Street Photography in Jerusalem

I have always wanted to take interesting photos of people, photos which are unstaged, capturing a moment, a tiny drama of everyday life. I’ve not been good at this. I’m afraid that I’m invading peoples’ privacy, that they will feel I’m stealing something from them.

I’ve learned that these two fears may be true, but only if I, as the photographer, am outside the picture. That’s the key to good street photography; being part of the street.

We practise this idea for a while. The wide street is car-free, but serviced by a tram running down it’s centre.

‘Look’, says Ouria, the local photographer who is taking me on this street photography session, ‘See that man in the hat, waiting at the tram stop on the other side? He’s playing the accordion. Wait for the next tram. Take a photo of him through the tram.’

Seconds later a tram eases to a holt. I stand by the window and raise my camera, trying to ignore the passengers alighting. I feel odd but the effect is interesting. Not only have I captured a glimpse of the accordion player, but I’m in the picture too.

We head into the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Shearim.

‘I don’t know why but I’m nervous about this’, I say to Ouria. ‘It doesn’t seem fair somehow. Won’t the people mind?’

He laughs a little. ‘They will know we are not of the community, but we look more or less like people around here, with your long black skirt and elbow length shirt and with my beard and slightly religious-looked (softly peaked) cap. They will notice and then they will not notice. We will not blend in but they will not think about us for too long. They will not worry about it. Some might cover their faces and one or two might say something. But we are not hurting them’.

‘And they will not hurt us?’ I am surprised by my question; I’m not in the habit of thinking that people are a danger to me. I remembered Jewish friends on the dig at Beth Saida who described having stones thrown at their car for driving into Old Jerusalem on the Sabbath.

‘No, they will not hurt us’.

The narrow street was lined with sandstone buildings, the windows protected by ornate iron work. Tangled in the ironwork of one such window we find a sleepy cat and I take a photo of its pink upturned feet. It feels braver than trying to take photos of people.

But turning down another street suddenly there is a throng of men, bearded, ear-locked, black coated. They come singly and then in pairs, hurrying down the street towards the Western Wall.

‘Stand here, in the middle of the street. Create your frame. Raise your camera and take the picture’.

I can’t.

The uncertainty and doubt is back. These are just men walking down the street, minding their own business. Suddenly they come upon two photographers aiming cameras at them. Do they want their photos taken? Do they mind?

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? I’m not leaping out from behind a pole to snatch away their right to walk down the street in peace. I’m right here, in full view, in the middle of the road between stationery cars, just another part of the streetscape.

Photographers talk about making pictures rather than taking them. I like this notion. Not only does it make me feel better about taking photos of total strangers, but it makes me feel as if I am creating something, there is an important point to what I am doing. I’m part of it now.

Cars begin to come to a standstill in the little street, blocked by some unseen obstacle over the hill.

‘Oh well, this is not good for us’, I say to Ouria.

‘No, this is very good for us. Now they are concentrating on the traffic jam. They are not worried about what we are doing’.

I take a breath and step back into the street, raise my camera and press the shutter release with a click that I’m certain sounds like a clanging cymbal. Nobody takes a blind bit of notice.

We make pictures, the men and me. They float past, a mass of flapping black coats and swinging ear locks, eyes fixed ahead. They don’t care about me. They barely look in my direction. They are focussed only on where they are headed.

We think we are so important in others’ lives. But in general, in the minutiae of their daily lives, people are actually much more concerned with their own business to take much notice of what is going on around them. Together, the men and I have captured their moment of determination, their desire to reach their destination.

For me, this is the appeal of street photography, of making pictures of complete strangers. It’s stopping to experience a tiny insight into another person’s life. We see people rushing about through their day, as we rush through ours. We don’t stop to think about who they are or where they are going.

But a photograph makes you stop, if you choose to. Stop and look. Wonder, question, interpret.

We turn and head down the hill, in the direction the men have gone. The streets are hot and seemingly empty. We find a shady tree on a corner next to a tiny garden fenced in with an ornate ironwork fence. The uprights form a perfect frame. I compose my picture, check my exposure and settle down to wait.

Ouria advises me to be part of the streetscape. ‘Raise your camera and survey the scene through your viewfinder. Keep pressing the shutter release. The clicks will become part of the sounds of the street’.

