israel: people

I don't know that I'll ever get over my nervousness, when it comes to photographing strangers in a foreign country. I had a bad experience in Ireland, where I inadvertently terrorized a teenage girl by taking her picture. In my defense, the shot would have been amazing: she was in a full Catholic school-girl ensemble, leaning against the doorway of a pub, one knee bent jauntily. She was beautiful. And she licking an ice-cream cone. But there must have been a miscommunication when I asked her permission, because as I started to frame the shot, she gave me a horrified, bewildered look and shot off. I think I was actually more traumatized than her. I just stood there frozen, my cheeks blazing, feeling like an idiot.

Ever since then, I'm scared of being intrusive, of offending or annoying with unwelcome attention. But as hard as it can be for me to summon the courage to photograph people I don't know in a place I've never been, I do it, because it's worth the occasional awkwardness. When I revisit my travel photos, it's the ones of people that I appreciate most. They're more evocative to me of the experience, more representative of a country than its monuments, or its landscape, or its food. They conjure moments that I remember vividly: my bumbling attempt to speak a stranger's language is met graciously, and I'm granted a few seconds of someone's time - maybe even a smile. Or, the exchange is wordless: I raise my eyebrows inquiringly, and lift my camera slightly. May I? A solemn, almost imperceptible nod in reply. Click-click-click! I check my camera's LCD and look up with a smile: Thank you. I give a thumbs up: I got it.

An exchange of humanity and kindness, in the time it takes the shutter to close.

One of first things I started doing a few years ago is asking, when I arrive in a foreign country, how to say Do you mind if I take your picture? in the local language. But when I asked Ezra, our Israeli guide, to teach me the correct words in Hebrew, he shook his head. "No, no," he said. "Just take the picture. Don't ask. If they get upset, say I'm sorry, leave them alone, whatever, but don't ask. Never ask."

It wasn't long before I understood why asking wasn't a good idea, particularly in Jerusalem. Every single Orthodox Jew that caught me training my lens on him turned away abruptly, or touched his hat to block his faces, like this:

The first couple of times it happened, I was mortified and felt awful. But I figured they were just generally camera shy individuals. No. It's a cultural thing. Portraiture is not welcome in the Old City, and I received a few sharp looks that told me exactly where I could stick my $800 lens.

But while it was discouraging at first, it ended up making for a fun challenge. And it was better this way. I wouldn't expect such sober-minded men to mug cheerfully for me. That would be out of character, unrepresentative, phony. Capturing people in their element, wearing natural expressions as they go about their business - as long as the shot comes out crisp and clear, these, too, are photographic victories. Provided, of course, no one is bothered or offended in the process. And no one was, as far as I know. I got very good at being quick and discreet. I'd find a location with a lot of traffic, frame and focus the shot in advance, then lie in wait for (what I considered) a picturesque composition.

Jerusalem, quite obviously, is an extremely holy place. People come from all over the world to pray there, to press their supplicating hands against the Wailing Wall, and wedge slips of paper into its cracks. Presumably, these notes are filled with their most private and precious hopes and prayers, thought out possibly years in advance of this moment, this opportunity to feel as spiritually fulfilled as possible.

In such a setting, it's hard not to feel a little...boorish, when you want to take their photo.

I didn't stay near the wall very long, for this reason. I tried to make it a surgical strike. I stood back, outside the entrance area, taking it all in for a few minutes and just watching. Listening to the Islamic prayer, broadcast to all the city from a few hundred feet away, haunting and lovely. Then I quickly and quietly approached the wall, snapped what I hoped would be some good shots of the women around me, and backed out again (it's considered disrespectful to turn your back on the wall).

Then I realized that I wouldn't be able to get shots of the men unless I went back to the wall and pretty much dangled my camera over the division (the men's and women's praying areas are separated by a five foot wall). I walked back down and stood on my tippy-toes, peering over as best I could.

You could easily spend days just wandering around the Old City. The winding alleyways and cobblestone corridors are filled with shops, temples, churches, schools. School children play in courtyards, or troop down the street in excited, laughing clusters.

I was completely captivated by these young men. They struck me as the Jerusalem equivalent of the Superbad gang, and I wondered what their experience of adolescence was like:

Outside the city gates, a group of little boys stood waiting with their rabbi for a bus:

Security around the Old City is, understandably, tight. It's pretty surreal to be there and realize you're in the most hotly contested real estate in the world: all three Abrahamic religions stake a claim to the ground you're walking around on - and the stakes couldn't be higher. I overheard someone say at one point, "World War III will be launched over this land right here." Sadly, he was probably right.

There are heavily armed guards at all of the city's entrance gates:

Israel practices military conscription - there's a mandatory two and three year enlistment period for women and men, respectively. All 18 year-olds must serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, though are some exceptions (including Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs). Interesting facts: Israel is one of 24 countries that allow openly gay individuals to serve in the military. It's also the only country in the world that requires deaf people to serve (in non-combat capacity). Women are allowed to pursue any position that men may, including combat. The only stipulation is that if the position requires advanced training, her two-year enlistment may have to be extended to three.

I will cop to fully flirting, to get this pic:

To their credit, these groups of soldiers - teenagers, largely - were quite focused on their duties. I had to work pretty darn hard to get any of them to break the fourth wall and look my way.

After serving their two or three year commitment, most Israelis - now about 20 or 21 years old - take a full year or more to travel internationally, before heading to university. This is considered a sort of "decompression" period, after their time in action. When you consider that Israel constantly faces threats from both without and within its borders, and that, no, these kids aren't pulling some cushy reserve time, you can understand how necessary this break is. Indeed, up in the Golan Heights we watched some training exercises with kids - again, eighteen and nineteen year olds - practicing formations with tanks and full artillery.

So it isn't until Israelis are 22 or 23 that they enter college. The age difference in itself is an interesting disparity, when compared to American kids. Now, think about what it is they've been doing for the few years prior: serving active military duty and traveling the world. These young men and women have now seen and experienced things that most grown adults stateside haven't. They're vastly more mature and more...sobered by their experience of life, by the time they pursue higher education. Their world view has been informed and expanded in a way that the typical 23 year-old American's, arguably, has not.

Juice carts are all over the place in the cities. Ten shekels (about $3) for a cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate or grapefruit juice.

Dried fruit is also a popular street food. In the Old City, I bought a package of dried, sugared strawberries to share some of the group. They were gone in ten minutes.

This guy chatted me up outside the food court at Masada:

And this guy caught me trying to get a shot of he and his friend rigging up a boat, in Tel Aviv:

Some muslim men outside a mosque in Bethelem:

These kids were such little hams. A few of them walked by with arms linked chummily, but when I whipped out my camera to snap a shot, another half-dozen appeared out of nowhere, loathe to be left out: