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© Ziv Koren/Polaris Images
© Remy Cortin
Born in Israel in 1970 Ziv Koren started his photographic career as a young military photographer in the Israeli army. He went on to become an official government press office photographer, attached to the Prime Minister’s office, and then spent six years as photographer and photo editor of the daily newspaper Yedioth Achronoth.
He has been freelance since 1998 and is currently affiliated to Polaris Images, having previously worked for the Sygma and Gamma agencies between 1995 and 2002. Perhaps best known for his award-winning 2003 project ‘Louai Mer’i, a sergeant, is going home’ documenting an injured solider he regularly lectures on photography and exhibits his work around the world.
In 2000 one of Ziv’s images was chosen by World Press Photo as one of the 200 best pictures from the previous 45 years. He has won numerous awards including Picture of the Year, World Press Photo and Photo District News awards.
During 2010 Ziv has covered the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti as well as an assignment shooting air-to-air action of the Breitling Jet Team. So far in 2012 he has finished and published a book based on the Schneider Children's Medical Center of Israel and is now working on a new project documenting the work and training of Israel's elite Navy Seals.
Coming from a country that experiences conflict and volatility on a daily basis would heighten anyone’s perspective on life. Ziv Koren grew up in Israel in the 1970s and ‘80s but his later desire to document the conflict in his homeland through the medium of photography wasn’t always there. So, what led him into the dangerous and life-threatening world of being a photojournalist in one of the world’s most troubled regions?
Ziv was born in 1970 and his artistic talents were encouraged and honed from an early age by the study of art. He recalls: “Basically I started in elementary school in the art class and then I went on to study art in high school. I did a degree in visual arts and that’s what developed into finding out more about photography.” Although he studied photography as a part of the visual arts degree it wasn’t a traditional practical photographic course, based on techniques or photographic theory, so Ziv regards himself very much as a self-taught photographer.
But this newly discovered thirst for capturing images still hadn’t developed into a career. “Photography was more like a hobby for me at that time. My very first camera was a Canon AE-1 that I got from my Mum. Later I used a Pentax K1000 and then a Nikon F3.”
After being called up for national service in 1988 aged just 18 Ziv began his photographic life as a military photographer in the Israeli army. He explains: “I was a combat photographer in the army and it was actually something that I had asked for before I started my service.”
His three-year stint in the Israeli army saw him covering a number of stories. “Basically there were two strands to my job. One was shooting pictures for a military magazine that produced article on different military units and issues as well as features about high-ranked generals. The second was the so-called ‘hard core photography’ covering conflict for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) spokesmen.”
Although chiefly based in Israel his time as a military photographer did take Ziv elsewhere. He explains: “I spent a bit of time in Lebanon during my service as Israel was holding part of Lebanon at the time. During the time I was in service as a military photographer I was shooting a house that had been hit by an Iragi scud missile, during the first Gulf War in 1991, and I think that day I knew that I wanted to become a professional photojournalist.”
On leaving the army in 1991 Ziv was briefly a Governmental Press Office photographer, attached to the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem. He recalls: “It was my first job outside of the army and I suppose it was like the Israeli equivalent of being the official White House photographer in the US.”
But Ziv didn’t really enjoy his time in such an official capacity and was soon searching for a fresh challenge that would allow him to shoot more reality pictures and less PR-style imagery. “I was bored; my pictures went to the national archive and were hardly ever published, and I thought that working for a newspaper would work better for the kind of photographer I wanted to be. So I did it,” he says.
In 1992 he left the Governmental Press Office to go and work for an Israeli daily newspaper, Yedioth Achronoth. “I asked to meet the guy who was in charge of the photo department in the paper. I came with a portfolio and I said, ‘I have gear, I have a motorcycle, and I’m willing to work 24/7’. He opened his drawer, took out a pager and put it on the table and said, ‘you start today’,” Ziv explains.
It was this move to working for a daily newspaper that really opened the path to worldwide recognition for Ziv. The sheer volatility of the region in which he lives and works, the rise of suicide bombers, and the ever changing face of Israeli politics made him (and still makes him) one of the chief documentors of a fascinating but bloodcurdling period in Israel’s history. He joined the paper’s editorial committee and before long was its photo editor.
He explains the difficulties of shooting the stark realities in such a region: “It gets to you in many cases and it can be very intimidating. My obsession really started when I realised there are less and less consumers for the type of material that I shoot. In most cases people just don’t really want to know.”
