Sabra Traces

Oded Balilty, Photographs 


The Israeli sabra. Ostensibly there is nothing more local and deep-rooted than the sabra - the prickly pear bush which has become the symbol of the native-born Israeli, the first generation of renascent Jewish settlement. However, when one delves into its sources, a different world comes to light. In actual fact, the common sabra, the symbol of Israeli rootedness, or by its scientific name Opuntiaficus-indica, was introduced into the Land of Israel in the fifteenth century. Consequently, theimage of a sabra hedgerow etched on our consciousness as part of the ancient landscape of this country, is false. The neglected vegetation of the Jewish past in this countryconsisted merelyof thistles and thorns, not sabras.

Our perception of the sabra as part of the historical past of the Land of Israel has rendered it invisible to us. As time passes, we move away from the early years of the State of Israelfollowing the War of Independence;the Israeli melting pot together with its image of the sabra, from the 1970sonward diminishes - the plant has been forgotten and has been excluded from Israel's public-cultural discourse. This duality of the plant - both present and absent - and its dwindling essence of Israeliness,render the sabra a special case of connecting with the landscape and past of this country.

It took me quite some time to relate to the country as a photographic object; art, after all, is universal. A photographer looks at the world as a whole, and from it frames different slices of reality. After years of looking outside and working with international news agencies, and after the birth of my daughters, I feel a profound change in my worldview. After years of "air roots" I found my way to the countrythrough the sabra hedgerow.

Despite my extensive acquaintance with the local landscape, and focusing a newsworthy view onIsraeli landscape and identity, I toooverlookedthe sabra bushes. The sense that it was here before me and would most likely behere after me, made it invisible to me. However, today, following my personal journey, my connection to the sabra has intensified and I find myself bound up init. At times I feel as if this bush has been waiting for me, and when I arrive, it assists me.

The sabra is doubtlessly the most political plant around, but I have no idea why I began photographing it. I simply don't remember. Perhaps I happened to come upon an interesting specimen and it wanted me to take its picture, and that's what I did; but when I looked at the picture something happened: I discoveredenormousserenity, sadness, and primarily questions within this thicket of juicy succulents, replete withthorns and laden with fruit. We danced around each other. The sense of far and near never left me along the way. Perhaps I was somewhat afraid of the thorns and moved away. But something within me wanted to move closer. And when itallowed me come closer, I accorded it a role that perhaps completes it in the best possible way.

When I positioned the sabra in my "portrait" studio, time went by until a pictureemerged which finally reflected its character (sabrasare like people: from afar they look the same, but when you come closer, each one is different and unique). The pads on the floor of my studio,cut earlier by the sabrapickers, began to dry up and take on round and strange shapes - a moment before they withered, a moment before they grew new roots.

In Traces of the Sabra I am part of a never-ending pursuit, seeking the ideal bush. Despite the fact that it is still life, unusual energy has generated between us. In my work in personal and magazine photography I seek to uncover order in the chaos that surrounds us, while in front of the sabra I feel that I am taking part in a race that has no finish line. Repeated visits to the bushes I photographed showed anincessantly changing object. The sabra stayed put, but the surroundings moved, the background took on the leading role and the sabra - that set outin the leading role -becamethe supporting actor. The sabra is so tangled, as if a secret is evolving between its pads. There is something about it that reminds me of the talking stones in the film The NeverEnding Story. It harbors no grievances and gives fruit, even if it receives nothing from us. Its obstinacy and forgiveness are worthy of imitation. After all this country has been through, for betterorfor worse, the sabramust be rough and sturdy.

In the course of my work on Traces of the Sabra I discovered that I didn't know whether I was designing the picture, or thesabra was designing me. It became clear to me that this was our joint project. I was not the one who made all the decisions. I learned I had to make compromises and create together with it. Unlike other photographs in which I respond to situations, in relation tothe sabra - I arrive, I look, I breathe, I think, and only after I comprehend the madness of the bush, do I move closer or move away from it, and then I take the picture. Growing and shooting up in all directions, I have no problem in choosing the "right light" for photography.

This project was photographed mainly from my gut. During my work, wandering in different areas and searching for pieces for the puzzle, I went through a kind of transformation, a sort of therapy. This time I do not want to astonish spectators, but rather to appeasethem. Traces of the Sabra is not a final stop or a destination which I sought to reach, but rather a significant stage in my personal and professional life, without which I might not have been able to continue.


Closes: August 10, 2016