People walk past, framing themselves in the fence. One man, black-coat tight across his stomach and frothy white beard beneath his big-hat, stood for some minutes staring up at something on the wall out of our line of vision. I pressed the shutter release and he turned, looking directly into my lens.

Instead of jumping back guiltily, I kept the camera to my eye, looking at him looking at me. I was completely in the moment.

Me and the camera and the man. All of us creating the story of that moment in the street.

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Salsa, Chinese-Style

Even before I’d heard of the Eurovision Song Contest I’d hold its dance equivalent in my bedroom before tea on Sunday afternoons.  Dressing my nine year old self in a weird combination of clothes, “Maria from Italy” or “Tatiana representing Russia” would prance around the room performing what I imagined was the national dance of those countries until my mother called me for boiled eggs and toast.  Since then I’ve been fascinated by the cultural dances of the world, so it was inevitable that I would take salsa dance classes while living in Huhehaote, capital city of Inner Mongolia, China.

It took a while to find the Love Sport Gym, located as it is among the food court of the Hailiang Shopping Plaza.  Perhaps they hope to attract guilty over-indulgers.  Finally I found it, lodged between the noodle soup place and a posh restaurant serving brown slimy things from the sea.  Tiger Wang, the sales manager, was most helpful and before I knew it I had parted with several thousand yuan for sixteen months membership of the smartest sports club in town.  The dance class schedule was exciting; belly dance on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Latin on Saturdays and best of all, Mongolian on Sunday afternoons. 

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m any good at dance, just because I’ve attempted various stylizations such as flamenco, salsa, Greek circle dancing and a little bollywood (I’ve also learned basic Arabic drumming).  I just enjoy the rhythms and the movements and the insight gained into that culture.    I don’t relish going to the gym but taking a dance class after a boring workout gives me the impetus I need.  It’s a good way to make new friends too, even if we’re still on smiling and nodding terms.  I can also count to eight in Chinese. 

For Chinese people, taking a dance class is all about exercise and discipline.  Classes for the interested amateur are serious business.  Learning the steps and performing them correctly is the goal, any actual fun had in the process is secondary.  The Latin dance class is a good example.  Our teacher is a tall, lean woman in a short black skirt and grey leggings and an animal print top.  She stares belligerently at us, lecturing us and stopping the music at each error for further correction.  The students stand in military rows.  There are no men and absolutely no partnering up.  We learn two steps in the whole hour. 

It is not fun. 

Not speaking Chinese, I leave each class with a cricked neck from straining to see the teacher.  I am always two beats behind.  With the exception of a couple of other ’40-something’ ladies, most students are flexible young girls in their twenties.  ‘Tatiana from Russia’ is nowhere to be seen as I strive to keep upper body stiff, my legs straight and my wide western hips under control in a very stiff, rather forced form of Latin dance.

I asked a friend to help me speak to the teacher after the class.  ‘So, where do people go in Huhehaote to dance salsa socially?  I mean, for fun?  You know, practice the steps we have learned?’ 

A lengthy and heated conversation takes place between the teacher and my interpreter who finally turns to me and says, ‘There isn’t’. 

‘But what did she actually say?’   

‘There is nowhere you can go.  Well, maybe there are some dance halls but these are for people of…bad reputation…it could be dangerous for you…’ 

‘I don’t mind!  I don’t want to talk to them.  I just want to dance with them!’ 

It was hopeless.  People in Huhehaote do not dance for pleasure. 

On a trip to the city of Guangzhou in southern Guangdong province I spent a morning walking the shady boulevards of Yue Xiu Park.  Turning a corner, Latin rhythms drew me up the hill.  My heart skipped a beat.  Salsa!  A group of ladies (and some gentlemen) were dancing together and taking it very seriously. Faces expressed concentration, limbs moved with precision; there was little eye contact between the dancers. This was not dancing from the heart, it was dancing for the heart, like aerobics. Like so many things in China this activity was for self-improvement, keep-fit for the elderly.

Nonetheless I joined a congo line doing the rabbit dance, the simple repetitive steps mimicking the catchy tune. It was fun. We laughed at the silly dance, even if it wasn’t salsa.

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