Krakow Film Festival 2024

Seven decades of war photography

PHOTOGRAPHY / The pictures of Israeli photo reporter Micha Bar-Am reveal both an ability to turn photography into a refined visual language and represent a constant protagonist in a land without peace.
Director: Ran Tal
Producer: Sarig Peker, Ran Tal
Country: Israel, UK, USA

Micha Bar-Am has shot around half a million images in the seven decades he has been working as a photographer.

The Berlin-born Israeli photographer, now 91, has chronicled the struggles of his adoptive country to maintain its territorial integrity and protect its people through wars and conflicts that encompass – and extend either side beyond – the Six-Day War of 1967, Yom Kippur in 1973, and the 1982 incursion by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) into Lebanon (known at the time as Operation Peace in Galilee).

A photographer since 1968 for Magnum – the agency founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert – Bar-Am has lived up to Capa’s famous dictum «if your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.»

Micha Bar-Am
1341 Frames of Love and War, a film by Ran Tal © Micha Bar-Am. Courtesy of the photographer

From the archive

Award-winning Israeli director, Ran Tal, has made the first-ever feature-length documentary about Bar-Am: 1341 Frames of Love and War, which has its World Premiere Sunday (February 13) at the 72nd edition of the Berlinale.

An emotionally powerful study of Bar-Am’s life story seen through a selection of images from his archive – to which Tal was given exclusive access – 1341 Frames of Love and War charts the life of a man who describes himself as an «aggressive optimist».

It traces that life from a privileged childhood in Berlin of the 1930s, via 16mm ciné footage – shot by a father Bar-Am describes as a «typical Berlin playboy» – through the family’s emigration to Israel in 1936 (just a year after the Nazi «Nuremberg Laws» that began to tighten the grip on Jews that would eventually lead to the «Final Solution» and the Holocaust), to Micha’s adoption in the 1950s of a new Israeli identity (Bar-Am translates as «Son of the Nation») through his subsequent career as a photographer.

The film – entirely composed of images from Bar-Am’s archive and interviews with Micha, his wife Orna, and their sons in voiceover – opens with a strangely compelling and emotive black and white still of Israeli sand-bagged defensive breastworks almost empty of any human presence.

The image – evocative of the work of British war photographer Roger Fenton (1819-1869) in the Crimean War of the mid-1850s – sets the stage for a tour-de-force through the endemic violence that has gripped Israel and its neighbours for so long.

a tour-de-force through the endemic violence that has gripped Israel and its neighbours for so long.

The centre of the storm

As a staff photographer for the IDF for several years before going freelance in 1968, Bar-Am was at the centre of that maelstrom.

«I did not follow wars, did not search for anything but an interesting, exciting way to live; as it happened, I also made a living with this,» Bar-Am says, speaking via Zoom from Tel Aviv.

A tall, bearded man, who now rarely takes photographs but spends his days working with his massive archive – long organised by his dedicated wife of more than 60 years, Orna – he counts American photojournalist Walter Evans (1903-1975) and American writer, journalist and social activist Jack London (1876-1916) among his influences.

«I am self-taught as far as photograph [is concerned], but in 1936 when I opened my eyes in Israel, two things happened – the Spanish War and our clash with our Arab neighbours – you [were] always getting images of violent scenes,» he says, speaking in lightly accented, fluent English.

«Robert Capa went to Spain that same year. We had relatives in the U.S. and England sending us a magazine with images of real photojournalism… this impressed me. I think maybe this is when I decided to become a photographer. But this happened only much later. Walter Evans and Jack London impressed me very much.»

There have been «all kinds of influences; it all turns into one style or statement, and then you have to have a director who comes along and puts all this together, and it turns out you have recorded a slice of history.»

He adds: «I cannot complain. I am living in interesting times; not always happy but very exciting.»

1341 Frames of Love and War, a film by Ran Tal
1341 Frames of Love and War, a film by Ran Tal

Iconic images

For viewers with a keen eye to history and photography, other influences are evident in this deeply moving study of a man who also spent 24 years (1968-1992) as the New York Times photographic correspondent in Israel.

An Israeli soldier falling on a desert battlefield during Yom Kippur is evocative of Robert Capa’s famously controversial 1936 image of a Spanish Republican soldier, caught arms flung wide, as bullet pierce his body during an attack.

