Yaakov Israel: “The Quest for the Man on The White Donkey” – Powerful Photos of Israel/Palestine

Yaakov Israel (b. 1974) is a photographer living in Jerusalem. He mostly works on long-term independent projects, which reflect on the way the religious, social and political affect and create his personal reality. His gaze is constantly investigating the Israeli identity as perceived through architecture, landscape and the country’s diverse population. “As a person who takes an interest in my surroundings, I find that I return again and again to the same places, and these places and their inhabitants have become vital parts of my biography”.

Israel – As per the Orthodox Jewish tradition, the Messiah (the Prophet) will arrive riding on a white donkey. A few years ago, as I was photographing near the Dead Sea, a Palestinian man rode past me on his white donkey and I took a picture of him. It was after having developed this plate that I realized that I had encountered my “Messiah”; it was this chance encounter which brought me to initiate the body of work that carries the name: The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey.

The American tradition of the great photographic journeys served as a blueprint for the initial phase of my quest, with the definitive difference that in such a small country as Israel the size of the territory in which my hunt was pursued necessarily differed from my predecessors. A condensed experience. What in any other country should have been a photographic journey spanning months of continuous travelling was inevitably reduced because no matter what destination I chose it always brought me back home by midnight at the latest. As I found myself passing through the same places over and over again, the personal identity of my project was revealed to me: I had to let go of the idea of narrating the physical journey itself and concentrate on the intimate, emotional reactions that these places evoked in me; I focused on trying to understand how I was reacting to the occasional encounters with people and scenery, and how those people and the scenery appeared to be revealed or lost at the same time, as if they were part of a scene that was ever changing or not changing at all.


Soldiers on Coffee Break, Kibbutz Yad Mordecai, 2010 ©Yaakov I


As my messenger started to reveal the “message”, the search for a deeper understanding of my country and what defines me as an Israeli became an urge to look for the in-between places, the unexpected situations; suddenly a detail requested my attention as I stood for hours waiting for a meaning to reveal itself, or pushed me away, puzzled. But in the end I had to hold on to it. I could not let go until that detail was made mine, until the elusive and enigmatic found their place in my understanding of what I deemed as an authentic, real encounter. 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. This is why it is sometimes possible to see the past, present and future revealed in front of one’s eyes at the same time. Part of my identity as an Israeli is to question everything, not to take anything for granted, to show the tensions that constantly exist, to convey the truth behind the reality. Religious, social aspects filter into everyday life and their meanings are revealed as the journey moves on. Jewish missionaries, lost souls and individuals living on the fringe of society, all blend into this landscape of humanity.  

Written & Photographed by Yaakov Israel

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