The land upon which the nation of Israel sits is steeped in stories and myths. It’s ancient, holy; all three major faiths that took root here see salvation in its domes, its olive groves, its cracked earth. It’s a land where people still seek the messiah. In one Orthodox Jewish messianic tradition, He will return riding a white donkey. On a blistering summer’s day in 2006, Yaakov Israel peered through the heat waves and saw, emerging in the distance, a man atop a white donkey. “He materialized,” says Israel, a photographer based in Jerusalem, “like a fata morgana,” a mirage.
This man on a donkey was no illusion — nor, most would contest, was he the messiah. Instead, his arrival from the desert and into Israel’s lens gave the photographer a guide for a photo project he has worked on for the past decade, crystallized in a new book, The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey. Israel’s pictures are the product of years of wanderings in Israel, in the Occupied Territories and in the spaces in-between, seeking to document a vision of its people and landscapes away from the noise of an intractable political conflict and the rumbling news media that watches it.
In the spirit of U.S. photographers who chronicled their journeys through the American vastness, Israel would wake up early in the morning and head off in a direction, photographing what he saw and whom he encountered along the way. Of course, unlike in the U.S., Israel, traveling in the country that bears his name, would invariably run into one or two political borders by nightfall. And so his gaze dwells on the quiet of certain moments — “the small clues for me that exist in each image,” as he puts it — that tell a story of daily life in a land whose deep history and uncertain future are woven through with gestures that are at once religious, political and inescapably human.
A girl wades into the Sea of Galilee, her arms held wide as if choosing between crucifixion and baptism. Spools of barbed wire are followed in the book by tangles of thorns and a sea of dandelions; men with guns look on, at times curious, at times detached. A backpacker sleeps. The hills glow and soak in sunlight.
Israel emphasizes the everyday nature of his subjects — “these are people I’m just bumping into every time I go out.” Often, they would go out of their way to accommodate Israel, posing patiently, introducing him to family and friends, pointing to new vistas for his camera. In one scene, a pair of Arab workers who had intended to go to work choose instead to hang out with Israel and share their breakfast with him. “These episodes of human courtesy happened again and again,” says Israel. “For me, these small things tell another kind of political story.”
The man on the white donkey, a Palestinian farmer, was no different. In 45 degrees Celsius heat, he agreed without hesitation to participate in Israel’s project, desperately trying to keep his steed still until an image became clear.
Yaakov Israel is a Jerusalem-based photographer. See more of his work here.
The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey will be available in the U.S. this fall. The project recently won the PhotoEspaña Descubrimientos (PHE12 Discoveries) 2012 Award.