Photographing the politics of identity



In works such as a reconstruction of the Pieta -  that replaces Mary holding the dying Jesus  with a wounded IDF soldier lying in his comrade's lap - Adi Nes seeks to provoke a discussion on the issues of male identity and Israeli identity. His beautiful, carefully staged and sometimes controversial photographs have garnered international acclaim


By Lisa N. Goldman


Adi Nes is one of Israels best-known and most respected photographers. His works have appeared in European and American galleries and museums, where they were met with critical acclaim and a great deal of notice by the press. Many of his photographs have become so familiar in Israel that they have all but entered the canon of iconic images. Each of Adi Nes's photographs is planned far in advance and carefully staged in a process that resembles the making of a movie. Models are recruited, locations chosen, sets designed: and the result is a work of art.

Nes, who is 38, got his first big international break in 1998, when his works were included in a special exhibition at New Yorks Jewish Museum. The striking photograph on the advertisement for the exhibition, the one that gained a captive audience of commuters by appearing in practically all the subway trains for several months, showed a Nes photograh that has by now entered the pantheon of Israeli art works: an olive-skinned, bare-chested, muscular soldier stands in profile in the sand outside an army tent; his arm is flexed to show off his substantial bicep. It is night, and he is lit by a hidden spotlight. A tiny crocheted skullcap sits firmly on his head. Look at the details of the photograph: the soft sand on which the strong, muscular soldier stands; the tiny skullcap on his big head; the tent rope that seems almost to cut his shadow; the soft light that suffuses the image of the tough soldier with a sense of homo-eroticism. Is he really so invincible? So macho? Does he fit the mythical image of the Zionist warrior hero?

And look, too, at Nes's reconstruction of The Last Supper. Instead of Jesus and his disciples, uniformed soldiers sit at a long table. The soldier who replaces Jesus stares sadly into the distance and seems disconnected from the soldiers around him, who are laughing, their arms draped over one another's shoulders, lighting each other's cigarettes and pouring tea from the plastic jugs on the table. Unlike the Jesus figure, the "apostles" seem carefree and unaware of any potential danger in their lives. The wall in the background looks flimsy and impermanent; through its perforations one can see greenery and the beginning of the desert. What price the desire of young Israeli men to be gung-ho combat soldiers? What happens once disillusionment sets in? What effect does the army's overwhelming presence have on Israel's soldiers - on her youth?

The use of iconic images borrowed from European art and Greek and Roman art in creating these photographs is intentional. Nes has no problem with the idea of making art accessible. He will happily explain what he meant when he created a certain image; the source of his inspiration; or the method he used to create the photograph. During a recent lecture he gave at a Holon academic college, he narrated a slide show that demonstrated, frame by frame, how he had developed the idea for a certain photograph, and how he staged it. This background knowledge does nothing to detract from viewer's appreciation of Nes's works. In fact, it contributes depth and understanding.

Adi Nes is a homosexual man of Middle Eastern descent who grew up in Kiryat Gat, a development town on Israel's "periphery." One cannot truly understand his body of work without knowing these facts; Nes's identity is informed by his sense of being a sort of outsider in Israeli society, and that in turn has inspired much of his work. He is a gay man living in a macho society; a Mizrahi in a country that tends to place a higher value on Ashkenazi culture; and a product of the working-class development towns that feel cut off from Israel's developed center. His photographs are very much informed by issues of identity, of homo-eroticism and masculinity.

Following the exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, Nes attracted a great deal of interest in the art world. He went on to several solo exhibitions at prominent galleries in New York, Paris and, San Francisco and Tel Aviv, which were given extensive and enthusiastic coverage by the print media. He also won a prestigious prize for photography.

In 2003, Nes was asked by Vogue Hommes International to participate in a large fashion project dedicated to the Middle East, to be published in the magazine's 2003-4 winter edition. Besides Nes, editor Richard Buckley invited photographers from Cairo, Beirut, Istanbul, Ramallah and Kuwait City to submit photographs that represented their view of the Middle East.

While Nes's previous works were preoccupied with soldiers and teenage boys, the theme of the series shot for Vogue Hommes was a prison. But the theme of male identity and homo-eroticism remains. As an illustration of his belief that fashion is a part of real life, Nes chose ordinary people rather than professional models to pose in the expensive designer clothes provided for the shoot.

The photographs are striking: one shows three Chinese men standing side-by-side in front of a concrete wall; natural light filters through the prison bars on the window at the top of the picture. The men are wearing identical red suits designed by Paul Smith, but in this setting the clothes look like a prison uniform. This is Adi Nes's comment on how Israel treats its foreign workers, many of whom come from mainland China. Another photograph shows a teenage boy who looks very Middle Eastern, very much like an Arab, confronting a police officer. The police officer, who wears reflective sunglasses and holds himself with arrogantly macho body language, is taller than the Arab boy; this means that the latter is forced to look up in order to make eye contact, but this does not affect the boys defiant gaze and posture. He wears a Valentino leather jacket, but in this setting it looks like an article of clothing picked up at a flea market.

A third photo from the Vogue series shows a group of men lined up in front of a structure reminiscent of the infamous Ansar prison, which held thousands of Palestinian prisoners during the first intifida; the models are posing as if at a fashion show, but the setting makes them look like participants in a police lineup.

The editor of Vogue Hommes had specified that he did not want the photographs for the Middle East project to be political, yet it was undeniable that Nes's photographs were full of political statements - be they ever so subtle. In order to avoid controversy, Buckley insisted on noting in the article's opening captions that the photographs were staged, and not of real prisons or prisoners.

For all his questions about identity, Adi Nes says firmly that he feels very Israeli. His identification with this country is, he says, based on the connection he feels to the Hebrew language, to the Land of Israel and to the humanistic aspects of Judaism. Would you have anything left to say if you didn't live in Israel? I asked. Nes paused to consider, then said, "I would probably make a lot of photographs about being a foreigner in an unfamiliar society, about the difficulty of fitting in. About identity."