by Steve Bisson

© Oded Balilty from the series ‘Hide & Seek’

Tell me how did you get into photography? What are your memories of your first shots?

Oded Balilty (OD): I started photographing in high school when I studied art and the history of art, as well as the basics of photography. I remember the first shot that I ever took was of the corridor in my school. I was very surprised that everyone in the class took the same photo but each one was different. I then realized that you could have many different looks from the same place. That’s what keeps me photographing today. Sometimes I like to surprise others, but mainly I like to surprise myself.

How has your experience as a photojournalist evolved? What are the moments in your career that you feel are most important?

OB: As a photojournalist, every day I meet different scenes, different people, different stories and different photographers. I’m always in a process of learning and photojournalism is a world that is always developing. Both technically and aesthetically, as well as the mode of storytelling and the way you find those stories. It’s constantly changing. I always feel like I am gambling. In photojournalism, there are many times that I find myself with other photographers at events. I don’t like being where everyone else is because I like to show a different angle. The moments that I feel are very important to me are the ones that, at the end of the day, I felt that I had made the right decision. For me, photography is made up of many decisions, especially in photojournalism when you are not allowed to touch, stage, or manipulate in any way. You need to follow the photojournalism ethics and all that is left for you to do is make decisions.

© Oded Balilty, an Israeli army video explains how to use a gas mask at a distribution center in Tel Aviv’

The list of awards you have achieved in recent years is truly remarkable. The Pulitzer Prize is certainly an important recognition. Tell us about that photograph?

OB: The evacuation of the Amona outpost was in January 2006 after the disengagement from Gaza and Northern Samaria in the summer of 2005. The settlers felt that they didn’t resist enough during the previous disengagements so thousands came to the evacuation of Amona to try to block the police and army from evacuating the outpost, which was only 9 houses next to the settlement of Amona. It was very violent, which it hadn’t been during the previous summer. 

© Oded Balilty for The Associated Press

We were 3 AP photographers there and we worked as a team. We separated into 3 different posts in the outpost so that we wouldn’t have similar photos and so, as a team, we could cover the story with a wider range. And there was one moment when the center of the event was happening and all the photographers ran to that spot and myself as well. I saw another AP photographer there so I decided that it was not smart to have two photographers for the same agency at the same spot because we might miss a moment in another area. So I left that spot even though it was the most interesting scene at that moment and went to the other side of the outpost. There, I saw a lot of riot police marching in lines into the outpost from the other side. And I saw, from the other side, one very anxious girl. Suddenly she started to run toward the police and she ran straight into their shields. And that was when I took the photo.

© Oded Balilty for The Associated Press

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about the truth of photojournalism. Manipulated and faked images have been the focus of criticism and debate. What do you think about it?

OB: When I started photojournalism, the first thing that I learned is not to manipulate, stage, or change the natural scene. For me, these things are like the bible and the biggest challenge in photojournalism is just to take yourself somewhere and tell the story with your eyes. As I always say, my favorite movies and books are those based on true stories because I don’t think that there is anything more creative than reality. Our job is to tell the story, not create it.

The constant technological development and the explosion of images through the Internet are two issues that affect the panorama of photography. What is your personal impression on the future prospects of this medium, especially for those willing to devote their time to tell stories about what is happening in the world.

OB: I find it interesting that more people are taking pictures today. It doesn’t matter with which format. Once there are more people who are taking pictures, there are also more photography consumers. Cameras and technology are just a tool that each one of us can use to show our perspective of society and the environment around us. I believe that there will always be a difference between professional and amateur photography. I don’t think the amount of people taking pictures will change photography.

© Oded Balilty from the series ‘Israel, Soviet Style’

In some of your works you make specific use of the portrait. As in ‘The Forgotten Jewish Veterans’, or ‘The Stone Throwers’. Both of these series are effective in focusing the attention of the viewer on a precise question. What led you to favor this more staged looking and setting, very different from classic photographic reportage?

OB: When I shoot portraits, it’s more about the person. But through the person, I am telling their stories. I don’t see it as staged photography or that I changed the reality. I wanted to tell the general story through the individuals. These two stories have been told in many different ways so I tried to show something different because the stories are very important. My job is to keep the eyes of the viewers with stories that have been told so many times in many different ways so I did it in a different way.

© Oded Balilty from the series ‘The Forgotten Jewish Veterans’

Needless to say, when it comes to Israel to prevail in public opinion is often the rough and approximate imagery transmitted by the international media. As an Israeli and a photographer what it meant for you, in your daily work.

OB: From the outside, people only see this place as a conflict zone but there is normal life here as well. And I wish that the top stories in our newspapers were that the fire department helped a cat get of a tree like in some other countries. But that is not our reality. Many times I try to show the daily lives and stories here that are not related to the conflict to put some balance.

How do you combine your work as a photojournalist with your personal research? What kind of dialogue exists between these forms of experience?

OB: Many times I feel like I am two different photographers. My personal photography is like therapy. And the big difference for me is when I shoot personal stories, I am telling my story through many different objects. In photojournalism, I am telling other people’s stories. I don’t think I could choose only one kind of photography. I think they influence each other and one cannot exist without the other.

© Oded Balilty from the series ‘Marginal Notes’

Tell us about the project ‘Sabra Traces’

OB: In this project, I connected, literally, to my roots and the roots of my photography. I was looking back to why I started photographing, which is because I love to travel around, to show the beauty of the simplicity in the things that are right in front of us and which we often forget. It has also connected me to my roots as an Israeli. I’ve been working for AP, which is an international news outlet, for almost 15 years and I am always looking at what is outside. Every time that there was a war, conflict or any major disaster, my instinct was to run over there and I tended to forget about myself here. Through this project I began to look right outside my backyard and not investigate but rather work around one very specific object. That has connected me to myself and myself as a photographer. 

It also talks about how Israelis have forgotten about the real sabra and their roots and behavior. As a child, I always saw Israelis as unique for this reason. In the last 10 years, or maybe since growing up and understanding life here as I mature, I see that there is more of an Americanization and we have forgotten the sabra. It’s a very personal project but I think it can speak to every Israeli that was born here and is a real sabra. It is also for the next generations, those who don’t really know the sabra. They know the plants and the fruits but they don’t know the real, deep meaning of it. They know that sabras mean someone that was born in Israel. But the sabras I know were the generation before me, the people who actually built this country. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.

© Oded Balilty from the series ‘Sabra Traces’

What are you working on lately, what is your perspective as a photographer?

OB: I am now starting a new project that will combine my photojournalism and personal work. It will be exhibited in mid-2017.

What books have you read recently that you liked and why? 

OB: Right now I am reading ‘A Woman In The Dunes’ by Kōbō Abe.

© Woman in the Dunes (1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara; Cinematographer: Hiroshi Segawa)

An interesting exhibition you recently viewed?

OB: The gallery that has impressed me the most in recent years is Pier 24 Gallery in San Francisco. I highly recommend it.


Oded Balilty