Article written for Jerusalem Post Magazine
Published the 4th of July 2014
Through photographs taken on the fly, Axel Saxe takes the pulse of Israeli society and its thousands of faces.
Eight years of travel, camera in hand, led professional French photographer Axel Saxe to present Israel without a filter, through scenes of local daily life. He needed this photographic journey to produce this work with maturity, he says, without “falling into the Western tendency” of the international press. “When you see a mass of photographers facing two young guys throwing stones, you know it is not healthy,” he explains.
Saxe has been a photographer since 1985, working for news agency Sygma and media groups Expansion and Prima, whose Geo magazine intends to publish the pictures of his book Israelis next summer. Israelis appears in Hebrew/English version and a Hebrew/French version. The visual publication is enhanced through the fine writing style of poet and film director Serge Ouaknine, who describes in English and Hebrew this nation which “does not know how to die.” Through this collaboration, pieces of Israeli life become poems about an endless war, whether it is the swarming crowds at the central bus station or Israel’s resilience.
The photographer came to the Promised Land for the first time in 2005, after years of feeling “incredible passion” for the Jewish state. “The first time I heard of Israel was in 1967, during the Six Day War. I was about eight years old, and I discovered those who lived in this country; I looked at pictures showing fascinating faces of soldiers who were always very young, shaggy, and laughing,” says Saxe, who wondered at the time how such a nation could stand so strong and united before the world.
“Just before the war, I learned about the Holocaust, and I understood at a very young age the link between Jews who were massacred in Europe, and the young soldiers who won the war; the revenge and the pride to have a country to defend. Things are connected to each other in history,” he explains.
In 1991, Saxe found himself in the field, reporting from Lebanon, the Palestinian camps and Jordan. From the Lebanese Shouf Mountains, where rockets were being launched by Hezbollah terrorists, he caught sight of the Land of Israel for the first time. In 2005, he finally set foot in Israel, which he describes as “a difficult country to photograph; we must look at the details, the finesse, the looks.” More importantly, he did not want to follow the editorial line that the European media has used for years, “with always the same biased, sensational tabloid-
style view on the war, at the expense of Israel.”
“This whole false story did not attract me. I knew exactly what approach I did not want for my work on this country, but didn’t know yet what I could do,” he said. The photographer succeeded in creating an original album. His understanding of Israeli life appears through photographs that show a stark reality that Israelis are aware of, but often don’t pay attention to anymore. His pictures do not lie. Through his lens, one does not observe the hyperactive Tel Aviv immersed in a blue sea, but rather the bare beaches of Hadera.
Yet Saxe loves the “Israeli Bubble,” though not the way it is portrayed in Europe. “The city that never sleeps, that parties day and night, that works all the time – this angle annoys me, I do not see it this way.” The photographer is fond of the city’s luxurious Azrieli neighborhood in the center, as well as the neglected area of Hatikva. “It is a real Western city, extremely strong, like the major metropolis we know, and it is ridiculous to see only the ‘glitter’ side” of the White City, he believes.
When Saxe began this work, he did not want to photograph “the soldiers, the conflict, or the religious.” In the past, he felt that Israel’s image was too often composed of military and Orthodox colors. “But I realized that even if I did not want to shoot them, they were present in every scene. It is impossible to avoid these issues; Israeli society veers between secular and religious, and this aspect is impossible to ignore,” he notes. The book demonstrates the omnipresent role of IDF soldiers in Israel, an integral part of the landscape. The author understood this component of Israeli life. “We cannot understand the country if we do not understand that the army is the backbone of society,” he says.
This sentiment is driven home in two of the more notable photographs in the book. A young couple, both in military uniform, sit on the train on a Thursday night, heading home for Shabbat. “I took this picture accidentally, very quickly, on the way to the airport for my flight to Paris. I had my backpack, and this couple sat in front of me. I just had time to grab my camera at the bottom of my bag,” he recalls. Then there is the picture of the paratrooper, the member of an elite corps, who stands in the middle of the crowd at the Beersheba Central Bus Station, a fresh milkshake in hand. “The sweetness of his look is impressive, and for me, this look represents the Israeli army as a whole.”
“The IDF is not an offensive army. I approached the soldiers in Lebanon and Peru; I know what warriors are. But the IDF is a citizens’ army. There is an idea that service is absolutely essential to everyone’s life and safety,” says Saxe, who cannot help but refer to his very different experience in the French army. “The mindset was not the same at all. Here, there is a sense of purpose and indispensable role. Israelis in general feel they have an individual responsibility, which they give themselves deliberately; responsibility is not only collective, but also individual. Each one pays attention to what he is, to what he does, to what is around him. And thanks to this mentality, the country works,” he explains. It is a book without concession, which cuts to the heart of Israeli reality – a raw, poignant, sweet and diverse truth.