Turning 18 is the start of an important year for young Israelis. They typically finish high school, become legal adults, and get the right to vote. It’s also the year when the differences between two strata of Israeli society crystallize: While virtually all Jewish men and women join the military, most Arabs, who make up around 20 percent of the population of Israel, don’t.
In his series “Eighteen,” Jewish Israeli photographer Natan Dvir attempts to bridge that gap by taking portraits of Arab Israelis from a range of geographic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds during that crucial year. His goal, he said, was to challenge “the widespread misconceptions and stereotypes of the people within my own country who I was brought up to consider more as foes rather than as allies.”
Though Dvir grew up in Israel and spent most of his career there, he said he didn’t feel that he understood his Arab countrymen prior to the start of his project. “I knew a lot of Arab people, but I felt I didn't personally know this society. People I talked with also didn't know much about it. I felt a lot was lost in translation. My interest was to go on a personal journey to understand better,” he said.
Before Dvir started making photographs, he met with Arab scholars, writers, and leaders in order to get a better understanding of the world he was about to enter. “I didn't want to make the mistake of thinking that because I lived there I knew Arab society,” he said. “After about a month of just doing research, I started building a network of people who would help me find young people to photograph,” he said.
A history of mistrust between Arabs and Jews made getting participants for the project a challenge, even when Dvir enlisted an Arabic-speaking translator to make calls on his behalf. “The first question was, ‘Why would a Jewish person want to photograph Arab people?’ It just didn’t make sense [to people],” Dvir said. “But there was also a lot of interest. It was such an unusual request, someone from the other side wanting to learn and listen. I had a résumé of doing other projects in the past, which helped convince them that this was a chance for their voice to be heard.”
Though Dvir managed to secure enough subjects for his project, he said his interactions with them were still marked with suspicion and fear. “They were very distant and this testifies to the nature of our engagement. I was a photographer double their age coming from the ruling sect in society. That makes a very tense situation to be in,” he said.
In addition to candid photos meant to “reveal the social context of their lives,” Dvir shot intimate environmental portraits in his subjects’ living rooms or bedrooms to highlight their individual personalities. “I wanted to show their lives how they are, not how you see them on the news or in the media. I wanted to humanize them,” he said. “It’s an invitation to look closer. It's almost as if to say, ‘If I can get so close, so can others.’ ”