Israel’s Government Press Office (GPO) coordinates media relations between the Government and the Foreign Press in Israel. This includes issuing official press cards and facilitating media coverage of key people, institutions and events in Israel, as well as photographing Israel’s Prime Minister and President at all diplomatic functions.
Last month, after decades of putting Prime Ministers, Presidents and other dignitaries in the frame, it was GPO chief photographer Moshe Milner’s turn to be honored upon his retirement. The farewell event was attended by President Shimon Peres who was quoted by Arutz 7 news as saying, “You have done so much to portray Israel in a positive light. I have never seen you get tired or lazy, and your camera lens has always been full of love for Israel, even when it was critical.”
Milner began his career as a teenager in Lod, as an apprentice wedding photographer. His army service was at the IDF Spokesman’s office, which at that time had a photography unit of one man — Milner — who was in charge of both still and film photography. Milner became an expert at directing his subjects. “I would shoot [stills] of Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin reviewing the Honor Guard and then I’d go up to him and say, “Yitzhak, we’ll go over it again,” and then I would film it.”
From the time he joined it in 1967, says Milner, the GPO Department Photography operated with a remarkable degree of autonomy: the Department head would choose the photos and off those pictures went, released to the media worldwide.
This autonomy — and Milner’s ability to direct his difficult subjects — stood him in good stead when Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term as Prime Minister, was en route to meet Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for the first time. According to the Seventh Eye, Netanyahu ordered Milner not to photograph him shaking Arafat’s hand. Milner decided to object.
“‘Listen,’ Milner told the Prime Minister. ‘I have no problem not photographing you with Arafat — but know that Arafat will bring a photographer himself.'” The Prime Minister softened his position and lifted the ban. “Bibi said, ‘If he brings a photographer, then you take pictures, too.’ and truly, when he saw that Arafat had arrived with a photographer, I shot the picture of them shaking hands.” According to Milner, the GPO decided to release an image heavy with innuendo: Netanyahu appearing mistrustful and Arafat with his face half-concealed.
Most of Israel’s heads of government, Milner says, stayed out of the official photographers’ hair. “[Menachem] Begin didn’t care, even Golda [Meir] didn’t intervene, and neither did Rabin during his first term. [Ariel] Sharon was great — he never got involved… [Ehud] Olmert was a legend to work with. He knows journalism.”
The picture directed by Milner that he is most proud was taken at the first Camp David summit. He told the Seventh Eye, “I met [President of Egypt Anwar] Sadat at five in the morning, still jet-lagged. I asked if I could photograph him, and he said yes. I ran to Begin, who was also up, and brought him over. U.S. President Jimmy Carter was still asleep at the time and didn’t know about it. At 7:30 in the morning he turned on ‘Good Morning America’ and saw the pictures – which later appeared in all the papers. He was in shock – after all, they had invited them to negotiate because they did not speak. Carter went wild, and they placed a guard to monitor me from that point on.”
The change came during Rabin’s second term (which coincided with the advent of mass media in Israel). After a 15 year hiatus from the GPO, during which time Milner worked as a photojournalist for foreign news outlets, he returned to discover “a different relationship between the documenter and the documentee” with more external direction as to photographic content.
Milner is philosophical about the shift. “All photographers argue with media consultants, but eventually it is their decision — and it also makes sense that the decision is theirs. It could be that I don’t like that they didn’t choose the photo I wanted, but it is right for them. I don’t think its a bad thing.”
Upon his return to the GPO, Milner also took on the establishment of the online National Photo Collection, a digital archive of thousands of photographs which was recently made available to the public, free-of-charge. A portion of the photographs have also been posted to the GPO Filckr feed.
Read the full interview (in Hebrew) with Moshe Milner.