Several Days in Sderot
The last week has been so busy that I haven't had the time or energy to blog. The eight days of escalated conflict put me far behind schedule, and I was struggling to get everything done in time for my planned departure this past Sunday.
On Tuesday, I once again teamed up with the amazing Dr. Benjamin Epstein and visited the AMIT Torani Mada'i School in Sderot. The school's director Dina Khoury was kind enough to grant us access to a group of 3rd and 4th grade boys and girls.
Ben and I ran into one of the little girls from the shelter we visited the week before. She happily explained to her classmates what we (and the camera gear) were doing there and became a mini celebrity while answering a thousand questions from her peers.
Even though classes had only been back in session for a few days, the return to normalcy had a marked impact on her demeanor, and I'm told, on the rest of the children. The resilience seen in these children is remarkable.
Our mixed group of boys and girls set about drawing their pictures and answering my interview questions. As you might imagine, much of the same imagery appeared in both the school and shelters.
Qassam rockets are always on their minds, and the children are hyper alert for "Color Red" warnings.
The proximity of shelters is a common fear that I also noticed a lot. Despite a number of community parks and playgrounds, very few children are allowed to play outside when not at school. Parents are too afraid, and in turn, so are the boys and girls. The drawing seen above was made by one of the boys, and it's about his anxiety of playing in a wooded area on the outskirts of town, too far to run to a shelter in time.
In addition to images of rockets, Ben and I started seeing accounts of the recent bus bombing in Tel Aviv. It also fed into the collective fears of the children.
This drawing pretty much covers all of the bases. Pictured are incoming Qassam rockets, Israeli "Iron Dome" interceptor missiles, a shelter, an icon of the "Red Color" warning (top right), and finally the bus bombing.
On Wednesday, I began scouting locations around Sderot with a local guide provided by the Sderot Media Center, in this case a college student named Idan. He was born and raised in Sderot and knew all of the unique spots, including this one (thanks again to my SPOT messenger for the exact location). It's a view into Gaza and a stark reminder just how close the city is to the border. On the hill, I could easily see the neighborhood of the driver / fixer / translator I used while in Gaza. They are just a few kilometers, yet worlds apart.
By now, it was painfully clear that I needed to extend my trip if there was to be any hope of getting everything done that I wanted. I pushed my flight back to Los Angeles until December 7th and breathed a little easier, although with a touch more homesickness.
Armed with the children's drawings, a list of locations, and toys purchased locally in Sderot and Ashkelon, I spent the next several days commuting from Jerusalem and photographing various setups around town. The days were extremely productive thanks to my assistants Slien and David. Slien is an old friend from my first trip to Jerusalem who volunteered for a day, and David is another student-guide provided by the Sderot Media Center. With their help, I got a whopping ten setups done in two days.
The last one I completed in Sderot was at an elementary school hit directly by a Qassam rocket while children were in class. It may be hard to make out in this small photo, but the scars of the hit are visible just above my head on the right side of the frame. Most schools in the city have been reinforced with heavy concrete. They are essentially large shelters, however still somewhat vulnerable. The children know to stay away from windows and take immediate cover when there's warning of incoming rockets. Clearly their training and the construction of these schools are making a difference. Despite the direct hit, there were no casualties.
The same cannot be said for the bus bombing in Tel Aviv. With my work completed in Sderot, I turned my attention towards recreating the event from the perspective of the children. I traveled with my friend Miruna to the exact spot on the corner of Shaul Hamelekh and Henrietta Szold streets where the bus exploded just ten days before. A large amount of glass was still present on the curb and in flowerbeds.
Despite being watched closely by military police and what was likely the secret police, no one approached us, even when I set a toy bus on fire! It was nerve racking and intimidating the say the least. So much so that it didn't even occur to me to incorporate the glass until the shot was complete. Pity that I missed the opportunity to further unify the event with the children's accounts, but I'm still extremely happy with the shot. I look forward to sharing it once I've had time to process it.
With my remaining few days, I'm working to tie up loose ends and explore some unique opportunities. I can't reveal my plans, but tomorrow or Wednesday, I will be shooting at an iconic location thanks to help from some very high places. Again, I look forward to sharing it with you when I'm able.
Thanks again to Dr. Benjamin Epstein, the Sderot Media Center, Idan, David, Noam, Ornit, Taly, Slein, Miruna, Dina Khoury, and the staff, teachers, and students at the AMIT Torani Mada'i School in Sderot.