Israel’s largest international photography festival, showcasing photos that express diversity and promote discourse, is on tour and making its southern debut in the predominantly Bedouin city of Rahat this month.
The international festival is considered the “pinnacle of the year” for PHOTO IS:RAEL, a non-profit organization dedicated to “a better society through the language of photography,” PHOTO IS:RAEL Acting Chief Curator Yaara Raz Haklai tells NoCamels. The organization was created in 2012 to realize a vision that includes social action and outreach, creating a dialogue between communities across Israel through art and social themes.
The festival will be part of a major event that includes an outdoor exhibit and two indoor exhibitions on the patio and in the library of the Rahat Community Center. The photography, video, and interdisciplinary works of 34 artists from 20 different countries will be on display until August 14.
The annual event has long been an art institution in Israel that draws tens of thousands of visitors each year. It features works by prominent international photographers, alongside unique archival materials, community outreach programs, lectures, master classes, workshops, and gallery talks.
“For us, photography is the language in which we speak, communicate, and argue. But photography is also a celebration and once a year, we celebrate the International Photography Festival as a platform for all those who use the language of photography to express themselves and foster dialogue between people and countries,” says Raz Haklai.
The festival wasn’t always “on tour,” it became a traveling event due to necessity.
In early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Israel, PHOTO IS:RAEL curators behind the 8th International Photography Festival decided that the annual event, set to take place in Tel Aviv in November, would take on a special format.
“While they understood the challenges of the unusual situation, they also saw it as an opportunity to think outside the box,” explains Raz Haklai.
The curators created a standout outdoor exhibition held in the open air, which was accompanied by a rich program of international lectures and artists on online platforms. The launch of the large-scale photography and multimedia event, free of charge to the public, was a resounding success. Over 80,000 visitors arrived at the venue in the Kikar HaMedina (State Square) plaza and the festival’s accompanying online program enjoyed more than 20,000 views in different media channels.
PHOTO IS:RAEL then decided to take the outdoor exhibition one step further and present it in other cities around the country. It made stops in peripheral cities, where such events are few are far between unlike in Israel’s capital of culture, Tel Aviv.
In February, the photography festival traveled to Central Israeli city Kfar Yona and in June, it made an appearance at the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum in Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot in the north.
Over 200 leading Israeli and international photographers were invited to exhibit their work at the annual festival after the call for submissions last year. A jury of experts spanning a range of artistic genres reviewed the submissions and selected 20 artists for the festival’s central exhibition in Tel Aviv under former chief curator Maya Anner. Fifty additional artists were invited to present their work in front of an audience of professionals at a special screening during the event.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletterSubscribe
In Rahat, Raz Haklai worked on the list of exhibiting artists and the selection for the artistic committee with PHOTO IS:RAEL CEO, Founder, and Director Eyal Landsman.
Transformation, the theme of the festival, is a fitting one as Israel and the world changes rapidly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO IS:RAEL aims to explore the theme “from multiple perspectives, interpretations, and innovative methods of representation” through topics such as birth and death, human and natural worlds, and the digital age.
“When we decided on a theme for the festival almost a year ago, we could not have imagined how relevant it would become in our lives. The open call for the festival was already online when countries all over the world started to shut themselves off one by one. Amidst all the anxiety and uncertainty, we were excited and surprised to keep receiving fascinating and stirring bodies of work on the theme of transformation,” said Anner when she announced the Open Call 2020 winners last year.
But it was important for the team to not put on a pandemic-focused festival, Anner wrote, and they were delighted to find submissions largely did not center on the crisis. Instead, many of the photographers offered diverse and thought-provoking interpretations of the transformation concept. While some explored the impact of political upheaval, others focused on transformation in private lives.
In Rahat, exhibitions depicting local Bedouin identity and tradition were front and center. In “Life In Bedouin Localities in the Negev,” Bedouin photographers like Basma Abu Huti and Sarah Shehadeh explore issues of identity, otherness, the status of women, home, tradition, respect, and social convention.
Shehadeh is a Bedouin artist currently living and working in Arad. Her exhibit, The Voice of Silence, curated by Drorit Chechik, focuses on identity and the cultural and spiritual life of Bedouin and Arab women in Israel as they straddle the boundaries between traditional culture and a desire for progress and self-fulfillment. Her works respond to socio-cultural situations within Arab society from a feminine point of view and invite people to engage in discourse within a changing reality where women’s voices are often dismissed or silenced.
Another exhibit in Rahat, Hope, presents a selection of works by local photographers and graduates of the PHOTO IS: VOICE method instructors’ course offered by PHOTO IS:RAEL this year. The participants have begun to instruct groups made up of youths from Rahat in photography as part of the organization’s social outreach efforts.
In all, 20 international photographers were shortlisted by PHOTO IS:RAEL as finalists for the Meitar Award for Excellence in Photography, a collaboration between the organization and the Zvi and Ofra Meitar Family Fund.
London-based photographer Rhiannon Adam was named the winner and received a $20,000 grant for the publication of a professional photography book.
The other finalists’ works are showcased in Rahat as part of a group exhibit.
The festival includes free guided tours and a children’s scavenger hunt. To learn more head to the PHOTO IS:RAEL workshop and events page.