The happy, smiling soldiers of the IDF

An Instagram showing the lighter side of Israel's army is taking the internet by storm


The IDF doesn’t always attract the best press. Menachem Geisinsky is on his own special mission to show another face to Israel’s military forces — via his Instagram account @officialmgphotos, also known as Smiling Soldiers.

“Before I came here, I didn’t know anything about the army, but I’d be on Instagram and Twitter and the algorithm would send me this stuff about the IDF and it was just terrible — just not a good look” recalls the 23-year-old, who hails from Long Island, New York — the son of a Chabad rabbi and the eldest of 13 children.

On his first visit to yeshivah, pre-pandemic, he didn’t meet many members of the military, but when he returned for a second stay at the Chabad Yeshivah Mayanot — based close to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda — it was a different story.

“I used to go to the shuk [Mahane Yehuda] all the time; and when I encountered soldiers, they were just the sweetest people — smiling and having a good time with their friends and their girlfriends. I could see how the community and the country respects them. I thought it was a beautiful thing that people should see.”

During the long periods of lockdown at home in Long Island, he’d taught himself photography with a borrowed camera and the help of YouTube. “During Covid there wasn’t much going on and I always thought photography was a cool concept because it gives the ability to capture one image of something that no one else has. There have probably been a trillion photos of Niagara Falls, let’s say, but one is not the same as the next. You’ve created something for eternity that no one else has.”

So on his return, he was skilled up and in late October 2021 started snapping soldiers in the shuk.

“Around January or February 2022 I started to get in touch with the army and that kind of took it to the next step — when I started to get permission to photograph on bases and at ceremonies and on exercises.”

It wasn’t easy at first to gain the trust of young men and women in the middle of gruelling military training who didn’t know him from Adam. “It was kind of rough — I got a lot of noes, but there were also yeses. And those yeses told me something. IDF soldiers are very wary of cameras because of how they have been portrayed and when I told them about the project, they were a bit more interested because of how they’ve been portrayed in the past.”

Being from the US turned out to be an asset. “I tried going up to them and speaking in broken Hebrew, but you need confidence, and to go up and make them feel good about the project. They also kind of liked me being American — and wanted to show off their English.”

As word has spread and his images have been shared beyond his account across the Internet, he has found more willing subjects. “As different pages started to feature my photos, they [the soldiers] wanted to be included in the project which has made life a lot easier.”

He has close to 14,500 followers from all over the world — some from unexpected sources. “Five per cent of my new followers are from Iran. Not all are following with the best intentions, so I have to be careful what I post.”

With that in mind, now he has access to soldiers on bases and doing military exercises, he runs the images past the IDF’s PR team so they can censor anything that may compromise security. “They may want some numbers removed from a shot or the size of a building disguised.”

Has his account brought any unwanted attention? He says he hasn’t received anything that has worried him: “There are some random messages — I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets them.”

With so many followers he can’t vet each one but has been surprised by some of the places the images have turned up: “There was a picture that I took that was used as the cover of a Saudi magazine for a positive article about the IDF. So there are people who really do just want to know what the soldiers are all about.”

However, funding his project has proved difficult. “I’m going to have to return to the US, as I’ve run out of money so I’m taking as many pictures as I can to compile a book when I get home.”  He’s excited about choosing photos from the more than 200,000 that he has taken and the 15,000 he has edited and shared online on Instagram and Facebook and creating a book that tells the stories behind those smiles.

His main target audience are people who do not know much about Israel. “We’re never going to win the PR battle, which means that if someone from say, Milwaukee, Wisconsin who doesn’t have any idea of what’s going on the Middle East  sees a soldier and a kid, he’s going to root for the kid. That’s the pro of being the underdog — you get the sympathy. But saying that, being the underdog sucks! No wants to be the underdog, but you do get the sympathy. What we’re trying to do is get to those people. When you see a smile, you connect with someone. Those smiles are contagious and when you read the story behind this soldier, he’s just like anyone else.

“The army’s a brutal place. When I go to the bases they know about the project, and I bring good energy and am very energetic and I get the smiles.”

This feels particularly important for lone soldiers, who are away from their families and friends: “The other day I was on a base and two girl lone soldiers — one from Switzerland and the other from South Africa — came up to me and asked me to take their pictures. The lone soldiers are important as I want their families to see their soldiers are ok.”

“The world’s media will only and exclusively show the negative side and the harsh side — the part that is hard to connect with. I’m here to show the other side.”


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