Photo Activists Shoot Against the Grain — Win Both Respect and Hatred in Israel

Activestills Focuses on Struggles Overlooked by Mainstream

Need To Know: Palestinian protesters try to block Israeli bulldozer on the occupied West Bank.
Activestills/Yotam Ronen
Need To Know: Palestinian protesters try to block Israeli bulldozer on the occupied West Bank.

By Yermi Brenner

Published July 25, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.

On a recent Saturday night, during one of the most heated days of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, a group of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv and protested for an end to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

Anti-war demonstrations during wartime are not unusual in Israel. They rarely bring out more than a few hundred people, as did this one. It was an event that most Israeli news outlets deemed not important enough to cover, especially when Hamas’s rockets were flying all over the country. But Oren Ziv was there with his camera.

Ziv, 28, is a co-founder of Activestills, a collective of people who are both activists and professional photographers. Documenting political and social struggles that are missed by the Israeli mainstream media is the bread and butter of Activestills.

“We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here,” said Ziv, whose photos from the Saturday demonstration show a group of extreme nationalists attacking anti-war protesters. “We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”

Shooting Against the Grain from Jewish Daily Forward on Vimeo.

Since very few journalists attended the demonstration, Ziv’s photos — published on +972 Magazine and its sister site, Local Call — are the most significant professional documentation of the violent incident. That is often the case for Activestills photographers. The collective was founded in 2005 and has since documented hundreds of events that would otherwise have been mostly invisible in the Israeli media, including the struggle against the decay of public housing in Israel, the forced displacement of Bedouin in the Negev and the labor conditions of Thai agricultural workers.

Ziv says Activestills’ beat is from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The group includes eight core photographers and several additional contributors. The members are Israelis, Palestinians and a smattering of other nationalities. Most of the collective’s work is in the West Bank, covering the protests of Palestinians in the West Bank against Israeli authorities — a struggle that Israeli mainstream media outlets like Ynet and Channel 2 News ignore unless Israeli soldiers get injured. Filling the gap, Activestills’ online archive includes detail-rich images of nearly a decade of Palestinian popular struggle. The collective has also displayed its photos in street exhibitions in Israel’s largest cities.

“Most of our street exhibitions — mainly when they are about the occupation — are taken off the walls, torn, damaged. It is not just that people don’t want to see these photos, they don’t want others to see them,” said Keren Manor, a collective member based in Tel Aviv. “When you are talking against the consensus, then the consensus tries to kick you outside of the society.”

Yotam Ronen, another collective member, said it is a good thing when street exhibitions are vandalized or destroyed, because it means people are paying attention and reacting. Ronen, who works as a freelance videographer for the Israeli online news outlet Walla, sees himself as a journalist, too, when shooting for Activestills, but does not claim to be objective.

“We have a certain point of view on things,” Ronen said. “And that’s the point of view that we try to forward.”

With Israel’s public opinion turning more nationalistic at this moment of crisis, critical voices like Activestills are often ostracized, or worse. More than once, Manor and Ronen have heard aggressive responses like “You are a traitor!” and “Go to Gaza!” from Israelis on the streets who did not appreciate the theme of the collective’s photography. Working as a collective, Manor says, makes it easier to deal with such responses.

“I believe that working in a group gives you power,” she said. “We are a political group. As any political group — many people that join together — they have more power than an individual that tries to do something alone.”

Contact Yermi Brenner on Twitter @yermibrenner



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