At midday on the last day of the Six-Day War, a Life magazine photographer snapped an Israeli soldier in the waters of the Suez Canal, a smile in his eyes and a Kalachnikov in his hands – spoils of the extolled war. Printed on the cover of the June 1967 edition, this famous picture became the symbol of the strong, victorious Israeli conqueror.
Thirty years later, an Israeli photographer born in that same war, has returned to the famous snapshot. In Adi Nes’s “photo-quote”, the scene is nocturnal and dramatic, like in Gericault’s “Le Radeau de la méduse”. And alongside the handsome paratrooper, other paratroopers burst from the water into a theatrical light that falls on their nude muscular forms, while the soldier’s smile is brushed by terror in the male fraternity closing in on him. The alter ego of today’s soldier peeps from the image of his comrades-in-arms in a turbulent crescendo of male homosexuality. Whereas the original photo was the success symbol of the small and daring State of Israel, this new version divulges the state’s motives and difficulties.
Like Sebastian, the patron saint of archers, Nes’s soldiers and their wars integrate elements of mysticism and lust, ecstasy and eros, victory and defeat – a homo-erotic masculinity in an atmosphere of martyrdom. Nes gazes at his soldiers with both admiration and compassion.
Nes’s work may be deceptive at first glance. This is no casual portrayal of the soldierly experience. Much energy goes into the production and meticulous staging of every detail in scenes that often draw on the history of art or well-known photos etched in collective memory. His photos revolve around a single main theme, the question of identity. St. Sebastian’s mythological image enabled Renaissance artists to treat the male figure at a time that most artists dealt with female nudity. In the same way, the subject of Israeli soldiers allows Adi Nes, an Israeli gay artist, to probe both Israeli and homosexual identity at one and the same time. In so doing, he permits us to look into the private world of one who is part of Israeli reality, a reality that is constantly scrutinizing its identity.
Israeli reality of incessant war and terror attacks in restaurants and on buses appears below the surface in Nes’s work. His figures are depicted in an air of sadness and compassion. The picture of the soldiers napping on the bus is not innocent, the strong shadows hinting at death. As in the first act of a dramatic play, only parts of guns invade the frame edges while the soldiers’s necks tilt sideways as if waiting for the hangman, and all are being conveyed like sheep to the slaughter.
The sacrifice of Sebastian recalls Christ’s crucifixion; both are symbols of tortured martyrs. Adi Nes, in his work, employs a blatant manipulation. At first glance, the pair of soldiers photographed seem to be caught up in a heroic situation – the one supporting and succoring a wounded comrade. But a closer look shows that Nes has staged the Pieta (the dead Christ mourned by Mary). Mary’s place, however, is taken by a soldier holding a make-up brush, while the wounds of the soldier in Christ’s pose seem to emanate from an open make-up kit reminiscent of an artist’s palette. Manhood is portrayed here as a designer product, in religious context (man’s self-sacrifice to save the world), while touching on the homosexual context and male fraternity.
Christianity, like all religions and cultures, requires mythical heroes such as Sebastian. “Israeli-ness”, too, in its formative stages needed heroes – male models of self-sacrifice for the general good. Adi Nes, like all Israelis, served in the army and may, perhaps, be viewed as one of the soldiers he photographed. Sebastian, in Adi Nes’s photographs, is the self-aware, self-sacrificing artist, coercing and coerced by the arrows of those he is meant to protect, seducing and seduced, instigating and insurgent.
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Ilan Sheinfeld is an established Hebrew writer.