“Photograph what you want” was the instruction given to Nora Savosnick while working as an intern for Israel’s leading picture agency, Flash 90. Eager to impress, Nora’s original intention was to capture the Middle Eastern conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but she soon abandoned the idea after been drawn to a new angle – one she found right on of her doorstep.
After stationing herself in the liberal neighbourhood of Florentin, Tel Aviv, for the project, she was surprised to discover a thriving LGBTQ community. “It was normal to see men dressed as women, men holding hands, kissing,” she says. “What shocked me most was to see this environment in the Middle East, which is supposed to be the most dangerous place for homosexuals.”
Feeling inspired, Nora set her sights on capturing this blossoming liberalism, which would lead to her meeting Israel’s first American transgender lone soldier, Aviya Eschenazi. Aviya escaped a turbulent background in America to try her luck in Israel, where she joined the Israeli military aged 26. In Israel, military service is mandatory for both men and women, who all live together when stationed. Subsequently, you get much greater diversity.
“It’s interesting – Trump is talking about not taking transsexual soldiers into the US army, but Israel has been open to this for a long time and there is no stigma surrounding it,” says Nora. “Aviya was completely free to be herself, and nobody in the military judged her for it.”
In the portraits of Aviya, Nora is trying to express the vulnerability that comes with transitioning into another gender. It’s an interesting portrayal: you have this brave, proud and strong woman, yet Nora chose to focus on her vulnerability.
“I tried to get that vulnerable side that comes from this change. She’s not just the tough military chick who can do everything; behind it is a normal human being who’s been through a lot of pain and hurt, but who still fights both literally and metaphorically.”
Nora also followed a drag queen group while in Tel Aviv. They were big, not necessarily good-looking, men who were dressing up as women and walking around the streets. They spent hours and hours on makeup and clothes but didn’t earn a thing from it. That didn’t matter. To Nora, it seemed like an art form, where the goal wasn’t to look like a woman or to look beautiful but to express yourself. And it’s clear that this is one of the best ways to challenge society today – through art.
“I was standing here in a room with five men in bras, who were a lot more feminine than me,” she says. “The process was so interesting. They just seemed so alive. It’s something I’ve never seen before.”
In these pictures, she’s focusing on those feelings of liberation, pride and love within the group. Their attitude of “This is me, and who the fuck cares?” contrasts with the vulnerability she portrays in the strong soldier, but they both share that pride in who they are.
The confidence and defiance of the drag group rubbed off on Nora, which helped her reach her goal of having her own exhibition in Israel. She went from door to door, got “No” a million times, as people repeatedly told her that “Photography isn’t art”. Eventually, she found a gallery and managed to get a solo exhibition. The Norwegian ambassador came and it was covered in a lot of big Israeli newspapers. Now there’s even a gallery in Israel representing her, called Under 1000 Gallery.
At her exhibition, she showed the different lives of people all over the world and how her understanding of their reality is her truth, not theirs: “I don’t portray the people I photograph; I portray my understanding of them. It’s my reality, but it can be a misunderstanding. We need to swallow our pride and open up to the fact that our truth might not necessarily be another person’s truth.”
Indeed, it was the matter of truth which deterred Nora from pursuing her original plan of capturing the tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians. Having been to universities in Israel and Palestine to understand both sides of the conflict, she felt that there wasn’t as much bad blood as the western media had portrayed. She even met a Palestinian activist who had been married to an Israeli Jew for many years.
It is through experiences like this that Nora keeps learning that she will never manage to completely portray what is happening in documentary photography. She is showing her own understanding, and there might not always be credibility in it other than the feeling she is trying to express. “It doesn’t always have to be logic. It doesn’t always have to be reality,” she says.
What we learn through media is just another person’s understanding of something. We need to be open about the fact that something can be wrong or different – like Nora’s image of Israel, which was so different from what she found when she came to the country.
Find out more about Nora Savosnick: