Aside from gags like that, you’d be hard-pressed to find visual surprises among Israel posters, souvenirs and postcards. You can probably picture most of them without even springing for a stamp: sober depictions of daveners at the Wailing Wall; shots of dusty ruins; sunset glinting off the Dome of the Rock; cartoon maps dotted with little icons showing camels in the Negev and snorkelers in the Red Sea and so on. Flip through a handful and you start to feel faintly gritty and sun-baked, like the end of a hike in the desert.
Here’s what you won’t see on the racks in Israeli tourist shops:
These are the tastes and sights that populate Israel today—its markets, its landscapes and especially its cuisine, where a heightened attention to quality and freshness rivals western Europe. And they are the visual building blocks of Hila Weiss, a 32-year-old photo stylist and photographer living in Tel Aviv.
Under the heading “Beautiful Israel,” Weiss’s lens seeks out lush close-ups of figs and goat cheese and pomegranates practically dripping with freshness, arrays of colorful ceramics, and sensuous desert blooms. Weiss trains her camera on salads, powdered spices piled in pyramids in the Old City souk, and on Bedouins pouring tea.
“My job is to walk around the daily markets and see what’s new, what’s fresh, and what’s new in season,” explains Weiss, who photographs exclusively by natural light in what she calls the European style of photography, emphasizing color and texture over focus. “The light in Israel is amazing and the colors are amazing.”
I could see her point as we chatted in the late-Friday-afternoon rays pouring into her airy white studio on Chen Street (say “cchhh-en,” as if clearing your throat), a garden-like boulevard in central Tel Aviv. With the impending arrival of Shabbat, the apartment was suffused with the nutmeg and cardamom aroma of Weiss’s fresh-baked cookies. (After several years freelancing for Israeli magazines, catalogue companies and advertisers, Weiss says she now forces herself to wrap up business on Friday afternoons and actually take Saturday, the country’s lone weekend day, for rest, not work.)
Weiss’s father, a professional tour guide, specializes in Israel’s outdoor highlights, so she picked up early on her country’s natural beauty. Accompanying his tours, she noticed that participants were stymied when they looked for souvenirs of the unusual sights and sensations of their visit. “They couldn’t find anything with the same freshness and flavor,” she lamented.
That’s where Beautiful Israel comes in. “My approach is taking the new photography but taking it to old places, like Jerusalem, Bedouin tents, the Dead Sea and Masada, and showing them in a stylish way,” she explained in nearly fluent, crisply articulated English. Weiss is seeking a publisher to help market her cards and photos. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni—who in 2006 opened Israel’s first department of nation branding—should hope she finds her audience, as these seductive montages of flavor and color mesh very well indeed with the new “Brand Israel” the government is trying to promote.
Of course it would be silly, as many Israelis themselves maintain, to suggest that “pretty pictures” could paper over the obvious political and cultural problems of the country’s Jewish-Palestinian divide.
And souvenirs for tourists are hardly a pressing world problem. But Weiss taps a deeper vein when she recognizes that imagery matters as much as (or more than?) rhetoric in countering Israel’s international rep as a dreary bastion of zealots and militarists. Whatever complaints you might have about Israel, anyone who’s been there knows it to be far more diverse and vibrant than its stock image.
Most humans have yet to visit, though, so “Israel has a big problem in publicizing herself as a stylish country,” Weiss said. “Nothing that’s with style or womanhood or softness in style or colors,” is associated with Israel. Yet she is softness itself in her mode’ish cotton shift and knows her country as a sensual land filled with vivid images, peopled by creative and independent thinkers. (Most of her design school peers are also freelancers.)
Unlike many talented Israelis who seek their fortunes abroad, Weiss says, she’s never tempted to leave for more recognizably “stylish” locales. “As a designer, I could find work in the States and in Europe,” she concedes, “but I believe in working from here and making it here.
“I can’t do without the food and sun anyway, so I don’t have much choice!”