A Fierce Eye

The first thing you notice about photographer Irene Fertik is her long, gray hair, which flows well below her waist. Although she usually wears her hair up, Fertik has left it down
today, because when she does “the lioness comes out.” It’s hard to imagine Fertik, 66, with the lioness contained. Her passions for art, politics and the plight of minority populations are channeled not just into her speech, but her art. “Photography is the love of my life. I am married to my profession,” she said, gesturing to her photographs in her Santa Monica home. “This is my children, this is what I leave after me.” Fertik recently returned from spending two and a half months in Israel, shooting Arab Israeli grass-roots organizations funded by New Israel Fund’s (NIF) SHATIL program, which promotes democracy, tolerance and social justice in Israel. She says that volunteering her services to NIF is her way of giving back in her semi-retirement, and the experience is changing the way she considers Israel. She plans to take her photographs to NIF offices around the United States and talk about fundraising. She is also seeking grants to return to Israel to
continue documenting these grass-roots organizations. Long critical of the Jewish State’s treatment of its Arab citizens, she reveled in meeting Israeli Jews who share her perspectives. “That is what NIF is all about; you can have a progressive position on Arab rights and, at the same time, Israeli patriotism. NIF restores my faith in Israel,” she said.
Fertik is quick to acknowledge her roots in 1960s activism. Her mother was a playwright and a writer for Philadelphia’s Jewish newspaper, her father a businessman and an actor. She discovered photojournalism in college at the University of Pittsburgh while working for the school newspaper. After college, she began photographing the organizations and arts institutions that made up the Harlem renaissance. “I worked in New York City documenting black culture at its most positive. I was celebrating black American culture, which I found very meaningful,” she said. In 1967, Fertik went to Israel to live on Kibbutz Ein HaShofet near Haifa. Even at that time, she was concerned that their Arab Israeli neighbors did not enjoy equity. She never planned to return, but that changed in 1991 when Israel airlifted 14,000 Jews from Ethiopia during Operation Solomon. “It’s Ethiopian Jews that brought me back to Israel,” she said. In particular, she wanted to know if Israel would treat its African immigrants like third-class citizens. Instead she found that Ethiopians were welcomed and treated the same as, if not better than, other Israeli immigrant groups. While Ethiopian immigrants were embraced by Israelis, Fertik has also watched their struggles to adapt from mountain agrarian roots to Israeli culture.
Fertik is currently working on a book, “From Tesfa to Tikva — From Hope to Hope,” and plans to exhibit her photos in April at the University of Vermont’s Fletcher Library.
After finding herself unemployed at 59, following a career that included work as a staff photographer at the Burlington Free Press and at the University of Southern California, Fertik was once again drawn to Israel. She spent more time documenting Israel’s Ethiopian community and, along the way, became interested in the work of NIF. Her first assignment with them was shooting an unincorporated Bedouin Village in the Negev that lacked access to water, electricity and infrastructure. Fertik says that Arab Israelis, many of whom now self-identify as Palestinian, “want to stay in Israel if they have the same rights.” Then she added, “They are hoping for better schools and infrastructure. They’re entitled to it, they’re Israeli citizens and after 60 years, they still don’t have equality.” But just as Fertik is critical of Israel she is also critical of the Arab world’s “feudal mentality” and archaic traditions when it comes to women. Still, she believes that the majority wants peace. And she uses her art to get her ideas across. “You learn as a photojournalist, No. 1, to stay neutral. And No. 2, you learn that there is no such thing,” she explains, adding that although it can be subtle, the pictures a photographer chooses frame the situation from a particular perspective. “I can’t help it,” she says, “my style is to be a participatory photographer.” Fertik’s photographs are her form of social activism. “I want to move people,” she said. “My talking won’t necessarily move people but the images might.” On her first assignment in the Negev for NIF, she worried about her ability to make it through the hot desert with little water. “I met a caravan from Tel Aviv and more than half the people were alter-kackers. I said to myself if they can do it, I can do it,” she said.
Fertik exercises daily to ensure that age doesn’t get in the way of what she calls the “running around” to capture the right moment. “At this point in time, I feel I am working against the clock, against gravity and against people’s perceptions. I compensate by being more aggressive, more macho, more physically active,” she said. Fertik says that continuing her work keeps her young and vital. She also believes that being a woman has always put her at an advantage. “In the 1960s, there were very few women photographers. People immediately saw me as sympathetic,” which she says allowed her access to other cultures. She hopes that showcasing her work on Ethiopian Jews in April will help promote a new view of Israel, countering the “black eye” the country has in much of the world. “This will be a ray of light showing Israelis trying to level the playing field, enhance democracy and pluralism in Israel.” “I’m not just a romantic teenager thinking about what Israel could be and should be. These are facts on the ground and work being done to make Israel a better place for everyone,” she said.

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(Tags: Art, Photography)

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