"I can spend hours agonizing over what I have seen and lost."—Rina Castelnuovo
A bowl of oranges and pitcher of water hold down a gold tablecloth that shimmers in the midday sun. A father concentrates on peeling a piece of fruit while his two little girls look up at him, expectantly. Behind them, a rugged desert terrain stretches until it touches the cloudless sky, which is a deep, saturated blue.
This scene would be outright desert pastoral, except that you can't get to the family with the oranges or the color of the sky without first stopping to study the yellow sign in the picture's foreground, marked with red skull-and-crossbones. The sign's message is repeated three times, in three languages: "Danger. Firing Area. Entrance Forbidden."
Negev Desert, Israel (2008) is one of 33 pathos-driven photographic works by Israeli photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo, on display at Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York through May 28. The show comes on the heels of two honors for Castelnuovo, who was recently awarded first place in the category of International News Picture Story by the National Press Photojournalists Assocation, and took third place in the category of "General News, Singles" in the World Press Photo of the Year competition in February.
Depicting scenes of everyday life in Israel, which includes the surreal reality of West Bank settlements and outposts, Castelnuovo seeks out precious, precarious moments that are both undeniably sincere—a Palestinian girl from East Jerusalem protesting at the Gaza crossing by holding a single Palestinian flag; an Israeli settler fishes on a beach while rocket fire from Gaza has gone quiet. Collectively, the images in the show are empathetic portraits of a diverse people, sharing a land overshadowed by conflict. The specific narratives woven into each pitcure are driven by the photographer's interest in the relationship (or lack thereof) between her subjects and their environment.
In the breathtaking Nablus, West Bank (Mt. Gerizim) (2009), a Jewish settler meditates sunrise from on top of a mountain where an outpost once stood, before its settlers were evicted. The image is ethereal; there is real quietness of the hills and the valley below.
"I'm only inspired by human subjects and what surrounds them," says Castelnuovo. "A beautiful landscape with no life in it remains a beautiful landscape, but I don't feel the urge to photograph it. I can just look at it and admire it." Castelnuovo shoots almost exclusively on a horizontal plane, to more realistically represent the human visual experience. "This is the human vision, how we see the world," she says.
WESTERN WALL, 2010. COURTESY ANDREA MEISLIN GALLERY
As a photojournalist, Castelnuovo's negotiates artistic control over the situation. "When a scene unfolds it can happen anytime, anywhere," says Castelnuovo. "You follow events that you have no control over." She says that there are artistic photographers who use photography as a medium to create art, while, "Photojournalists are using the 'art' of seeing."
While reporting the annual Purim parade ending at a Hebron shrine called the Cave of the Patriarachs, Castelnuovo happened upon a Jewish settler dressed as a clown. He was standing facing the ancient stone wall, rainbow wig-covered head bowed in prayer. The resulting image, Hebron (2010), is poignant and whimsical.
Says Castelnuovo in the spirit of alchemy, "A photojournalist does not create the image. It's there for him, the meaning of what one sees—the colors of light, life and real people—it's all there. At times all of the above folds into one meaningful or harmonious relationship, a lucky moment."
A most striking pairing of photographs in the current show entails two images of a bus stop scene. In Silwan, East Jerusalem (2009), Palestinians wait for a bus, while in No Man's Land (2010) it's Israelis at a bus stop. Studying the images together (they're mounted side-by-side), it's impossible not to notice that both scenes feature a low stone wall in the background, above which is a painted mural featuring sea and sky and, in the center, a tree. A bluebird sky fills the rest of both of the photos. In fact, the most obvious difference between the images is the people.
ANDREA MEISLIN GALLERY IS LOCATED AT 526 WEST 26 STREET, #214