Talking with Ziv Koren | The Life of a Photojournalist in the Middle East

Sofie Lintermans

Israel’s most popular photojournalist, Ziv Koren, has been documenting humanitarian matters for over 25 years. He has covered topics ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Haiti earthquake, poverty and AIDS in South Africa to more personal projects like reportage on a transgender or the rehabilitation process of a wounded soldier. Ziv Koren shoots raw reality whatever his subject is and has gained access to places and people other journalists have never reached. We had the pleasure of speaking to him about his latest work and some of his personal experiences on the job.

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Ziv Koren

Writing with Light

Writing with Light was an exhibition of Ziv’s work that recently displayed in Tel Aviv. To make his profession as a photojournalist in this challenging region sustainable, Ziv always has a personal project running alongside his paid work. “One always needs something on the side to feed the soul,” he said in an interview on the radio programme ‘RAWtalk’(interview starting at 1:16:50). “Something that is more than just earning a living.”

Exhibition Writing With Light

Ziv’s ‘Writing with Light’ project was one of these personal projects. The exhibition, which featured a selection of 60 photographs in black and white, is a return to the essence of photography as the artist’s reaction to the impact of the digital era on photography:

“We live in such a fast Instagramic, oversaturated era. I mean, there are over 60 billion images on Instagram, it’s more pictures than were ever taken since the day the camera was invented until the invention of Instagram. Just to put things in proportion, I mean, the world changed completely, in terms of the visual, everybody is a self-proclaimed photographer nowadays. It started with the digital era about a decade ago and from there the implementation of cameras inside cellphones.

That’s why four years ago I thought, what is the role of the photographer in a world where everybody is a photographer? And so the last four years I’ve been wandering around the globe searching for interesting light, because I wanted to deal with the light in photography as the main thing, to go back to the essence of photography. When you take the color layer away, you’re left with two basic things: composition and light. And light especially is the most important element in photography. Lighting can turn a routine frame into a work of art.”

Exhibition Writing With Light

How do you experience this era of self-proclaimed photographers and civilian contributions to photojournalism?

“There are a few ways to look at it. First of all, it’s true that more and more pictures are being taken on cellphones, most of the hardcore stuff, for example, that is coming out of Syria is basically coming from people shooting from their cellphones, which gives us information we otherwise wouldn’t be able to access.

But on the other hand, it really changed the profession, totally. But, as a professional, I can’t feel threatened. Not every person that holds a pen is a writer, so not every person that holds a camera is a photographer. That should be common knowledge, and it’s not. Everybody can take pictures, yes, but you still need a photographer behind the camera when you want to tell a story. You know, a good picture, for me, is one that touches me, it’s a picture that tells a story, a picture that makes me go through an emotional experience while seeing it. It’s not about composition, it’s not about anything besides if it works or not and that is something that you have to feel for, it’s not a technical thing.

There’s no structure that tells you how to make people go through an emotional experience by viewing an image. Technical things are easy to adopt and to learn. It’s easy to understand how to compensate between aperture and speed and get the right exposure. From there on, you’re on your own. From there on you have to come with your experience and your thoughts and your imagination, and the way that you compose and the way that you feel about the subject that you’re photographing. Everything together fills this image that is supposed to touch me when I see it, and that’s the real work of a photographer.”

As a photojournalist covering humanitarian subjects and conflict, you shoot very painful, very dramatic moments. Do you sometimes feel it’s inappropriate to take the picture or that it’s too sensitive?

“No, nothing is too sensitive. I don’t know what is ‘too sensitive.’ I mean, things that are too sensitive for me will not be as sensitive for somebody else. Sensitivity is not something that I can evaluate while I take a picture. I would rather take a picture and then rethink if I run it, if I send it to the editor, if it’s part of the story, if it really tells a story. Every situation is different but there are questions that I ask myself—if the picture is good enough, if it really tells a story. In most cases, especially in harsh situations, I can’t afford to lose time and concentration on whether it is worth taking a picture or not. I take a picture and think about it later.”

Do you feel you can bear these strong emotions that surround you all the time because you live them through the camera, and you need to focus on the technicalities of photography?

“You can’t be shot off emotionally from the subject you’re shooting. You need to work with so much emotion to get an emotional picture. Whoever thinks that you are kind of shot out or shot off because you’re behind the camera doesn’t understand the profession. I’ll say it in other words: when you are viewing a picture, you only use one of your senses. And when you’re literally there, there are sounds, people crying, people screaming, smells, and visuals of course. And that’s something that stays with you, that’s something that you take, regardless if you like it or not, it stays with you in some cases for the rest of your life.”

Can you give an example of such a situation?

“I was standing in Bethlehem, actually walking toward three soldiers standing a few meters away wanting to ask if they are expecting a demonstration or if something was supposed to happen. It was a Friday; there was a kind of tension but nothing really bad was happening, and as I get a few meters away from the soldiers, one of them gets shot in the neck and starts bleeding, and he falls down and his two friends carry him, running with him on their hands to the base. He passed away, you know, right there on the ground. And then they started shooting from all over, and there’s so many really crazy situations like this.”

What goes through your mind at that time?

“I guess a mix of everything together. Wanting to take a picture, being scared and wanting to get away. It’s not one thing that you say to yourself. What is crazy is that this was shot in Bethlehem; I didn’t travel half the world to Iraq or something to photograph this situation. But all of a sudden there was an exchange of fire and we were lying on the floor. After a while it got kind of quiet and I ran to my motorcycle that was some 200 meters away. So at some point I got back to the bike and I drove back to Jerusalem which is five or six minutes away, [it’s] Friday afternoon, people sitting in cafes drinking coffee, short espresso with the newspapers of the weekend, cool. I thought, this is insane. 15 minutes ago I was in a war zone! It’s crazy.”


