Photos document humanity, war

2015-05-19 06:00

After the Second World War, many men put down their guns.

But David Rubinger picked up his camera and continued shooting, capturing all of Israel’s wars.

An exhibition of the 90-year-old’s work is now on show at the Jewish Museum in Gardens.

Having exhibited his photos across the world, Rubinger says selecting photos for an exhibition is always challenging.

“I’ve spent 62 years in the profession, with half a century of that time working for Time Life,” he says.

“Making a selection is not easy. I used to show a lot of heroic photos from wars. If you ask people which photos stand out to them, nine out of ten will say a war photo. But nowadays I show more human interest photos,” he says.

Rubinger has always tried to capture the human element in his work, from homeless people to politicians and celebrities.

“It’s the human that matters,” he says.

Capturing war

Having lived and worked in Jerusalem for most of his life, much of Rubinger’s work deals with conflict in Israel.

“My life has mirrored the development of Israel,” he says.

Despite covering conflict for most of his career, some of Rubinger’s favourite photos come out of what he calls “the peace process”.

“My favourite photo is one where Egyptian president Anwar Sadat is whispering in Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s ear. These are men who have fought four wars against each other, but are in such an intimate pose. It’s a hopeful picture, showing that war does end and peace is possible,” he says.

Rubinger is known for his iconic photo of three soldiers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem at the end of the Six Day War in 1967, between Israel and the neighbouring states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

“The Western Wall is very important to many Jewish people as it is the remains of the temple which was destroyed by the Romans,” he explains.

“I was lying on my back to get the Wall in the shot when three soldiers passed by. I never thought it would be a good picture.”

The photo was “stolen” and reproduced without his permission on numerous occasions, and although this made Rubinger angry for many years, he admits it is what led to the photo becoming iconic.

“Iconic photos have nothing to do with the photographer. The public makes it iconic. They want to see something in the image,” he says.


At 18, Rubinger joined the British army to fight in the Second World War.

“I’m a Jew and I had to fight against Hitler,” he says. “My mother was gassed in a concentration camp outside Minsk.”

After the war, while Rubinger was stationed in Brussels, he and a fellow officer were given leave to visit Paris, as well as tickets to the opera.

“We were five minutes late and weren’t ­allowed into the opera,” he recalls.

“So we went around the corner and found a bar, where we met two girls. After that, we never did make it to the opera.”

He became good friends with one of the girls, who gifted him his first camera as he set off on home leave to visit Palestine for the first time in four years.

“I was 22 and I had never held a camera before,” he says. “I started taking a few photos during my leave and I loved it.”

Rubinger bought his first Leica camera, the make he still uses, shortly afterwards for a kilogram of coffee and two cigarettes.

An immigrant himself, having left Austria for Palestine when he was 15, Rubinger has spent much of his time documenting those moving to Israel.

“The country grew from just 600 000 inhabitants to over eight million in 60 years,” he explains. “I travelled with some of the first immigrants from Morocco, through Nice in France. I took a photo of their faces, at 05:00 in the morning when the sun rose and the ship anchored, as they saw the Promised Land for the first time with their faces full of happiness,” he says.

The next photo he took was of the same family, camping in tents on a barren Judean hillside.

“The government was cruel. They dropped people off in the middle of nowhere with tents and food. But out of those first people grew towns and cities,” he says.

A changing world

Rubinger’s work often took him away from his family. “You can ask my son – I was a lousy father,” he says. “But my work was sacrosanct. As a photographer, if you aren’t there you have nothing to show. I used to think if I’m not there, it can’t happen. Of course, I’ve learnt in the last few years that things happen without me.”

Few people have had the chance to see history unfolding as Rubinger did.

“I’ve met important people, good people and lousy people. I loved it. I’m not sorry about one thing,” he says.

Rubinger has seen the news photography industry transform, with news magazines shrinking and technology changing, since he started taking photos.

“People say nowadays everyone is a photographer because they all have cameras and smartphones. Shakespeare wrote with a quill made from goose feathers and although there was no shortage of geese, there was only one Shakespeare,” he says.

“Today, there is no shortage of cameras, but that doesn’t make everyone a photographer.”


The exhibition runs until Friday 31 July. The museum is open from 10:00 to 17:00 on Sunday to Thursday, and from 10:00 to 14:00 on Fridays. For more information, call 021 465 1546 or visit Entry is R50 for adults and R25 for students and pensioners

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