The Hero’s  Soft Spot

Billy Muskuna Lerman

Ma’ariv” Newspaper, 11.2.2000


Before you stands a young man, one could say a sensitive one. Born in Kiryat Gat, he was an instructor in the “Shomer HaTzair” (youth movement), finished his army service, moved to Jerusalem, signed up for Photography studies in “Bezalel”, was a talented student, sensitive, looked for a job and found part-time work in the employment department for disabled ex-servicemen on behalf of the Ministry of Security, and there he met a group of tired and dusty people, not heroic. People with an internal wound, not always visible; mentally wounded, war shocked, girls who were raped in the army and received recognition as disabled army victims, parents who lost their children and ceased functioning. In short, people that army and war had brushed aside, to the edges of life.


For a modest sum, his job was to somehow help them pass the time. In other words, psychotherapy for the poor. He would sit with them three or four times a week. One day he met a middle-aged woman. The professional term for her was “bereaved mother”. He remembers a woman full of life who told him the following story simply: “I was baking a cake for my son, he was in the army, he was 20 years old, it was his birthday. I lost track for a moment and the cake burnt in the oven, and when I ran to save it, there was a ring at the door. At the entrance stood an army delegation, my son had gone up in flames, burned alive in a temporary army camp near the Dead Sea”.


This young and sensitive man is called Adi Nes, and day after day he listened to the life stories of those people whose lives were destroyed by our country’s wars.  Nes devoted himself. He helped them write, document, photograph, and gradually, their words soaked into him, seeped into his blood, settled and arose in his thoughts and dreams, until years later, they took the shape of an exhibition focused on soldiers, Israeli Defense Force soldiers, who are at the central foundation of Israeli identity.



Of course, underlying the choice to photograph soldiers is a bursting life. Adi Nes, male, homosexual, asks questions about masculine identity through his photographs, and asks about Israeli masculinity in the state in which he lives, a military state.


A homosexual who photographs soldiers can provoke and irritate the narrow minded, the conservative, the complacent, the self-assured. Knock on wood, how dare he (we have heard them do so); it is these very same confident know-it-alls who used to be officers and are supposed to be running our lives today who should visit Adi Nes’ exhibition. The exhibition is surprising, beautiful, poetic.


Make no mistake, Adi Nes has no interest in angering anyone. He doesn’t believe in shocking. With his characteristic gentleness, he succeeds in quietly, subtly and wisely, opening a door to a new option, showing that nothing is just black and white; that the soldier now smiling in the photograph could be wounded a moment later.


In Adi Nes’ photograph, you see a powerful soldier, he is adventurous and determined, but you have another possibility. Nes succeeds in showing something else. Look, he seems to say, this soldier, indeed every soldier, has a soft belly.


In 1993, during Israel’s first Gay Pride Week, there was a small festival in Shenkin Street in Tel-Aviv. A closet was placed amongst the stands. A soldier had his picture taken beside the closet and his photograph was published in the newspaper “Hadashot”. The soldier’s name was Yossi MaKayton, and his became a news story and made an impact on the path marked years later by the young photographer Adi Nes. 


The homosexual soldier who was photographed in his army uniform beside the closet was judged, thrown into jail,  thrown out of the army. “I was enraged,” says Nes. The army took its values and forced them onto the civilians of Shenkin Street”.


This incident raised Nes’ first questions about the place of the army in our lives. What is the connection between army, masculinity and homosexuality; questions which became photographs which became exhibitions, which received prizes and were displayed in museums and leading galleries in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and New York.


Nes knew that he was different from a young age, and had always looked for soul mates. “In Kiryat Gat, to say “homo” was like saying transvestite, it was as bad as spitting”. He can’t remember himself looking for physical contact, rather for emotional intimacy. He needed to talk, to ponder, debate. And at the same time, he was always drawn to the kibbutzniks, the sportsmen, those who were clearly to later become pilots.


In his class, there was an outstanding potential ‘pilot’, the most successful, the handsomest, the most sporty and talented. “Let’s say it straight,” says Nes. “I was in love with him. Over the years he became a pilot and I became a flight supervisor. We served together. The watchtower I served in was small, a phallus rising into the air, it was called the “Kedem Tower”. There was a story that years before, a pilot who hadn’t received permission to land had gone up to the tower to see what had happened and caught the male and female flight supervisors sleeping together, so he said: “From now on there will be only men in the tower”. And that began the big awakening.


“We were a few men on the edge of the desert, in a small and intimate place, and there began the discussions on homosexuality, on the possibility of attraction to boys, the repression of that attraction. I said to myself, I want to photograph my beautiful pilot, the one I am in love with, and I asked him for his uniform. I took it home and wore it, with his smell, his sweat, I felt ecstatically happy. Afterwards, I worked on the photograph, I used a model and photographed him doing a handstand, flexible and beautiful, firm and powerful muscles, and out of that strength, his shirt falls away to reveal his stomach. And who exposed his stomach? I did, the photographer. Because I can see the option which he can’t”.


