On Oct. 9, 2013, I set out with a simple task. Actually, make that two tasks. One: Ask interesting-looking, friendly strangers to write down one sentence about themselves, in any language, and then let me take their picture with it. Two: Don’t come off like a crazy person.
Luckily, I have never been someone who feared interactions with strangers. In fact, I have always embraced those interactions as opportunities to grow and learn new things. I was inspired by the work of Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York and wanted to find a similarly intimate way to interact with the people of Jerusalem, making sure, however, that my approach was unique. Thus, with my equally unabashed roommate, we set out on our mission.
Initially, I was surprised by the willingness of the strangers we encountered to open up to us. They all seemed a bit startled by our request, asking us to repeat ourselves to ensure they had heard us correctly. “You want me to write something, about myself? Okay, give me a minute.”
As we captured more and more portraits, however, I was more surprised by those who said no than those who said yes.
The color of marker our subjects selected said something about their personalities. Their handwriting made each portrait uniquely personal. Their messages were beautiful; their stories, nothing short of inspiring.
A French man told us about his wife who had died a month earlier whose wish was that he visit Jerusalem with his daughter, son-in-law and four grandsons. And there they were, fulfilling her wish. A Christian man from Nigeria was making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. An Israeli Jew conveyed his steadfast faith in God and resultant thankfulness for all he had been afforded in life. A woman conveyed her sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians.
Most sentences, however, had absolutely nothing to do with Israel. A young girl was passionate about dance, a young man about world literacy. An officer in the Israel Defense Forces reminded people to love themselves as they love others. An Arab merchant wrote that he loved me and insisted on taking the picture together. A recent high-school graduate told us that she was searching for who she is. A tourist quoted Gandhi, reminding us all to “be the change [we] wish to see in the world.”
My stance on Israel is no secret. I am a Zionistic Jew who spent a semester studying abroad in Jerusalem. In this instance, however, all of that was irrelevant. My aim was neither political nor controversial, but simply humanistic.
Through strangers, I attempted to normalize a culture that is often presented as far from normal. The imagery in the media surrounding Israel is that of war, conflict and a militaristic people. At Penn, we often feel forced to ally ourselves with one faction.
In this case, however, I didn’t have to. I photographed Jews, Christians and Muslims; tourists, citizens and people in between; Zionists and Pro-Palestinians; young students and grandparents.People wrote in Hebrew, English, Arabic, French, Farsi, Spanish, Romanian and Russian. All helped me convey a narrative, one that we called “An Israeli Collective.” We created a Facebook page and were soon sharing our portraits with hundreds of people across the world. Suddenly, the Jewish state, a country rarely portrayed in a positive light, was diverse. It was vibrant and alive.
You may not agree with Israeli settlement policy. Neither do I. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll look at a photograph of a young girl who told us that she “believes that words have incredible strength.” And perhaps, as a writer, you’ll identify with that sentiment. Perhaps you’ll see the photograph of the art student who “sees the world in colors,” and as an artist yourself, you’ll understand her perspective.
Maybe, then, a culture that once seemed so foreign and distant will seem relatable and close. And if that is the case, then my work is done.
Alexandra Friedman is a College junior from Marietta, Ga. studying diplomatic history. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.