Life & Culture

Shai Kremer: Israel's Controversial Photographer

His work has won international acclaim, yet it is not for the faint hearted.


Shai Kremer is a photographer to watch. His stunning Israeli landscapes were immediately snapped up by the New York gallerist, Julie Saul, at his Masters graduate show in 2005. Since then his work has won international acclaim with shows in some of the world's leading galleries including Tate Modern and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Yet his work is not for the faint hearted. Kremer uses his photographs to convey his passionate political views, which he vehemently insists are not anti-Israel but anti the policy of its government.

His first series, "Infected Landscapes", depicts how Israeli society has been militarised through its landscape from the many national parks that double up as military training zones to the security barrier.

The current series, "Fallen Empires", on show at London's James Hyman Photography until April 23, looks at the different empires throughout history that have tried – and failed - to conquer the land of Israel.

"I wanted to show that force doesn't work as a long term solution. You have to come with a better idea," he says.

His close up image of the Zion Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, for example, succinctly captures today's ubiquitous surveillance cameras, embedded in the stones dating from the reign of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent and pockmarked by bullets from the 1948 War of Independence.

Born in 1974 on Kibbutz Gaash, near Tel Aviv, Kremer began taking photos at high school. While travelling round the world after the army, taking rolls of pictures wherever he went, he decided to pursue photography professionally.

After his first degree in Tel Aviv he enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The move proved crucial, crystallising the "Infected Landscapes" series exhibited at his graduation show.

"When you see things from afar it looks clearer," he says. "I have an urge from inside to talk about these issues and that's why I dedicate many years to do these projects - it's a bit crazy.

"Fallen Empires", for example, took Kremer four years to complete.

Sometimes, his work involves risk. At the Urban Warfare Training Centre at Tze'elim, he secretly shot every Saturday for a month, hiding from the hourly patrols in one of the 600 makeshift buildings. "It was an adrenaline driven moment," he recalls.

Many of the photographs are shot through windows, doorways and arches to create interesting juxtapositions. "From the old school at the abandoned village of Lifta I could see Givat Shaul [an orthodox neighbourhood in West Jerusalem] and was able to show contrast between past and present," he says.

Kremer's next project focuses on Staten Island, Queens, the Bronx and other outskirts of New York, where he now lives with his family. "It reflects my social and environmental concerns and my personal story of an immigrant coming to the 'promised land'. It is very different to the kibbutz I was brought up on, surrounded by nature, so I'm looking at the city from outside in," he says.

His challenge is to create a new metaphor for this much photographed city. "I want to make New York different as so many people have done it and it has to be my own language," he says.

With Kremer's strategy, a tantalising prospect awaits. As he says: "I create a seductive image, to call to the viewer, saying 'come see me' and then punch his face."

James Hyman Photography

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