Life unposed: Pop-up exhibit highlights Israeli photojournalist

Oded Balilty

“I believe that reality is the most creative thing,” says Oded Balilty. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Israeli photojournalist likes to “look at the small moments that reality creates for people.”

The Jerusalem-born Balilty has spent more than a decade working for the Associated Press, and was present during the 2006 clash in the West Bank when thousands of Israeli police were met by hundreds of stone-throwing settlers in Amona during evacuation of the illegal outpost. His picture of a lone young woman in a long skirt attempting to resist the oncoming rush of police in riot gear snagged the first, and to date the only, Pulitzer for photography awarded to an Israeli.

“In Observation,” a pop-up exhibition of Balilty’s fine art photography, opens Thursday, March 20 at La Boutique in San Francisco. During the exhibit’s short run through March 27, several evening events will give guests the chance to meet Balilty and learn about his work.

“The Woman in Pink” photos/oded balilty

“I feel like [his] art is just another way to educate our community about all the wonderful things that Israel has to offer,” says Marissa Halbrecht, a longtime lay leader and volunteer with AIPAC and other Bay Area Jewish organizations. Halbrecht is the founder of Projex Connect, the new arts program bringing Balilty to San Francisco in its inaugural event (a portion of the proceeds from sales will benefit arts education in Israel).

Halbrecht aims to showcase other contemporary Israeli artists in a variety of media in similar pop-up exhibits a few times a year.

Though she was familiar with Israel’s cutting-edge reputation in fields like technology, the environment and health care, “I never heard much about Israeli contemporary art,” she says. “The more I learned about Israeli contemporary art, I felt it’s very much on par with those industries: up-and-coming and really innovative.”

Halbrecht began to focus on combining her love of art, entertaining and hasbara (Israeli PR) last April while visiting an aunt and uncle in Tel Aviv. Her uncle, an artist, had been telling her for a few years that she should look into promoting Israeli art. On that trip, they went gallery hopping and she encountered Balilty’s “Last Supper” in the first exhibit they visited. That photograph, one of the artist’s non-photojournalistic pieces, exemplifies the less-gritty aspect of his work that will be on exhibit.

“Last Supper” photos/oded balilty

After returning to the Bay Area, Halbrecht got in touch with staff at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and other arts institutions, and with fellow community leaders who were also Balilty fans. Everything she learned told her to move forward, and on a subsequent trip to Israel she met the artist and began to set up the collaboration.

Balilty has done work for Time, National Geographic and other international publications, and has exhibited in Israel and Europe. From 2007 to 2008, he worked as a photojournalist in China, which resulted in a poignant series depicting 70th anniversary commemorations of the brutal 1937 Japanese destruction of Nanjing. After his return to Israel, his haunting portraits of elderly Jews who had served in the Soviet Red Army in World War II, taken in their old uniforms resplendent with medals, showed a wide audience a little-known aspect of the Jewish state, home to thousands of such veterans. “My body became itchy, and I almost cried just to listen to their stories,” Balilty recalls.

He didn’t set out to be a photojournalist. His first love was fine art and fashion photography. But after joining the army fresh out of high school, Balilty worked as a photographer on the Israel Defense Forces magazine Bamahane. That led to a newspaper job at the start of the second intifada and shortly thereafter to a position with AP in Israel and beyond.

Yet, despite his love of photojournalism’s adrenaline rush, “as I grew up as a photographer, I wanted to do something which is more personal,” he says. “When I shoot photojournalism, I tell the story of someone else. It’s my interpretation, my style, but not my story.”

Projex Connect focuses on Balilty’s personally chosen stories, taken unstaged but with a photojournalist’s eye. Of these more free-ranging works, he says, “it’s sort of a self-portrait through a reality that has nothing to do with me.” Take “The Woman in Pink,” for example: She “was not there for me,” he says. “I was just walking there.”

As for “Last Supper,” Balilty was in Gaza during Israel’s 2012 military operation and was invited to photograph then–Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Iron Dome missile defense system. A colorful table of refreshments had been set up nearby. “For me, it’s so Israeli,” Balilty says, “those plastic bags and plastic plates, watermelon, and the map on the table,” an ironic attempt at festiveness in the midst of war.

“If I would work in a bank, I would never meet the people I meet in my life,” he says. “At the end of the day, you don’t remember the photos, you remember the people. I’m still on a journey.”


“In Observation” runs March 20-27 at La Boutique, 414 Jackson St., S.F.

To request an invitation to an evening event, email [email protected]