Thursday, February 18, 2016

Auckland Photographer of the Year reveals the humanity of the Old City of Jerusalem in exhibition and accompanying book


Auckland Photographer of the Year reveals the humanity of the Old City of Jerusalem in exhibition and accompanying book

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 next week at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, and which Ilan has compiled into a handsome limited-edition book.

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 delay his 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 kept the conversation flowing 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 Master of the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography. Selected prints from the ‘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’ will run daily at Te Uru Gallery from February 20 to May 1, with a special opening event from 4pm on Saturday 27. Limited edition prints and a viewing copy of the book will be available in the gallery shop.

Lynn Freeman will interview Ilan about his work on RNZ National’s arts programme Standing Room Only this Sunday afternoon.

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