A nation in one family

Photographer Vardi Kahana set out to document Israeli society by focusing on her relatives.

By Alex Kasriel, January 14, 2009
Vardi Kahana’s studies of her family include Three Sisters , 1992  — which shows her mother and her two aunts

Vardi Kahana’s studies of her family include Three Sisters , 1992 — which shows her mother and her two aunts

Israeli society is complicated but photographer Vardi Kahana has come up with a novel way of explaining its myriad lifestyles, groups and history.

Kahana has focused on one large extended family and photographed them over a long period of time. And the family she has chosen? Her own, of course.

Using her mother and her two sisters as a starting point, Kahana — who has two children herself — has been documenting her relatives’ lives for the past 15 years. The resulting images are now going on show in London in an exhibition called One Family.

“It starts with a picture of my mother and her two sisters with consecutive numbers burnt on their arms,” says the 48-year-old Kahana.

“They were Jewish teenagers in Aushwitz and came to Israel to start from scratch. Today they have 31 grandchildren, and two of them already have 45 great grandchildren.

“The family ranges from ultra-Orthodox Jews in Hebron who look like they are living in the 17th century, to the atheists in Tel Aviv; we have the extreme right living in settlements and we have socialists who naively went to live their dream on kibbutz.

“There’s a picture of my cousin with her 10 children living in Petah Tikva; they are religious but not ultra-Orthodox. Her kids go to the army and university. Her son was killed in the Lebanon war. My uncle was killed in 1948 defending the kibbutz. He was shot by a Syrian sniper. You can see the unrest that Israelis experience, through the generations in one family.”

Vardi's cousin Hannan’s grandchildren at Modiin Ilit, 2005

Vardi's cousin Hannan’s grandchildren at Modiin Ilit, 2005

She points out that the collection is not a sentimental bunch of family snaps, nor is it her aim to criticise the various strands of Israeli life her relatives belong to.

“I’m trying not to make a stand regarding my family,” she says.

“I’m trying not to be judgmental about their choices in life. I try to look at it very objectively — like an anthropologist looking at people living in Israel.”

Kahana, who earns a living taking photos for the Yedioth Achronot weekend magazine, admits that she probably would have lost touch with many of her relatives had it not been for the project.

“I’m sure there are many more families like this. But I was lucky enough to be the first photographer to present such a family,” she says.

One Family is at artsdepot’s Apthorp Gallery, London N12, until March 15. Details at www.artsdepot.co.uk

Last updated: 12:22pm, January 15 2009