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On Portrait Photography, Ethiopia and Emotion | An Interview with Galit Govezensky

October 24, 2016
I met Galit Govezensky on a rooftop in Jaipur, India, almost a year ago now. It was a few days before Diwali and my first day back in India. I had come to photograph, solo, and so had she. We were two girls with big cameras and a big passion to document the world around us. We chatted a little that night and exchanged details.
I meet a lot of photographers on the road and few grab me quite like Galit did. As soon as I saw her portrait work I was blown away by the intensity and intimacy she manages to capture. She too looks primarily for the human spirit, but she does it in a much darker and more exposing way than I do. In her work, you feel the souls of the people whose eyes pierce the camera lens. I continue to be very inspired by her work, and as soon as we set up ROAM I knew I wanted to interview her; to learn more about her photographic process and particularly the projects she has done with Ethiopians and Ethiopians living in Israel, her home country. I chat to her about her photographic background, interest in Anthropology and her experiences photographing in India.
“Sometimes I stay for hours with a person to get the same sense of intimacy for a good portrait, one that tells a story and evokes an emotional response in the viewer. Sometimes the process of photography is more important to me than the final result, so that I can find the different sides in a person, who up until then was a stranger to me.”

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When did you start taking photographs? How did travel influence photography for you?
I started photographing at the age of 23, six years ago, when I was on a long trip in South East Asia. During the trip, I was fascinated by the people and sights that surrounded me and the vast photographic potential they encompassed. Although I had never photographed previously, I contemplated buying a good quality camera. Fortunately, when the pocket camera I had used was ruined after the monsoon rains in Cambodia, the dilemma was solved by itself. A small and local photography shop had an SLR camera which I decided to purchase. That camera changed my life. I began to look at the world from a different and more sensitive angle. From that point on, I experienced that journey and the others in the future through the lens.

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Why is portrait photography a particular passion for you?
I love to travel the world and get to know new cultures. More than the scenery or touristic sites, I like to get to know new places by exposure with the local culture. The camera makes me be active and approach locals, spend time with them, and get to know their customs and way of life even when we do not share a common language. In addition, in my opinion, there is something very personal and exposed in such close-up photography. If the person in front of me is uncomfortable, you can feel it immediately. Sometimes I stay for hours with a person to get the same sense of intimacy for a good portrait, one that tells a story and evokes an emotional response in the viewer. Sometimes the process of photography is more important to me than the final result, so that I can find the different sides in a person, who up until then was a stranger to me.

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You have an educational background in psychology and anthropology. How has this influenced the way you photograph and approach people when traveling?
I started taking photos two years before I began my undergraduate degree. Over time, I had a dilemma over whether to study photography or go in the direction I chose. I am very happy with my decision and I find a close link between my academic curriculum and taking pictures of people, especially portraits. Through my studies and various experiences during my undergraduate degree, I learned that the characteristics and skills necessary to take good portraits are often very similar to those needed to be a sensitive therapist- empathy, patience, the ability to contain the other, and being non-judgmental. I was always fascinated by anthropology and visual ethnography, and these studies magnified my love of photography. During my studies, I discovered that many theories were connected to the geographical world of photography. I had an instructor, Prof. Tova Gamliel, who helped me to develop during my studies and combine my love of anthropology and photography. With her help I participated in projects related to visual anthropology and learned how the camera serves as a tool that helps to break social boundaries and bridges ethnic differences.

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I love your work on Ethiopia and Ethiopians living in Israel. Can you tell us a little of the background of this project, and how you became interested in Ethiopian culture and people?
The Ethiopian community in Israel is comprised of 120,000 people and includes the “Beta Israel” community and the remaining Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity beginning in the 19th century due to economic constraints, personal reasons or pressure from the Ethiopian government. Due to their conversion, the remaining Ethiopian Jews were not allowed to immigrate to Israel together with the “Beta Israel” community. Two major waves of immigration took place under the Law of Return – “Operation Moses” and “Operation Solomon.” During “Operation Moses” (1984-1985), approximately 7,000 people immigrated to Israel by secretly crossing through Sudan, and this was because the Ethiopian government banned Jews from leaving the country. Another wave of immigration took place as part of “Operation Solomon” (1991), in which 14,000 Ethiopian Jews came from the capital city of Addis Ababa. In 2003, the government ruled that the remaining population of Ethiopian Jewry would be allowed to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return which permits those who are not Israeli citizens to reside in the country. In order to increase their chances to get permission to immigrate to Israel, many of them abandoned their villages and came to temporary settlement camps, both in Gondar, which lies in northern Ethiopia, and in the capital, Addis Ababa. After this transition, the community began the process of converting back to Judaism and familiarising themselves with the Zionist vision. In October 2012, there was Operation “Wings of a Dove,” when thousands of Ethiopian Jews emigrated from Gondar. Even today, many in the congregation who have resided in temporary housing for a number of years in Gondar, are still awaiting approval to realise their dream of emigrating to Israel.
In Israel, I developed a deep interest in the lifestyle of the Ethiopian community. Their background and the story of their arrival fascinated me. Accordingly, I visited the residential Ethiopian neighbourhoods and absorption centres, documented traditional weddings, and learned about their culture. The climax occurred in late 2011, when I found myself by coincidence amongst the crowds of Ethiopian Jewish protesters who demanded that the government speed up the pace of their relatives’ immigration, who at this point were still denied entry into Israel. The demonstrators held pictures of their family members as they cried out for others to bring them to Israel. The encounter was thrilling for me and so was the way they decided to demonstrate, using family photograph album. It taught me that photography is an essential tool to deliver a message not only for me, but also for the protesters themselves. Following this demonstration, I delved into the study of the community in Israel and a year later, in the summer of 2012, I visited the city of Gondar, Ethiopia. I documented the lives of the local community, living in heavy poverty and without basic infrastructure such as running water or electricity. My journey to Ethiopia was a unique opportunity to document the lives of the community.

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In your opinion, what makes a great portrait? Can you tell us some of the experiences you have had when photographing people in such intimate settings?
To me, a good photograph is one that tells a story and that evokes an emotional response from the viewer. The most important thing is to respect the other. Just to shoot an interesting person and give him or her personal space. I love to learn about the culture before I arrive in a particular country: their major holidays, manners of dress, unique customs, and some basic words to communicate. Even small gestures are very pleasant for the subject – for example, if I can, I try to develop the photo for them and give it to them as a gift. People appreciate it much more than it seems.
In addition, in order to create a successful portrait, there are several rules which I make sure of in the process of photographing. Firstly, before I start photographing I try to imagine the frame I will shoot and the message that I want to convey to the viewer. Secondly, I strive to capture the emotions of the photographed subject and I do it through a long stay with him in order to create a relaxing atmosphere. I find that as they become calmer, many of my subjects forget about the camera and I manage to capture them through the lens in more natural portraits. It takes time. So it’s easier to travel alone, because people treat me differently when I’m alone, and are more open towards me. When I’m out with my camera, I always look around, approach people and make contact, and photograph only when it feels right.
To enhance the message in the photo, I emphasise a number of technical details such as composition, angle, proper lighting, exposure time or depth of field.

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You’ve recently spent six weeks traveling in India. How was this experience for you and what were the highlights of the trip?
The India trip was very meaningful to me. In recent years, I dealt a lot with photography – exhibitions, articles, curating projects, academic works – almost anything and everything except for the act of photography itself. I missed the feeling of wandering for hours, getting lost and discovering amazing places. In India I found wonderful people, colours, customs, food – everything was so powerful and fascinating to me. After graduation I felt, on the one hand, that for six weeks I was a photographer more than anything else, and I loved what photography brought out in me. On the other hand, I felt something to previous trips – I was now in a more mature stage of my life. I only flew for a short time because, unfortunately, my partner Nir could not join me. But the trip was special, exciting and challenging. The camera allowed me into other people’s lives and to get to know wonderful people. I celebrated Diwali with a wonderful family, they made me a necklace of flowers and gave me meals, painted my hand, and tried to communicate with me, without much success. Another time, I went to a Muslim neighbourhood near the market town. I went into houses, played with children and laughed without speaking a word.

In Pushkar there was a Camel Fair, and people came from all over Rajasthan to sell and buy camels or other farm animals. One of the evenings of the fair, I found myself gorging chapati and dal at sunset outside the tent with hundreds of camels surrounding me. This was very special.

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Do you have a favorite all-time photograph you’d like to share with us? What is the story behind this image?
It is very surprising, even though I’m not used to taking pictures with others, my favourite picture I have taken was with Hardik.
I spent an unforgettable week in beautiful Gujarat. Although I’m used to photographing alone, I decided to try to work with a tour guide, Hardik Pandya, and I’m so happy about my decision. He took me to remote villages in the Dwarka region in Gujarat and helped me communicate with the people I met there.
The most memorable experience happened when we visited the home of a local family in one of the villages. Just as we were getting ready to leave, an old woman who was probably over ninety years old entered the yard. She was frail, with an incredibly interesting face. I was amazed to see her and so I hoped she would agree to be photographed. With the help of her granddaughter I tried to communicate my request and she consented. We went together to a family living room and she sat by the window. The combination of the fascinating expression on her wrinkled face combined with the perfect lighting was wonderful. I felt my heart pounding as I was taking her photo. I will never forget the feeling of great excitement I felt at that moment.

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What do you hope to achieve from photography in the future? And what trips or photography projects would you love to do?
As time passes and obligations pile up, it is very easy to neglect my photography. I hope that I will always continue taking pictures, because it is the place that is most vulnerable, genuine and natural for me. I feel that photography brings out so much emotion and makes me a better version of myself.

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Galit Govezensky is an Israeli photographer who has spent periods of time traveling in India, South East Asia and Ethiopia. Her work has been featured in various travel and photography magazines as well as exhibitions in Israel. To see more of Galit’s work visit her portfolio.

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Annapurna Mellor is a photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating, and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. Outside of Roam, her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and Travelettes. She is based in Manchester, UK.

  • Reply
    Alison
    November 16, 2016 at 10:43 pm

    I am so pleased to be introduced to Galit Govezensky. Her portraits are truly amazing and really do convey deep emotion. She inspires me.
    Great interview. A fascinating story thread about the Ethiopians waiting to enter Israel. I had no idea. Thank you

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