Peas and carrots. Yonatan Efrat dishes out these ordinary veggies in the Beersheva restaurant where he works.

But when he trained his lens on them from the perspective of a photographer with special needs, he teased out something profound.

“Among all the peas that look the same, there’s a little corn and a little carrot. Similarly, among us there are some that are slightly different from others. And those that look the same are a little different from each other,” Efrat wrote in his description of the carefully arranged image.

Peas and carrots, photographed by Yonatan Efrat. Photo courtesy of PHOTO IS:RAEL

Efrat lives in shared housing run by the Yachdav Association, one of the partners in an extraordinary project from PHOTO IS:RAEL.

The social outreach non-profit was founded in 2012 as an outgrowth of the International Photography Festival first held in Tel Aviv in 2009.

The first three festivals featured works from renowned Israeli and foreign photographers. With the goal of “building a better society through the language of photography,” the organizers decided to add images of disenfranchised Israeli populations taken by members of those communities.

Under the leadership of Eyal Landesman, PHOTO IS:RAEL works through partner organizations to involve teenagers on the autistic spectrum; the elderly; at-risk youth; people who are deaf; Bedouins from unrecognized Negev villages; recovering addicts; victims of domestic violence; African asylum-seekers; people with mental illness; and people with a variety of special needs.

Photo by Tima’a al-Tori, a Bedouin youth involved in the New Dawn in the Negev organization. Photo courtesy of PHOTO IS:RAEL

The 2019 International Photography Festival in late November will feature roughly 450 photos chosen from the social project.

“What is innovative is this combination of photos from these communities exhibited side by side with works of top artists from all over the world,” PHOTO IS:RAEL chief curator Maya Anner tells ISRAEL21c.

The International Photography Festival in Tel Aviv. Photo by Sima Landa

Photography as a voice

Like all photographers, participants in the PHOTO IS:RAEL social project need training.

This is done through volunteer facilitators using a method dubbed PHOTO IS:VOICE, adapted from the participatory Photovoice model invented in the 1990s combining photography with grassroots social action.

Yellow popsicles, taken by a client of the Enosh Israeli Mental Health Association in Herzliya. Photo: courtesy

So far, almost 20 three-month training sessions in the past five years have prepared about 250 facilitators and mentors who have worked in dozens of communities.

“In the past six months alone, we have served over 70 facilitators who have volunteered in over 50 communities,” PHOTO IS:RAEL Director of Social Projects Orly Segev tells ISRAEL21c.

The volunteers guide community members in expressing their personal and group voice through the lens of a camera or phone.

 “Even the most professional photographer cannot take the kind of pictures that come from the community itself.”

“If I give you a camera and ask you to take pictures of your life — what you like more, what you like less, what bothers you, what matters to you — that’s more powerful than asking you to tell me what needs to be changed,” Segev explains.

One of the partner organizations, Rakefet, runs sports activities for young adults with special needs. Founder Rakefet Kalishov told a local newspaper how PHOTO IS:RAEL has benefited her 28-year-old son Gilad, an accomplished swimmer.

Photo of seashells by Gilad Kalishov. Photo courtesy of PHOTO IS:RAEL

“Gilad is not much of a talker, but when he goes to the sea and takes pictures, they talk for him,” she said. “Photography gives [our participants] a lot of confidence to communicate because many of them have [speech] difficulties and they fear that people will mock them. They share their photos in the WhatsApp group we set up for the project, giving another dimension and complement to verbal language. ”

Results in Haifa

Sometimes the results of PHOTO IS:RAEL are quite tangible.

The Women’s Courtyard in Haifa, a program for at-risk and in-distress Jewish, Muslim and Christian girls and women aged 13-25, joined the PHOTO IS:RAEL social project at a time when the center was in danger of closing due to financial difficulties.

Patrons of the Women’s Courtyard took photos of themselves and posted them on social media alongside their stories and their opinions about the impending closure. The power of these images and the broader exposure led to the Israeli government stepping in and saving the center.

This was taken by a client of a center in Beersheva for recovering women addicts. Photo courtesy of PHOTO IS:RAEL

Anner says she is always very moved by the photos from marginalized communities.

“These are people who have never dealt with photography and in many cases take photos on a cell phone,” she says.

“Nevertheless, there are some images which really seem to capture a community lifestyle and personality in a way that only a member of the community could convey. Even the most professional photographer cannot take the kind of pictures that come from the community itself.”

This photo was taken by a girl in a boarding school for at-risk youth in Zichron Ya’akov. Photo courtesy of PHOTO IS:RAEL

Segev says one of the most rewarding parts of her job is displaying the results of the program to the wider public at the annual International Photography Festival.

“When people from our communities see their photos exhibited it is so amazing. They feel proud and empowered,” she says.

Festival attendees can contribute to the partner organizations; in past festivals, a quarter of a million shekels were donated.

At the end of the exhibition, the photographs go back to the communities to use as they wish.

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