Your line of work is very demanding and absorbing, how do you combine it with your family life?

“It’s almost a daily struggle. There is always something important to go photograph and document. You need to make a decision. I’ll give you a good example. It was exactly five years ago, the earthquake in Haiti. It was three days before my daughter’s tenth birthday and it was like this big build up toward the birthday. She was really excited, she had this big birthday party [planned] and three days before the earthquake took place, I just had to explain to her that I had to travel, that something really dramatic and harsh happened and I need to be there, and I just had to leave. So, I miss things like this all the time, maybe not as dramatic as a tenth birthday, but there are things in school, and dance class… Yes you miss a lot.

Now they’re a bit older and I think they understand the necessity of my work, and I think that they have a bigger and better understanding [of] why I leave. I mean when they’re young they don’t care, for them I’m just not there and I obviously can’t show them any picture that I shot in Haiti. So it was harder before. Now I think it’s easier; both my daughters are a bit older now and they understand more and don’t need me as much as they did when they were younger. By the way, I’m divorced… I don’t know if that has anything to do with that or not, but I divorced almost two years ago.”
Photojournalism is about being at the right place at the right time, but also having the right connections. Ziv Koren “doesn’t bother with doing work for which you have to stand in line to get the same picture as everybody else.” He recently gained access to Israel’s Elite Navy Seals,documenting their work and training. He photographed air-to-air action of the Breitling Jet Team in Switzerland and was the one who provided pictures of the uncovering of the tunnels during Operation Protective Edge in the last Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

You are known to have more access than other journalists covering the conflict, especially on the Israeli side. How does it work though when you shoot in Palestine as an Israeli citizen?

“It’s kind of tricky; I’m a bit like a chameleon. I need to change my color when moving from side to side. Unfortunately, it’s part of the reality I live. When I’m on the Palestinian side, I don’t speak Hebrew and I pretend to be a foreign journalist working for an American or European paper. You know, on the one hand, it would also have been much easier for me personally to document the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which I have been doing for the last 25 years if I was a foreign photographer, observing from a distance. It would probably be easier for me, but I’m an Israeli, and as much as I want to shoot both sides of the conflict, obviously I have a big advantage on the Israeli side and a big disadvantage on the Palestinian side. I still fight my way to be able to shoot on both sides because I don’t want to be seen as part of propaganda or something. I mean, you have to show both sides, but I can’t make this totally equal between both sides because it’s just impossible.”
I have been working on this really long project on how Israel is fighting terrorism. It’s something that I have been working on I think for the last six or seven years. A part of the stories have been published already and I’m still working on that. It’s a very kind of unique angle because I was able to gain the access and join the forces and really see how they work on night raids and so on. It is very interesting, but it takes time. But I use the advantage of my access to kind of do things which I guess other people can’t. It’s all through networking; I didn’t get it as a present. I gained that trust through long relationships. Whether it’s with the prime ministers of Israel that I documented from a very kind of private perspective or whether it’s for my other projects. It’s not easy at all, but it’s part of the profession. It’s making connections, and working slowly. There are some projects that took me weeks or months before I could start shooting. I still have ideas of stuff that I’ve been trying to work on for years and I can’t execute yet. It’s hard to find access. Access is really what it’s all about.”

You’ve said you do personal projects to break away from the paid work that is sometimes more difficult to shoot. Yet, in your personal work, you also tend to choose tough subjects.

“I shoot hardcore; I don’t try to hide behind the bush. If it’s a story that is worth telling, if it matters, if I think people should know about it, then it should be told as it is. I never try to portray things nicer than they are. There’s nothing nice about a war situation, and if people prefer not to know, then you know, just look the other way.

There are harsh situations, and yes it’s uncomfortable. The transformation of a transgender from man to woman, or poverty, or any other thing like drugs. It’s something for which you need to take a deep breath and understand that this is reality, this is what’s really happening. I don’t care about shooting fashion, I don’t want to do advertising, I don’t want to shoot the trees and birds or sports. I mean, it’s just not interesting to me. It’s a waste of time from my point of view. I don’t shoot anything besides socially relevant stories.

You seem to go to the extreme, even in your personal work.

Yes, I do. I did a book on a children’s hospital, which was harder than any other thing that I have ever photographed, honestly. You see innocent kids, a few weeks old, having to confront heart operations and diseases, it was horrible. Really hard. And then going back home at the end of the day and my two spoiled girls are fighting over an iPhone or something stupid like that. It really puts you in perspective.

But for me, it’s in such projects that I feel the camera, the images, can make a difference. They can tell a story that will move people, that will make people aware of things that are happening. This is where I feel that my profession can really make a difference.”

More Than 1000 Words

To experience Ziv’s work from his perspective, check out the More Than 100 Words video. Over a period of two years, director Solo Avital followed Ziv into the heart of riots, secret meetings with wanted militants, and terror attack scenes and more. The movie not only offers insight to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but focuses on Ziv as a man who struggles with the conflict he shoots.

By Sofie Lintermans

Sofie is a traveler, bon vivant and the embodiment of curiosity. She’s passionate about anthropology, photography, warm-hearted people and never says no to south-east Asian cuisine or a nature adventure. She’s always on a quest for the next little thing to spark her senses.
Exhibition Writing With Light, hosted by Urban Gallery, Nemal 16, Tel Aviv, Israel, +972 3 604 2459
Urban Gallery, Ben Yehuda street 74, Tel Aviv, Israel +972 3 524 4110

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