Same, but different

Letting pictures tell the story

By Chandrea Serebro

Instagram – it’s instant success, instant exposure, like many social media platforms. But, here, its language is in pictures, and it is this visual communication that is quickly making it the fastest growing social network. With over 200 million monthly active users and over 30 billion shared photos, that’s some pull in this world where connections are made online and perceptions formed through photos.

Keeping on the pulse, The SA-Israel Visual Diversity Dialogue, an initiative of the South African Friends of Israel and the Israel Embassy in South Africa, took four popular Instagrammers, two from South Africa and two from Israel, on a journey of discovery into diversity. The aim of the project was to create a “diversity dialogue” between South Africa and Israel using a real-time exchange on Instagram as the basis for creating a more intimate engagement in the form of an upcoming exhibition. The Instagrammers are asked to bring all their fantastic energy and creative flair to help drive the creation of this cross-continental conversation, through the images that they capture and the feelings that they convey.

They all received a call from their respective embassy asking them if they wanted to be part of a cultural exchange programme. It was a “dream offer” that would open their worlds up to the beauty not only of the foreign place they would experience, but to the joys of their own country as seen through the eyes of a stranger, who, like them, can give expression to what that one feels when seeing new things. This giving life to the intangible comes in the form of spools of hauntingly expressive pictures, documenting a different day, in a different place, doing different things.

The project is named #YallaYebo, perfectly summing up the contrasts that lie within the project and the symmetry that could be found within.

Well-known photographer Alexi Portokallis, a South African born to Cypriot parents, grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood in Joburg, and so sees the Jews and Israel, nearby Cyprus, as his neighbour. “Israel was incredible. It was so friendly, fun, modern, and full of fascinating history. It had so many layers to it, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it kept on surprising me. It was so much more than I expected and people were so friendly and welcoming.” Alexi was surprised because his feeling towards Israel was based on the ancientness of its land and the age-old tension and conflict found within her borders. “I expected people to be hostile and unwelcoming.” But, what he found there was different to anything he had expected. “Through my eyes, I only saw diversity. Multiple types of people living their lives – from people of different religions and beliefs to people that seemed like they came from all walks of life. It was interesting to see how secular and diverse Tel Aviv was, while Jerusalem felt like a world city, with so many cultures and religions melting together.”

For Alexander Sasha Rozenson, an urban photographer based in Tel Aviv, South Africa felt more similar to Israel than he could have imagined. “South Africa has many nationalities, cultures, and colours. That’s normal, we’re in the 21st century, and we’re becoming much closer to each other these days than even we might think.” Once there, this image of South Africa was given detail, complexity, and dimension.

Being a photographer that specialises in landscapes, architecture, street, and travel photography, Sasha’s interest in his upcoming trip to South Africa (along with the “childish excitement” he felt) was related to the technical issues of what the cities looked like and how he would shoot them. “But, as soon as I got there, none of it mattered anymore. I was impressed by every little detail: the architecture, colours, smells – everything is foreign there. And the people are incredible – everyone I was lucky enough to meet was open, kind, and authentic. The children are unbelievably beautiful – each one unique, but all equally photogenic – so easy to work with. The food is wow.”

Through his visual posts on Instagram, he believes he changed the image of South Africa in the perceptions of people, judging from the hundreds of messages he received with questions about South Africa looking to dispel the myths received from mass media.

“Images tell a story, and it’s always good to see similarity rather than to talk about it – it’s good to tell it from eyes that haven’t been to Israel,” says Alexi. The power of images – the photograph – is something Israeli Photographer Ella Uzan never would have guessed would become “an obsession”, but her artwork has been displayed in various galleries around the world, in fashion magazines, and online. “My photos endeavour to transmit a particular atmosphere and emotional impact” and, on the trip to South Africa, she realised that nothing can evoke these things more than first-hand experience, and, after that, sharing it with the world. “The most special thing about this project is that we didn’t have guidelines. We were only asked to capture what we see, the truth to the place as seen from our eyes. Because of this, I think that the people who followed our trip could see it in a very authentic way.” This unfiltered experience grabbed people, and the similarity within diversity represented by Israel and South Africa – two countries that share “similar diversities”, says Ella – and how through this they can each help the other, sparked interest worldwide. Like South Africa, Ella’s homeland, Israel, is not always shown in a positive light. “Yes, politics and war is a big part of Israel, but there is so much more to see. That is why this project is so important for both Israel and SA. Most of our knowledge comes from the media. Sometimes this information is full of agendas, so we never know what is really happing. But social media, like Instagram, gives the people who want to show their side – their own truth – a voice.”