He would go on to spend six years as photographer and photo editor with the daily newspaper, between 1992 and 1998, and really shot to the attention of the world outside of Israel with his images of a bus bomb shot in 1994. The picture made the front page of the New York Times newspaper and won him the World Press Photo award in the Spot News category in 1995. In the year 2000 World Press Photo named it as one of the 200 best pictures shot over the previous 45 years.
Reviewing his career choices Ziv recalls: “It’s really hard to tell you exactly why I have made certain choices as different things in my career drove me in different directions, but I would have to mention the bus bomb picture in 1994 – that was a keystone in my career.”
Being based in Tel Aviv he also had the sort of ‘doorstep access’ that enabled him to photograph an array of international figures such as former US President Bill Clinton (as he made many efforts to resolve the conflict in the Middle East), the late Yasser Arafat and a string of successive Israeli Prime Ministers. These have included the late Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak (even relaxing at home), and Ehud Olmert.
In 1995 the wider recognition gained by accolades from his peers led to him being employed by the French photo agency Sygma, whilst still undertaking his work for the Yedioth Achronoth newspaper. “I started working for Sygma but I was still a contract photographer for a local newspaper. I was covering news pretty much all over the country, pretty much anything that happened I would try to be there.”
He reveals: “In 1994 I had switched to Canon with the EOS-1 and ever since then I’ve been a Canon shooter. I’ve had every single one of the pro Canon SLRs since then – the EOS-1N and EOS-1V film cameras and then I switched to digital from the pro film models.”
So what benefits does digital give to a busy photojournalist in a war torn region? “For the most part digital has made life easier even though it needed some adaptation from me to start with. Compared to a 35mm film camera a digital camera works very differently with light, the ISO settings and many other aspects that we need to adapt to.”
He adds: “Digital has turned photojournalists into working in a much more self-sufficient way. We are now able to edit and transmit images so the whole workflow is different and things are much quicker these days. On a global level the agency workflows are also much faster – it’s not like it used to be!”
Ziv has turned to books to help with his photographic career and motivations. “Because I’m a self-taught photographer, who has never studied the subject officially, I have a huge library of photographic books that is a huge inspiration to me. I will look at pictures by Robert Capa, James Nachtwey, Eugene Smith, Sebastiao Salgado and many more,” he reveals.
“I have hundreds of books. I collect all of the historical books on photojournalism; the World Press Photo books; and then books by photographers like Don McCullin; and all the Magnum photographers – autobiographies; everything. I have everything about 9/11, the Vietnam War, and World War II.” He adds: “Then, I also have books by people who aren’t photojournalists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Avedon, Annie Liebovitz and David LaChapelle.” That's a library that's a clear indication of his passion.
Ziv’s full-time association with the Yedioth Achronoth newspaper came to an end in 1998 when he took the decision to go freelance. After leaving the paper in 1998 he switched from being a representative for the Sygma agency to Gamma photo agency in 2000 and he began working with many of the world's foremost publications, such as Time magazine, The Sunday Times, Newsweek, Stern, Le Figaro, El Pais, Paris Match and many more.
“Since I have turned freelance I have tried to concentrate on photographing people and telling their stories.” This was demonstrated in his book ‘The Jessica File’, published in 1998, which documented the life of a Russian immigrant stripper in Tel Aviv. Since then he has published ‘Stones & Flags’ (in 2002) with Uri Lifshitz and the 2003 documentary book project, 'Louai Mer'i, a Sergeant, is Going Home', has won awards all over the world.
The book about Louai Mer’i tells the story of a young Israeli soldier who had both his legs amputated when his unit was blown up on the Lebanese border. Ziv followed his painful steps to recovery not just to tell a single story but also to highlight the fact that thousands of soldiers are in rehabilitation as a result of injuries sustained in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ziv explains: “I try to cover conflict, people, poverty, aid, immigration, war. Some of the projects that I worked on - like the project about the wounded soldier - I documented for over a year. I try to tell a story that can open up a view that people were not aware of previously.”
For a man who photographs potentially explosive situations on a daily basis Ziv has no illusions about the risks involved in capturing dramatic images: “If it works, you're a big hero. If not, you're a big idiot. But I don’t think there’s a frame that’s worth dying for.”