Or the image that Bar-Am now feels deeply uncomfortable with: the IDF troops pictured standing over the bodies of dead Palestine Liberation Organisation fighters at a place called Banana’s Crater.

The dead men are all barefoot, their shoes placed at a distance in neat piles. It is clear, Bar-Am says in the film, that they were likely interrogated, then being of no further use and a hindrance to the IDF unit, shot in cold blood.

There is another image that this evokes – although the pictures Soviet war photographer Yevgeny Khaldei (1917-1997; like Bar-Am, also Jewish) captured in a park in Vienna in the spring of 1945, which show Soviet staff officers looking aghast the dead body of a Nazi officer, his wife, daughter and son sprawled on a park bench nearby – clearly shot before he blew his own brain out – has an entirely different moral register.

Other images – such as people being rescued by helicopter from a blazing building in Tel Aviv in the early 1960s – predate by a decade the images captured by Dutch photographer Hugh Van Es (1941-2009) of the panicked evacuation of the U.S embassy in Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in April 1975.

After he photographed the bodies of primarily Palestinian and Lebanese Shiite refugees massacred by members of a Lebanese Christian militia in the Sabra district of Beirut and the nearby Shatila camp, Bar-Am – who in the film describes it as «some kind of insanity… like witnessing the Holocaust» turned to drink for a period, and never again photographed another atrocity.

Asked if such dark images achieve anything – or if photography can be used to bring people together rather than (as news images so often do) record extreme violence – Bar-Am says:

«I don’t exactly know how to answer – but one has to keep searching in order to have some content[ment] in his or her life.

«I am still trying to decipher my archive and to understand what I was drawn to photograph – to understand reality – at the same time [I] keep hoping for things to be better.»

He concludes: «I am not sure that photography can change very much; you have to keep looking for some positive things. I hope that some of the images are hopeful.»

Bar-Am’s optimism – perhaps less aggressive and more tempered by the years – comes up again on prospects for peace in the Middle East.

«I think you have to keep optimistic to survive.… you have to keep hoping. Even if it does not always look always very near and possible, I think the actual decision to be an optimist is important. It is a rational decision… it is not just what is happening to you. Don’t give up hope.»

«I think you have to keep optimistic to survive…»

In the face of darkness

Ran Tal uses 1341 Frames of Love and War to pose a similar question: how did Bar-Am continue working around such violence in the face of such darkness? Did he ever consider covering both sides of the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflicts?

In the film, Bar-Am does not answer, leaving it to Orna to leap into his defense and explain that you cannot be in two places at once. But over Zoom, he does address the question.

«You have to feel close or at least sympathy – even with the other side. And that happened to me more than once,» he remarks. «And it is true your life asks you to identify with one side … of which you are part. You cannot identify with two sides.»

Orna jumps in again to repeat her line, saying it was «very hard» to get to the other side to take photos physically.

The idea of choosing one side or the other comes up again when she explains her decision to give up her career as an artist (she is a painter and sculptor) to support her husband.

«I had to decide what to do with my life, and I decided to work with Micha to help him with my knowledge in the world of art, and support the family and have my children be happy. I chose one side. You cannot be on both sides – you have to decide one side and be happy.»

Micha adds: «Every photographer needs a spouse, wife or partner, who is better organised, that can make something out of [an archive]. I am lucky that Orna is digging into our life and making an interesting story out of it.»

As the film of his remarkable life and images bows in Berlin, he is working on a project that he describes as «giving people their faces back.»

What does he mean?

«By taking the faces of people, you are doing an aggressive act,» he observes. «You take [photos of] their faces – often, without asking them.

«But on the other hand, it is a very interesting experience for you to try and go behind the face…When you have few hundred faces, it also gives the face of the place.»

Now he is gathering portraits, what he calls selecting «the raisins [sic] of the faces.»

He adds: «I am very interested in the facial expression – it adds up to a larger image. Sometimes I took the face of somebody without asking. I am now in the process of giving the face back to people to do something else with.»

Although he rarely takes photos these days, when asked if he has a favourite image or series, Bar-Am – who captured on film the birth of his first son, creating a sensation in Israel at the time – pauses, before remarking, «I hope still to get one!»

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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