Faces of Jerusalem
Beggars and scholars, slaves and warriors have all walked the narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. In early 2015, Auckland Photographer of the Year Ilan Wittenberg set out to capture the stoic nature of its inhabitants. The result is a compelling collection of portraits – ‘Faces of Jerusalem’ – which will go on display at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery.
Born in Israel, Ilan has visited the UNESCO World Heritage site on numerous occasions. However, it was during a recent family trip that the idea to produce a portfolio of portraits (for his fellowship application to the Photographic Society of New Zealand) first took form. Not wanting to hold up the family, Ilan returned by himself in January 2015 and spent days exploring the winding, cobbled streets and tiny, dimly lit shops of the Muslim, Jewish, Armenian and Christian quarters.
While his collection of striking monochrome images captures a range of people going about their daily lives, it was the city’s merchants that Wittenberg was particularly drawn to. “Many people are not happy, you can see that,” says Ilan, “but that’s for good reasons: the economy is down. There are very few customers and very little foot traffic because there is a lot of stress in the streets. Wars, religious tension and the ongoing political conflict scare the tourists away.”
Wanting to create quick rapport and a relaxed environment, Ilan introduced himself as a New Zealander (which he has been since arriving in the country in 2001). “Oh Kiwi, welcome” would be the typical response, which cleared the opportunity to create a photograph. Where language permitted, he engaged his subjects in further conversation, to produce more engaging portraits than candid documentary photography usually does. “These photos were taken without a flash or a tripod, using ambient light only. I chose to present the prints in monochrome to eliminate distracting colours and help focus the viewer’s attention on the people, their body language and their expression. The sepia tone also provides a timeless atmosphere to the images, which reflect the rich culture and turbulent history of Jerusalem.
His journey as a photographer started relatively recently in 2011, but Ilan has already been given the honour of Fellow of the Photographic Society of New Zealand as well as a Master of the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography. Selected prints from ‘Faces of Jerusalem’ portfolio contributed to the body of work that won Wittenberg the prestigious title of NZIPP 2015 Auckland Photographer of the Year. The collection also took first place in the Documentary Book section of the 2015 Moscow International Foto Awards, a competition that attracted entries from 84 countries.
'Faces of Jerusalem’ was exhibited at Te Uru Gallery from February 20 to May 1.
In August 2016, Ilan won the title Travel Photographer of the Year by the Cathay Pacific Travel Media Awards which are organised by Travcom (New Zealand Travel Communicators) to celebrate excellence in travel writing and photography.
The photography awards were judged by a panel of three; Rob Lile, director of One Shot image library, Jenny Nicholls, Art Director for North & South magazine and Tessa Chrisp, past winner of the Cathay Pacific Travel Photographer of the Year Award. The Travel Photographer of the Year is judged on the entire portfolio of published work.
Rob Lile said: “This year a clear and unanimous favourite appeared amongst the many images put forward for the scrutiny of a tough judging panel. While there were many images that caught our eye and invited second and third viewings, one series stood out, indicating the work of a master visual storyteller. Ilan’s images transported us to centuries-old locations to examine modern lives intertwined with layers of time. They displayed patience and sensitivity as a storyteller becomes immersed in the worlds of people going about their ordinary daily lives, as unobtrusively as possible. His presence is accepted; images are not overtly posed nor awkward and each subject is entirely comfortable with the interaction. The creative journey continued through careful post production, printing and mounting, all reflecting the skills of a professional determined to present his vision as perfectly as possible. This was a powerful series that will live in our minds for a long time.”
Faces of Jerusalem is a captivating collection of photographs. This documentary portfolio offers a journey to the Old City through its people. Their proud portraits reflect the rich culture and turbulent history of Jerusalem. Created during January 2015, it presents a glimpse into their lives. The different merchants are surrounded by their products. The souvenirs are intended for tourists and pilgrims who walk the ancient, narrow streets while visiting some of the holiest and most sacred religious temples in the world.
In many cases I was able to talk to the merchants so they are looking straight at me with a natural expression. I find that this results in more engaging portraits than candid photography. Most photos were taken in ambient light without flash or tripod so to create a more authentic scene.
The images are presented in monochrome which emphasizes shape and form. The sepia tone creates a timeless atmosphere while eliminating distracting colours. This makes the set more uniform regardless of the light or the time of day. It helps in focusing viewers’ attention on the people, their body language and their facial expressions. It also gives me the opportunity to create dramatic images using contrast and structure.
My goal in creating this portfolio is to show an authentic view of a foreign land. I aim to demonstrate a clear style, to tell a story while being imaginative and thought-provoking. I wish to inspire people with distinct images that are crisp and sharp, to be creative and artistic, to evoke emotions and to show a personal vision.
In April 2016, Faces of Jeruslame was featured is issue 53 of the prestigious f11 Magazine with 38 pages covering the portfolio.