But on a day-to-day basis what does he carry in his photographic kitbag? “I use two EOS-1Ds Mark IIIs as I prefer to get the highest quality. I don’t need a fast motordrive, as that’s not the way I shoot. I also carry an EF24mm f/1.4L USM, an EF35mm f/1.4L USM, the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, the EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM and an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM zoom. I have the EF15mm f.2.8 Fisheye and the EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM lenses as well, but they are not in my usual bag when I travel.”
Another chapter on his impressive CV is that of education. Since 1995 Ziv has been a regular lecturer on photography at a number of colleges and other institutions, including the Ramat Gan Museum and the Camera Obscura School of Arts, Tel Aviv. He also taught at the World Press Photo masters workshop in Turkey in 2003.
In February 2006 the movie ‘More than 1000 Words’, which documented Ziv’s work photographing the Israel-Palestine conflict in a two-year period up to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, was released. Shot by filmmaker Solo Avital it has since picked up a host of awards at various film festivals around the world. It’s a film that pulls no punches and shows Ziv in the midst of bombs, bullets, angry crowds, and the reality of violent death.
His numerous accolades include Picture of the Year, World Press Photo and Photo District News awards. And his work is regularly exhibited in museums and galleries, both in his homeland and as far afield as Tokyo. He adds: “In terms of quality when I have an exhibition the quality of digital is a huge improvement versus the quality from negatives.”
Thus far in 2008 Ziv has already been very busy. He says: “I did a big story on the 60th anniversary of Israel for Le Figaro and I have done a feature on Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for Newsweek. I have just started a story for Stern on the southern city of Ashkelon, which suffers daily attacks of missiles from the Gaza area.”
When CPN spoke to him Ziv was due to fly to an exhibition opening of his work in Tokyo during June 2008, but after that? “I am developing some kind of new language that combines still photography with video. This will evolve still photography into a new motion and sound presentation to speak in a new kind of language. I am trying to develop this at the moment.”
For a man who has produced a prodigious amount of work over the past two decades under constant threat of bombs, missiles and bullets he maintains a fascinating philosophy. “I’m based in Israel and most of my work is done here, so documenting the conflict is not a need - it’s my daily routine, and it’s a responsibility.” That’s a heavy burden to bear but it’s one that Ziv Koren handles with skill and utter professionalism.
What do you think about the Ambassadors Programme?
“I think it’s a great idea, and can definitely improve the relationship between Canon as a manufacturer of the leading brand of cameras in the world and the professional photographers and the end-users of their products. It’s a win-win situation for both parties. I’m proud to be part of it.”
Why do you think the Ambassadors Programme is important?
“It has two perspectives: the first is the relationship between Canon and the professional photographers, the ability for Canon to get direct feedback from pros, to be able to use images shot by leading photographers, and to have a better idea of needs and demands from the professional market. Another benefit is on even hearing an independent photographer talking about his work and his flow of work with his equipment can be, in a way, more reliable and more interesting than any other type of communication. The second perspective is that the photographer understands and appreciates the brand, he uses the role as an Ambassador to promote Canon externally and to feedback Canon internally.”
What got you started in photography?
“I was shooting in the first Gulf War in Israel, while it was being heavily attacked by Iraqi missiles, being in the right place at the right time and shooting the story, I understood that this is what I want to do in life. It developed into a need to tell the story regardless of its popularity.”
What does photography mean to you?
“Photography for me is a language that I picked up in order to communicate. It’s not just a job; it’s an obligation and a responsibility to document and to tell the trough. The philosopher Susan Sontag once said that the power of photography is in the fact that the eye is connected to the brain and straight to the nerve system, and by viewing powerful image, you go through an emotional experience. This is where I’m trying to aim when I go out to shoot. I’d like people to feel something when they look at my pictures.”
What kind of photographer do you consider yourself to be?
“A photojournalist that focuses on humanitarian stories. A mixture of involvement and dedication to the story keep me going, regardless of the exposure it might get.”
What would you advise someone who is just coming into the business?
“In order to be successful these days you have to be much more than just a good photographer. Making a good picture is not enough anymore. You have to have a great sense of self-discipline to produce your own stories, to work on personal projects, to have a say of your own, and to create your own style. To understand the potential of an evolving story, to act fast, go out and shoot it, this where you connect your professional skills as a photographer with a sense of journalism. Not to forget the ethical code that we all need to adopt in order to keep the credibility of photojournalism.”