By Janet Alexander–
This month marks the one year anniversary of Israeli photographer Gil Lavi’s move to New York. For our photographer of the week, leaving behind a studio in Tel Aviv that overlooked the Mediterranean was not an easy decision, but Gil had become a big fish in a small pond, “the scale of things being done in israel was always limiting to an extent.” In fact, it may be said that it is Gil’s outright rejection of limitations that earned him this week’s title, as his images vary widely across different subject matters and aesthetic tones. Having worked as a military photographer and also a brand imagery consultant, Gil’s work spans across photojournalism and commercial photography, but in any case proves emotionally charged, and highly compelling viewing. Gil also doesn’t limit himself to any one camera, and shoots with Canon DSLR’s, Leica’s rangefinders, a Fuji x100, a Mamyia medium format, Horseman Large format, an iPhone 4S and everything in between since, “it all depends what I shoot and what feels right for the mission.”
For how long have you been in new york and why did you move here?
I moved to New York a year ago. I had a very nice studio in Tel Aviv looking to the Mediterranean before. It was fun and being there gave me reach to many international clients and unique experiences, but the scale of things being done in israel was always limiting to an extant, and I would never imagine myself choosing New York as this base. As much as I love the city, American culture is very hard for me to deal with, but from personal reasons, I ended up here, and I decided it was worth staying.
How did you become a military photographer?
From the age of 13, I was writing for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines. I was very frustrated by the images that accompanied my writings. Eventually, I picked up a camera and started shooting myself. My dad, who was an enthusiastic photographer, mostly shot his military experiences over 3 decades. I looked at photography back than as a language. All of a sudden I found out I can use aesthetics to tell a story that everyone, everywhere, would be able to understand. When my time to join the army came I was approached by the Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman unit, but it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. Being raised during most of my childhood by my grandparents, who had survived the Holocaust, I felt a commitment to do what I considered was a more impacting service, and so I joined the combat engineering corp and specialized in explosives. The combat engineering troops are first to march in front when a war opens, and clear the way for the rest, and that was important to me. I injured my knee during an evacuation training from carrying another soldier to the helicopter. After months of physical therapy I was fine, and following a few interviews, the army offered me to serve as the personal photographer for the chief of the ground forces. Of course I said yes.
Tell me about any memorable stories or particular difficulties you remember from your military photography service.
During my time as a military photographer I had unbelievable experiences unlike any other photography job in the world. I have been shooting actual military activities, international exercises, army experiments, and shadowed every chief of army in the world that visited Israel. A normal day was taking off at 4 AM on a plane or helicopter, coming back to base past midnight. I had to maintain full concentration every second of everyday, so as not to miss a single moment. Whether it was a certain gesture of the chief of the American army, or a missile that is about to be fired out of its launcher in a split second, or a troop running and shooting at the targets, I had a responsibility to capture all that, and as the only one that was allowed to do it, I had the responsibility to do it in an unforgettable way. I had this job under three different chiefs of the ground forces and three different chiefs of the general stuff, gaining the trust of them all.
Tell me about your commercial photography and brand imagery consulting studio in Tel Aviv.
In my Tel Aviv studio the work was very diverse. I was shooting commercial work for clients like Knorr, orange, Deloitte, Brinks, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and even one of the ads for Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral campaign. I was also shooting editorial work for Wired UK and Delta Airlines Sky Magazine, portraits for Israel’s top politicians, CEO’s and magazines, and pro-bono work for organizations like the AIDS Task Force, which gained international exposure. Alongside the pure photography work, I also started dealing with developing brand imagery. The first client for this was an Israeli venture capital. I was working with them to own a photographic style. This project led me to work with other financial companies and organizations from Israel, Europe, and the U.S. A few years later, in 2010, the Israeli government hired me to work on Brand Israel, a project led by the ministry of foreign affairs and the prime minister’s office. My varied experience in different fields of photography and imagery development was vital for this project. The government asked me to take seven years of research about the brand of Israel, and transform them into images that will be used to rebrand the state of Israel around the globe.
What defines a Gil Lavi photograph? Any distinctive characteristics?
A Gil Lavi photograph is fresh. It’s not based on anything in photography, but going out of photography to find it’s objectives, style and message. It has a cinematic quality that shows a complex situation in a simplified visualization that can also sometimes bear a resemblance to abstract art.
How do you select your photography subjects?
I don’t believe in photography as a tool of investigating a personal interest of a specific subject. I believe in a photography as the strongest form of communication, and I believe that photographers can and should have a larger moral imperative to make their work matter and accessible. I think that today, especially in the U.S., photographers are way too busy in satisfying lazy photo editors, educators and galleries by making their work as simple, flat, narrow, static and recognizable. I select the subjects for my personal work mostly by where my heart takes me. Sometimes it’s beautiful places, many times it’s difficult, dark places, where things that I can’t agree to are happening.
Can you elaborate on Forbes Magazine recognizing you as one of the 300 most successful Israelis under 40?
Recognition is nice, but a recognition from people that your photography touched them is more valuable to me. One of my projects, After Shock, was focusing on the social reaction and support to the murders of gay teenagers in Tel Aviv. I received letters. The photos triggered feelings that could be felt almost anywhere around the world. I got phone calls from Paris, London and Boston. Success to me is a visual exploration that ends with something meaningful becoming beautiful and intriguing for other people.
What is your favorite aspect of being a professional photographer?
The satisfaction of being able to fluently speak a vital language that everyone around the world can understand and relate to.
Any upcoming projects?
I’m shooting a few commercial projects, concentrating on developing the ideas I have for a new personal project that combines photography with other mediums, and one of the political parties in Israel asked me to shoot their campaign.
How often do you go back to Israel?
I’m heading back to Israel whenever there is an important project or something that I feel is important to participate in. Last month I visited Israel for the opening of Israel’s 2nd Photo Fest.
What do you most enjoy photographing?
I like closing down the distances between everything different in life. My mom is Tunisian, My dad is Czech. Half of my family was deeply religious. Half of it was extremely atheist. I was growing up in a tiny place but was always fascinated by big cities. I think I am most attracted to really explore across experiences. I shoot the implication of war on the urban terrain in Sderot, a city under missile attack from Gaza, but I also shoot the Arab boy holding a plastic gun, but not from a perspective of criticism, but as a victim of the aesthetics of hate. Relating between the disparateness builds the house of images surrounding my mind.