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Faraway, So Close

In a new collection of photographs, 5683 Miles Away, New York-based Israeli expat Yael Ben-Zion looks at everyday life in her homeland with both nostalgia and disillusion

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“Sarah and Yonathan,” from 5683 Miles Away.(Photographs by Yael Ben-Zion, © 2010 Yael Ben-Zion and Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg)

Yael Ben-Zion came to the United States from the small town of Arad, in southern Israel, to study law. A decade later, she’s a New York City-based photographer who trains her lens on the place she left behind. In 5683 Miles Away, her recently published collection of photographs—the title is the distance from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv—Ben-Zion depicts ordinary moments in family and friends’ lives in ways that convey affection but also ambivalence toward her subjects. In one, a mother is lifting a child up into the air, a classic image of maternal affection, while the child’s camouflage onesie reminds us that warfare is never far away in Israel. Other visual clues echo that sense of constant, if peripheral, anxiety, from the emergency-notification system atop a beachside pavilion to the barbed wire that circles the trunk of an old tree. Named a best book of 2010 by Photo-Eye Magazine, 5683 Miles Away was a selected title for the 2011 German Photo Book Award. The photos from the book will be on exhibit from March 2 to May 5 at 92Y’s Weill Art Gallery in Manhattan. Ben-Zion spoke to Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry about her project. [Running time: 12:14.] 

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For years I have puzzled over the fact that I run into, meet, so many Israelis who have moved to the US but still feel so connected to Israel. I had long believed that the tension of living a life so close to rockets, suicide bombers, and surrounding nations filled with hate and a desire to demolish Israel was the explanation. But I was told, the one time I asked a married couple, owners of a deli, why that the real reason was that making a decent living with a decent income was very difficult for many or most Israelis and they went elsewhere because of that. Clearly, too, those seeking work and life in the arts find major cities in Europe and the US a better place for them to get recognition.

Am surprised that Heredim in all their many forms (Chasidim etc), Ethiopian Jews, Jews from Arab countries and Arabs do not make it into any of the photos here. Hope these everyday folk are in the actual exhibit.

Daniella Ashkenazy says:

Here we go again…

What is most striking about Ben-Zion’s work is not a handful of photos with an embedded ‘conflict’ message (all well-framed, some masterfully like “Mirror”.

Most of her photography is outstanding because of the way it captures a mosaic of the different textures of the flotsam and jetsam of the mundane, albeit “very Israeli” – as in “Ceremony” and “Bamba Baby” and “Corner stone”. In terms of her artful mastery of light and shadow as well as texture – “Milk and Cookies” is simply breath-taking.

Alas, everything is in the eyes of the beholder, but again, Tablet chooses to focus obsessively on conflict-driven motifs that are surely not lacking in the book, but certainly are not a major theme, merely a thread in the fabric of Israeli life.

In any case, my impression from visits to the States and living in Israel for 42 years is that children and adults civilians dressed in “camouflaged fatigue” apparel is much more an American phenomenon – not an Israeli one; Ben-Zion’s “Schnitzel” is far more embolic of Israeli life, but that’s not the issue. What is the issue is that, again, readers are treated to subtexts of “Israel as Sparta”.

I strongly suggest others peruse the book themselves for a truer view, via the hyperlink on “photographer” in the copy, or go directly to the book on Ben-Zion’s website:

Carl says:

Question to the interviewer–Why is it a criticism to show Israelis in military uniform? Is there some disgrace in defending ourselves?

I’ve said that least 3180744 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Thanks so much for this. I thought I found lots of excellent stuff here yesterday after spending all day going through this private area.

greater, non-creepy identify for the 90% people that experience reading the content .


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5683 Miles Away

Photographs by Yael Ben-Zion
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