Each of Adi Nes’ photographs is produced with pedantic attention to detail. He will work on a photograph for months, sometimes years at a time, choosing the precise location, the actor, the props, the lighting. A photo shoot is like a production, built on split seconds because of the light and its changes. There is a producer, food catering, an equipment manager, a certain hour of the day, a certain light, a particular setting.


The photo shoot lasts all day, a long quiet day during which no shout or other unpleasant tone is heard. People who have seen him at work say  that his face is lit up, radiant. Sometimes it isn’t even him who photographs, he just stages every detail and at the right split second he signals to his assistant to shoot.


Such as “The Last Supper”, a particularly large photograph – 1.67 m by 2.73 m - which was specially printed in New York. Its production lasted two years and the cost, which reached $7,000 was made possible by the prize from the Minister of Science which he received one month ago.    


Nine photographs, simultaneously sharp, poetic, piercing and soft, were chosen to hang on the walls of the Dvir Gallery in Tel-Aviv in Nes’ exhibition which will open next Thursday. One photo, I must admit, had me mesmerized for one long hour. I stared at a soldier dancing alone in a shaft of light. He is carrying a heavy knapsack on his shoulder. A soldier on his way home with a backpack full of sweaty clothes, a familiar sight. Nes’ photography removes the picture from its familiar routine, and depicts the soldier in a private moment, fantastic, lyrical, erotic. A soldier returning home, marching along an asphalt road, captured in movement by the camera, dancing in a stream of light, perhaps  happy to be on his way home.


Mesmerized, I asked him what inspired this photograph, and he answered: “In my youth, I dreamt that I was living with a traveling circus family and my father was training me to walk a high rope. It was very scary, and I was walking along the rope and my father said to me in English: ‘Go straight, go straight’, I can see him standing before me sketching a straight line in the sand and signaling that I should follow his line. Straight forward. And I understood that I wasn’t allowed to go left or right because my father kept telling me to go straight, although he lived in Kiryat Gat and didn’t speak a word of English. I only understood what he had said years later. He was telling me not to stray , to walk straight. I had wanted to walk to the sides, because I understood inside myself that nothing bad would happen if I did.

And this soldier captured in this beam of light is in the same situation. He can see only his path, he is a small cog in the system. He doesn’t want to see more than he sees, he is afraid to look, because if he does perhaps he won’t be able to continue doing what he is doing, which is doing what he is told, fulfilling orders, walking straight forward, not stopping to think or to look sideways”.


This photograph, like the others, was shot at the end of the day in light which could equally have been at the beginning of the day, in no place in particular which could equally have been some place in particular, and the soldiers, like all Nes’ soldiers, are never fighting, they are caught in a private moment, a moment of relaxation, of fantasy.


Or the next photograph, for example, a reconstruction of Yossi Ben-Hanan’s famous photograph in the Suez Canal on the last day of the Six Day War, in which the soldiers jump into the water during a ceasefire and wave their Kalachnikovs in the air. The story is well-known: a photographer from Life Magazine was there and in a split second, captured the picture of the victorious Israeli, which was later published in magazines throughout the world and became a symbol. Nes looks for one moment longer at the photograph, for there was also a seventh day to that war, and he depicts that seventh day in the clenched fists of the soldiers, their faces and muscles clenched forcefully, violently. This is the other face of the handsome and victorious Israeli, whose face will be exposed later, when the Kalachnikov is replaced by an M16, the weapon of the Israeli vanquisher.


Or the next photograph, of five soldiers on a flagpole. This is originally the famous picture of the raised flag in Um Rashrash (Eilat) during the war of Independence. In Nes’ interpretation, the photograph is reconstructed and staged down to the smallest detail: the effort, the climb up the pole, the desert landscape, the dusty clothes, everything is in place except that there is no flag. There are no more values, no more meaning.  The action is repeated, devoid of significance.


Or the photograph of the sleeping soldiers, tired and asleep in the bus. Their eyes are shut, one of them has a spot on his upper lip, their heads are fallen, theirs mouths open and their necks bare (for the slaughter?).

Nes’ view of the soldiers he photographs is not angry, political, critical. On the contrary, his is a look of yearning, desire, and mostly compassion. Compassion for youth, for the bursting hormones, and for the innocence which makes the exploitation possible.


That gentle look, the compassion, I ask him, the look that neither kicks nor annoys anyone, yet opens a door,  where does that come from at such a young age? Adi Nes smiles. “Look,” he says, “when I came to my mother in Kiryat Gat, Hanna Nismov, librarian, who gave birth to me after she had two daughters, and I said to her:  ‘Mum, this is Ilan Sheinfeld, the man I love, and he will be my partner for life’, she looked at me, smiled and said ‘Good, next week we will make a big dinner for the entire family, so that everyone can meet your Ilan’, and that is exactly how it was.


This detail, albeit small, is very important, and moving in its own way. What the librarian Nismov of Kiryat Gat had understood is deeply embedded in her son’s photographs. That understanding which accepts that which we don’t always want to see or hear: mankind contains all opposites; weakness is embedded in power; as rigid as men may be, deep intimacy is possible between them; brave and heroic soldiers are at the same time soft youths, fragile and yearning; all is nature, there is nothing to fear, nothing to fight; just to understand that beauty, complexity and the contradictions within, make up the  waters of life itself.