Ella saw the true beauty of nature, and the happiest people who were, at the same time, the poorest people she has ever seen. She saw how unique South Africa is, but also how, similar to Israel, the people of South Africa made her feel at home through their warmth. She soaked up the views and the sights, the delicious food, and the perfect weather, so much so that she has great plans for a return trip and future projects here. But not before sharing her experience with the world through her images which are the story of her trip to “one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen”.

This beauty is most often the face the world sees, and this doesn’t only mean South Africa. Every place and even people share only the most positive of their attributes. This is how Miklas Manneke, screenwriter and SAFTA-winning director, felt about Israel before he went. He was unsure what to expect and saw Israel as “a romanticised place because of its connection to history”, but also “a controversial place because of the current political climate”, based on so many “pre-conceived ideas about Israel”. “Much like the misconceptions people have of South Africa,” he says. Israel was a completely unique experience for him. People were extremely inviting and open. Life in Israel had many differences and similarities to South Africa. “I think what stood out to me were the layers of history in every space we visited. How one could just peel back the layers and keep being surprised by events that took place 50 years ago, 1 000 years ago.”

“We went on a photo trip to capture the experience from the perspective of an Instagrammer. Overall, it was extremely inspiring and a place that you just wanted to get lost in with your camera. There was this fusion of people, cultures, religion, and architecture that demanded your attention, from floating weightlessly in the Dead Sea to eating the best shwarma of your life; from the captivating street art to soaking up the Haifa gardens; being greeted by unity and camaraderie, not conflict. There was a huge underlying thoughtfulness towards people. Israel was full of surprises and binaries where people coexist. I think this is something that will always stick with me,” says Miklas.

And the diversity that he found there was overwhelming, which gave him an “adjusted look” that he believes both the South African and the Israeli contingents travelled home with in the end. “Many of my followers reached out to me during and after the trip with questions about Israel, while, at the same time, I had Israelis suggesting local places for me to visit and eat at.”

“There are so many dividing factors in the world – between culture, borders, religions, and politics – but social platforms and the Internet are creating more of a global community,” says Miklas. Platforms like Instagram, he adds, are a great way to allow people to vicariously experience different cultures, people, and places. “Instagram is about community. Instagram is about stories. And, Instagram is about visually telling these stories,” reiterates Alexi, all of which creates dialogue.

“Dialogue is important – we’re humans, and it’s a fundamental part of life. And, when dialogue doesn’t take place, misconceptions occur. To be honest, there is still so much more to be done to communicate the similarities,” says Alexi. “Without dialogue, our society found no other peaceful way to overcome diversity and race issues,” says Sasha. Ella found South Africa to be huge – so many things to see, so many places to visit, so many different people. “It was very interesting to see this mix of cultures. It felt more similar to home than different, notwithstanding the big issues South Africa experiences regarding colour and economics.” And seeing Israel through the eyes of strangers was also an education – “I think they did an excellent job showing how beautiful Israel is” – further adding to the feeling that, as people, as places, we all have our strengths and our weaknesses, but through our diversity we can find common ground easier than we would have thought possible.

“The most important thing to come out of this for me was that there is so much we all share. We all have the same problems, the same histories. We went to the Holocaust museum and it reminded me that we are all humans, and we need to remember that. No matter our background, culture, and lifestyle – and we need to respect people accordingly,” says Alexi.

Check them out on Instagram #YallaYebo #PhotoDialogue

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