The identity of Israel and its people has been in a state of flux ever since people first settled in the area. It has been conquered and ruled by many empires throughout history including the Persians, Romans, Ottomans, Arabs and the British who were the most recent rulers of the ‘holy lands’. In one of Schilt Publishing’s latest books, Yaakov Israel seeks to explore Israel’s muddled identity and in doing so understand more about himself and his origins.  

Orthodox Jewish tradition foretells the return of the messiah upon a white donkey and as Yaakov Israel photographed near the Dead Sea a Palestinian man rode past upon such a mule. Yaakov asked to photograph the man, who agreed, and upon reflection of the developed image Yaakov realised he had witnessed his ‘messiah’. This moment propelled Yaakov to begin his quest of identity and the image forms the centerpiece of his book, becoming the heart and soul of the project.

The man on the white donkey, HaBiqah, 2006

Yaakov initially sought to explore the work through a road-trip journey, mirroring that of contemporaries such as Shore, Frank, Sternfeld et al. But in a country with about the same length as Ireland and only half the width, he could always return back to his home in Jerusalem at night. His work focuses not on the literal documentation of his journey but the intimate emotional moments that occurred. As such the images feel very intuitive and often hold minute but important details rendered visible by his large format camera.  

Israel’s identity is synonymous with its borders and Yaakov inevitably explores these areas as Israel’s occupation of certain territories is directly linked with how it envisages its own physical identity in the world. Some images obviously show borderlands while others are not initially recognisable, possibly paying testament to the transient and very human idea of the invisible divides we place between ourselves.

Kalia Beach, Dead Sea, 2006

In the image of Kalia Beach, a road, nestled between two palm trees, suddenly vanishes into the dusty ground. Beyond the wire fence, marking the edge of the territory, lies the dead sea and, beyond that, Jordan. It is a wonderfully poetic metaphor Yaakov has used here with the ‘end of the road’ illustrating the edge of the Israeli territory.   

Upon first inspection of the book I drew compositional comparisons to Shore’s Uncommon Places, especially in a few of the landscape images. But the depth of this book is achieved not only through landscape but also with the many striking portraits. Faces permeate the pages, demonstrating myriad different ancestry and backgrounds. A way for Yaakov to perhaps explain the multicultural state of present day Israel and an indication of its complicated past of invaders and inhabitants.

Homeless, The Gazelle valley, Jerusalem, 2004

A strong sense of history is very present throughout the work, not in an overtly religious sense, but in a social sense. Yaakov explains in his blurb: ‘In Israel I feel that the evidence of the past is strongly intertwined with the marks of the present and the questions about our future’. It would be impossible to explore Israeli identity without mentioning the conflicts that have constantly ravaged the area throughout history. Evidence of such violence is not only present in the more obvious images of, for example, an old army bunker but also within the structures of derelict buildings, abandoned or damaged from conflict.

Abandoned water park, Dead Sea, 2010

The book flutters between the landscape, portrait and the occasional double page, full bleed image. Its warm, pastel tones often seem to give many of the images an airy, light feel to them. Despite using a large format camera, Yaakov’s portraits, which obviously must have taken time to set up, are wonderfully intimate and natural and don’t feel staged. They sit comfortably alongside his landscapes and other images showing, in a more natural documentary style, people existing in their every day lives.

In the place considered by many to be the holiest on earth, a great amount of violence has always, it appears, been the normality. This seems amazingly paradoxical and at a time when conflict in the area is intensifying Yaakov has chosen to turn away from the violence and explore what it means to be an Israeli in contemporary times. It rises above other contemporary documentaries because it seems so heart felt. And how could it not be, when the turmoil there is so intertwined with race, ancestry and religion?

To me it is a reaction of the troubles there; a way to question and define oneself outside of the violence while unavoidably being part of it. Israel’s history is so very much a part of its present reality as are its people and their ancestors. This book is a wonderfully humane project resounding out of the noise and turbulence of the modern Israeli landscape.


The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey by Yaakov Israel
Introduction by Bill Kouwenhoven
Published by Schilt Publishing
24×29 cm, Hardcover