DOCUMENTING THE ESSENCE
At the age of two, Nino Herman contracted poliomyelitis. When he realized he would not be able to join the IDF, he began to engage in photography in the hope that such an occupation would allow him to accompany his friends in their combat units. For thirty years, the images captured by his camera appeared in the press, documenting some of the greatest moments and leaders in Israeli history. These days, he prefers to walk the streets of south Tel Aviv, and capture life's simpler moments
Ariel Horowitz | Photographs by Nino Herman
In November 2016, a fire in the Jerusalem hills area threatened to turn Nataf to ashes. Nino Herman, who was one of the small town's founders back in 1981, and has been living there ever since, was evacuated along with his family, as firefighters grappled with the flames, and eventually saved the place that 400 inhabitants call home.
Several days later, when he returned, Herman saw a group of press photographers positioned on some ruins in the woods on the outskirts of Nataf. They were waiting to catch a glimpse of the advanced firefighting aircraft brought to Israel from overseas. A former press photographer, Nino found himself as a bystander in a scene he had been a part of for decades. "It was obvious that the firefighting jet was brought there for show", he says. "The fire had already been put out, but the plane had been ordered from overseas, and a victory round was required. I looked at them up there, those were some of the best photojournalists in the country, and I knew them all well, thinking to myself that not too long ago I would have climbed up and stood there right alongside them. I parked my car and pulled out my camera, going back thirty years and wishing I were a part of it. When it finally appeared, I took a picture of both aircraft and photographers. As they climbed down from the ruins and saw me, they complimented me on the frame, and I felt they were jealous of the new layer of reality revealed to them. This story demonstrates how, in a single moment, you can shift from empty to full, and realize that your disadvantage is perceived by others as an advantage".
I wanted to photograph Dayan
He is 66 years old and has been a photographer since 20. A press photojournalist for Maariv and the Government Press Office, he has accompanied prime ministers, and documented historic moments. However, over the last ten years, Nino (Chananya) Herman has decided to explore a different path, abandoning photojournalism and becoming a photo-artist. The camera that once captured Menachem Begin and Anwar Sdadat signing the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty now documents everyday people on the streets of south Tel Aviv in simple, intimate moments. Two of his photographs are currently on display in a new exhibition at the Israel Museum entitled Beineinu [Between Us] (curator: Shir Meler Yamaguchi), focusing on interpersonal encounters, proximity and distance, eye contact and facial expressions – the kind of themes that interest Herman, the sort of news he wants to spread.
Photography began as no more than a means to an end. Born in Tel Aviv in 1953 and raised in Ramat Gan, Nino contracted poliomyelitis at the age of two. When he discovered he would not be able to join the IDF, he decided, since his neighbor was printing photographs, to take up photography. He began to work as Ephraim Kidron's apprentice, hoping that being a photographer would allow him to accompany his friends in their combat units, and gain the military experience for which he longed.
"I traveled across Israel for a year, taking pictures of current events, but the kind that did not belong on front pages, but inner ones", he says. "We had the morning papers back then – Davar, Al Hamishmar, Hungarian Uj Kelet, Maariv, Yedioth Aharonoth, and Haaretz, and photographers would go from one pressroom to another, offering the photographs they had taken to the highest bidder, like a marketplace: 'I have a Golda', 'I have a Moshe Dayan' – whereas I would come with an image of tobacco leaves being dried in the Galilee.
"I did not have a press card, so I could not go into government meetings and take pictures of Dayan, although doing so was my strongest desire, so I took pictures of other ordinary, mundane things. At first no editor was interested, but within a few months, the situation changed, and my images were printed on the inner pages. After one year, I received a press card, and took pictures of my friends parachuting, and that's how I ended up in Maariv".
Begin was a theater man
Herman was a photojournalist for Maariv, in charge of Jerusalem, Judea & Samaria. In some areas, he was the only one covering events. "I kept trying to look for original things, angles that had yet to be used. For instance, at that time, ministers were photographed going in and out of government meetings, and so I did the same, but I grew tired of it after a while, and wanted to invent something new. So I drove over to the Knesset helipad, and if the meeting was on matters of defense, I would wait for the helicopter that brought the Chief of General Staff, and photograph him getting off the chopper with his secretary and assistant, as they carried the maps. I had this curiosity to bring additional stuff, I wasn’t satisfied with the familiar and obvious".
