if that meant she would be avoiding Rina Castelnuovo’s work, Meislin hesitated, then said confidently: “I will show him all of Rina’s work, yes.” But she conceded that she was less certain whether he would like it.

As The New York Times’ chief photographer in Jerusalem, Castelnuovo, who currently has a solo exhibit at Meislin’s Chelsea gallery, has captured Israel in all its maddening complexity. Her current show at times portrays Israelis in a sympathetic light: a group of soldiers bereaving the death of unit member killed in Gaza in 2009, for instance. Or a little girl looking up through a hole in her roof in Sderot, cut through by a Hamas-launched rocket.

But there are deeply troubling images, too. One photograph, taken this year at a West Bank checkpoint, shows only the back of a religious settler, with a machine gun draped over his prayer shawl. Then there is “Hebron Wine Spill, 2009,” which brought Castelnuovo, 54, both praise and scorn after it won the prestigious World Press Photo Contest earlier this year. It shows a religious settler, drunk in the streets on Purim, throwing wine on a Palestinian woman walking nearby.

“She didn’t scream or stop,” Castelnuovo wrote in a commentary on the photo, posted on The Times’ website. “She hurried up the street and vanished around the corner. I was left angered and saddened — as if the wine hit me.”

That photograph was one of a few that Meislin and Castelnuovo argued over whether to include in the show, which is titled “Moments from Israel” and runs through May 28. Castelnuovo wanted to minimize the number of violent images, but Meislin insisted at least that one be included. Meislin already agreed to keep out two images Castelnuovo did not want displayed: one of an Israeli mother crying over her son’s dead body; the other of a Palestinian mother doing the same.

“I was not thrilled to have this one included,” Castelnuovo said of the wine spill image.

She was commenting from Israel, in an interview conducted over e-mail. But “I have great respect for Andrea as a curator, so I trust her judgment,” she said, then added: “I suppose the same feelings of contempt when I took the picture grew with time. … There are numerous photographs I took over the years witnessing moments I wish didn’t happen.”

Few photographers know Israel as well as Castelnuovo. She was born in Tel Aviv, to parents who were both Holocaust survivors. Except for a sojourn to the Academy of Fine Arts, in Rome, where she studied painting in the mid-1970s, she has lived in Israel almost her entire life. One of her first professional assignments was there too, covering the first Lebanon war in 1982, for the Associated Press. “I was sent from the first day,” she told the Israeli daily Haaretz in a 2007 interview. “I got to Beirut even before the Israeli army conquered the city.”

She remembers how that war was strikingly different from the ones she has covered more recently. It was not fought by air, but on foot, door-to-door and in the streets. Fellow reporters had to bring her extra clothes, since she herself did not go home. When she was sitting in a café with journalists on a break, a car bomb blew up outside, putting her in the hospital. “When I washed my hair, I would remove bits of shrapnel,” she told Haaretz.

But she has not stopped covering wars, despite having three daughters and a husband, Jim Hollander, who is also a prominent war photographer. She lives with her family just outside of Jerusalem, where she has worked as a freelance photographer for The Times since the 1990s. And it is a cruel irony that her home suits her work so well — the wars come often and are close by. The first intifada, the 1991 Gulf War, the second intifada and Israel’s most recent clashes: she’s covered them all.

But for the current show, which showcases photography taken mainly in the past few years, she wanted to avoid the most grisly images. “No images of bloody violence [nor] of great serenity were to be part of it,” she said. “Of course there are many images which are not on view, but I don’t think I would call them ‘serene’ … those certainly do not reflect ‘the situation,’ as both Israelis and Palestinians like to call present times.”

More suitable adjectives for her work might be “surreal,” “eerie” or “haunting.” There is a large color photograph of a towering beige-brick fortress, which turns out to be the Cave of the Patriarchs, claimed to be the burial place of Abraham, in Hebron. Roiling black clouds hover above, and below, in the foreground, the blur of a blue dress sprints by. In another photograph, taken in the West Bank in 2007, a pair of Palestinian boys, one with a pair of wings tied to his back, play on massive dirt heap. They have been taken out of school to help their parents collect trash, which they sell for extra money.

When asked if she considered displaying more images of Israelis or Palestinians at rest, in moments of everyday life, she said that would interfere with her idea of the show.

Despite her reluctance to show bloody clashes, she did not want to suggest the region is at peace either. “The images were selected as a present mood reflection in Israel and the West Bank.” And she said she knew that mood particularly well: “I’m not a visitor here; this is my daily life. I did not come here especially on an assignment. … It is a home.”

“To be fair,” she added, “most of the city is leading a totally, normal, mundane life also on days when there is unrest in east Jerusalem.”

She gave an example of what normalcy means: “The other day I was photographing a parade for VE Day [the anniversary of the Nazi’s defeat] in the center of Jerusalem, a nice event with elderly veterans in their late-80s mainly, from the USSR. … But on my way to my car I was blocked for 20 minutes while police were checking a suspicious parcel on a bus — it turned out to be nothing,” she said. “But this is ‘the situation.’” n

“Moments from Israel: Rina Castelnuovo” is currently on view at the Andrea Meislin Gallery, 526 W. 26th St. Suite 214. (212) 627-2552. Exhibit runs through May 28.

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