And there were tough situations too, naturally, that you came across as a photojournalist in Jerusalem, Judea & Samaria.
"Yes. I took pictures in some of these events, and always kept my distance. I have always felt that I have a kind of quality that protects those I photograph. When people meet photographers they identify something energetic, and give of themselves knowing that the person who approached them knows what they are doing and means them no harm. The same quality was true for when I took pictures of disasters. I have a sensitivity, a love of man, and have no desire to capture a person in an unpleasant situation, or humiliate them in public".
From Maariv Herman moved on to the Government Press Office (GPO): on a flight to Cairo he began to document a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and went on from there to accompany Begin throughout his term in office, followed by Shimon Peres. "Working alongside Begin was fascinating, but he was pretty detached from the whole media issue", says Herman. "Although he himself was somewhat of an actor, he took no interest in the camera – he was more of a theater man. We had no personal relationship. With Peres, on the other hand, something opened, and we had a good relationship, that continued into his tern as Minister of Foreign Affairs. As a rule, even when photographing prime ministers, I always looked for the human angle: the connection between Peres and his wife, or children. I traveled with Peres a great deal. Once a week we would travel across the country, and Peres would come out of his car to speak to the workers, children and elderly. Even though it may have been part of his act, Peres also had the joy of touching people in him, and I was constantly looking for those things. Obviously every person wipes a tear off their cheek every once in a while, but that was not what I was looking for – I wanted to show the person, their conduct, their encounters, not necessarily their moments of tears or joy. That was what was important to me.
"When I look at leading press photographers in Israel today, their images are often guided by drama and darkness. Women for Peace recently held a protest outside the Prime Minister's house, and when my wife returned, she said it was uplifting. I later saw a picture taken at the demonstration by one of Israel's top photojournalists, and it was the image of gloominess and pessimism. I realize that these days photographers tend to photograph themselves rather than reality, but there are times when a line is crossed. Upon seeing my images, people often tell me: 'I can’t see you, you have no presence in your pictures', and that is something that I try to do – to give a simple touch to reality, not necessarily place an emphasis on my own perspective".
It is interesting that you never studied photography properly.
"Right. Yet some would argue that what I and other photographers do is not really photography at all, because anyone can hold a camera and take pictures of people on the street, or document prime ministers. And it's true, anyone can take pictures, but what makes a photographer a photographer, is the continuity, the uniqueness, the quality line identified with them.
"As for studies, for many years I was jealous of those who studied photography, but on the other hand, I sometimes feel that photography school graduates fall into certain templates, and many of their images seem similar, thereby losing their own personal element. Today I can tell you that I am glad I have a free spirit about me, and that I'm not caught in a gestalt. Beginner photographers are often asked: 'What do you photograph? What is your theme? Bottles? Ok, go take pictures of bottles, and then come back and show us what you've got'. But that's just one way of looking at photography, not the only way. I don’t feel like I can be branded in any specific category, like I am a certain style of photographer, and there's no drawer into which I can be placed to say: 'That's the deal'".
Everything here depends on faith
The transition from press to art photography was gradual, and prompted in part by the death of Herman's son, Yair, in a car accident on the road leading to Nataf in 2000. "As if to make sure we won't forget Yair on the deepest level. I don’t know whether too many bereaved parents would dare to say this, but in your daily life, sometimes you find that you are not connected to your personal grief, or necessarily remember your dead son or daughter. The road to Nataf reminds me of Yair, and I believe it’s no coincidence that he was killed there of all places.
"I am not a religious person, but I am a great believer, and I think nothing happens by chance, and everything has a role to play in our existence. It's part of my nature. I always have this yearning to hear inner resonance. Photographers hunt for moments, and I feel that I am hunting for moments while constantly being aware of the fact that there is something beyond them. Life is the tip of the iceberg, and as a photographer, I take snapshots of the tip of that iceberg, but I also know that there is something beyond it".
For nine years, following Yair's death, he hardly pulled his camera out. In 2009, he went back to taking pictures, this time finding himself walking the streets of south Tel Aviv. Since then, he has become a photo-artist with a blog called Domains of the Heart. In addition to the photographs he has on display at the Israel Museum, two exhibitions of his have recently opened: Bamakom [In the Place] – a traveling exhibition currently in the United States featuring 48 images from Israeli daily life; and an artist's wall in a shared Tel Aviv gallery in which he is a member, called Makom Leomanut or Artspace Tel Aviv.
"In 2009 I felt true thirst for photography, and when I arrived in Tel Aviv, something changed inside me. Distance was replaced by proximity, intimacy. I sought dialogue with people, met people, introduced myself and said I would be happy to take their picture. That was how worlds opened, connections were made, and all this contact with young people in Tel Aviv, the ability to create, and photograph, and write, filled me with joy. Yair's death prompted me to open my heart to something that, although was out there before then, was hidden deep inside: love, respect for mankind, attention to places in which I am not respectful."
"If, for instance, as a photojournalist, I would take people's picture even without their knowledge in all sorts of situations, these days, a key part of my experience as a photographer is the encounter, the conversation with the person being photographed, asking for permission, making contact. I want to create the connection and obtain consent. The photographs I take are of people I know, that I have come to know through photography, on this journey through Levinsky and Florentine. I have obtained their consent, and gained their trust".
Take me with you on such a photographic journey. What happens there?
"I drive around south Tel Aviv, reach Levinsky, and sit in a small café. I see that there's good lighting and a nice atmosphere, and at one table I see a nice couple. I give them my business card, and ask whether I can take their picture. In most cases the answer is: 'Go for it'. After this short negotiation I sit down and eat, and see them start talking amongst themselves, having forgotten all about me. Now most press photographers would say: 'You've missed the crucial moment', and it's true – I often do. When you see an interesting situation on the street and snap a shot right away, then you've caught the crucial moment. But I prefer to let it pass, in a kind of deep ability to let go. It's not always easy, but I do this exercise with myself – trusting that another crucial moment is about to follow, that the next one is sure to arrive".
It requires tremendous faith.
"Tremendous faith, yes. Everything here depends on faith".
Encouraging people to observe
And what brings you to photograph a couple you see?
"I feel this intimacy between them, not necessarily in the frame eventually perpetuated, but in everything this couple represents. Behind all that is visible, there is a hidden world, and I guess I discover something inside me that was hidden too. I take pictures of the visible, the couple, and the image also contains that hidden aspect. Those looking at the photograph get this hidden aspect back, even if they cannot put it into words, and it's very powerful.
"If I come from a place of love, and that is where my photography comes from, those who look at the photograph get it even if they don’t understand it, or conceptualize it. Something inside them meets a sort of depth there, in the image, and they can connect to the emotion that drove me to take that picture. Those are the kind of seeds I wish to plant in reality – how this story is told, about proximity and intimacy, to people who wake up in the morning to a tough reality, who lose their confidence and faith in the beyond. Such an image reminds them, if only for a second, that there was a beat in that moment captured by the camera, that there is nothing greater than the everyday; if only we learn to live it with dignity, reality will change.
"There's a side of me that says it's no more than a drop in the ocean – people see an image, and immediately return to their hardships, and forget all about it. But something inside me knows that if you aim for and desire it, the object of your desire will wait there for you. If we were truly honest with ourselves, we would realize that we were here to learn from one another, not just compete with each other, and be jealous of one another."
Is that what you are trying to convey through your images?
"First and foremost I would like to encourage people to observe. Here is an untainted, non-staged moment, a genuine display of connection between people, that the photographer witnesses without intervening, while those present allow the photographer to observe them with tremendous trust. It brings back a fundamental layer of trust into our reality. With all the commercials and Photoshop tampering, contrary to our need to look beautiful like supermodels, here is a street image that takes you somewhere else entirely. I liken it to poetry reading. An ordinary text passes you by, but when you read a poem, something happens inside you. In that respect, I see myself as a photo-poet. I take a picture, and my pictures are a form of poetry, a touch of the beyond".
You described how you connect with people through photography. Some would describe photography as the barrier between them and others, as something that stands between them and the experience.
"I suppose that's true too. But I have come to realize that it is a bit like being in a lecture – if I don’t write things and put them into a visual form, I forget them. While being in the lecture, I am also documenting it. The same is true for photography. Perhaps by taking pictures I am in fact summarizing the experience for myself. Yet I have no doubt that in order to be present, on the deepest level, I must get rid of the camera. But the camera is extremely helpful to me, as a person who constantly absorbs things. It helps me capture something precise, and I also feel that I don’t always need the entire story – in order to experience something, its essence is enough for me, and photographs are the essence".