IDF women and guns &mdash shock and art in S.F. show

“Everybody and their mother has an opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” photographer Ashkan Sahihi says from his hotel in Iceland.

“It’s the cab-driver approach,” he says of his observation that from Boston to Mexico City, people unguardedly toss in their two cents — or two pesos — on the situation in the Middle East.

In “Women of the Israel Defense Forces,” Sahihi approaches the topic through a series of group and individual color portraits of young women in the IDF. The 40-year-old New York-based photographer spent two weeks taking photos of soldiers at four camps and the intelligence headquarters in Israel.

The exhibit will be on display at the Hotel des Arts in San Francisco from Saturday, Nov. 20, through January before it travels to Iceland.

Sahihi’s strategy is to use beautiful, simply composed images to get people to think differently about sensitive, nerve-pinching topics. His bold and widely discussed large format photography has focused on such topics as drug use, body image and sexuality.

“It is interesting to pick subject matter where people have a black-and-white approach. I pick subject matter where you have to look at it from many angles,” he says. “I find beauty in this.”

John Doffing, founder of START SOMA, a local arts organization with a gallery at Hotel des Arts, knew that Sahihi’s show would elicit strong reaction. But even he was surprised at how quickly people responded to his announcement of the exhibit. Within hours of e-mailing a broad international list of 10,000, he was “accused of promulgating pro-Israeli propaganda.”

“We were criticized for putting on an art show consisting of nothing more than pictures of ‘fascist chicks with guns,'” Doffing said. “And we were vilified for abandoning our ‘progressive projects’ with pro-Israel [garbage].”

Considering Sahihi’s track record with the taboo, it is no surprise he chose uniformed youth gripping guns twice the size of their forearms for his series. “The women introduce two additional layers to an already multilayered subject matter. They bring up the question of democratic society vs. non-democratic society,” Sahihi, who was born in Iran and raised in Germany, explains.

“For example, feminists in Germany and Sweden have been arguing in support of women in military service, but by the same token German feminists consider Israeli politics aggressive, occupational and undemocratic.”

And then there is the issue of beauty. “In open-minded circles people find anything with guns uncool and perverted. They are chicks with guns, but there’s no way you can’t see human beauty in them. You could hate what they stand for and the sick man who produced the photographs,” he says with a laugh. “But there is plain imagery, beauty that you can’t escape.”

Sahihi’s learned much about his subjects. One soldier with an almost-shaven head asked to be photographed without her weapon because she was opposed to, but legally locked into, being in the military. Another young woman, with a gun resting in her lap, told him it was important for women to serve in the army because they bring a “feminine understanding.” And what did he hear over and over? The women don’t mind the army, but they hate the uniforms that never fit.

This was Sahihi’s second visit to Israel. His first was as a child when he traveled with his family from Iran to the Baha’i spiritual center in Haifa. To his young eyes Israel looked like “paradise.”

“Everyone was playing music by the beach and doing things you could get your arm broken from where I’m from.”

Having been raised as a Baha’i with Jewish heritage on his mother’s side and Muslim heritage on his father’s side, Sahihi meditates and prays every day but does not practice the Baha’i faith. He says both his Muslim and Jewish heritage are integral to his spiritual development.

“Now after living in the U.S. for 17 years, I see that my parents [even though they were Baha’i] were from two different religions and cultures and without knowing it, they were in an interreligious marriage,” he says. “Culturally my father was very Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, and my mother’s interpretation of values was very Jewish. Scholarly issues and education were very important.”

While Sahihi discloses that he is “pretty fiercely pro-Israel” and that he believes that “Israel has the right to protect itself,” he claims he did not shoot this series to further a personal agenda.

“This is not about my opinion. But it is about saying to stop assuming after watching five minutes of the news.”

Doffing echoes Sahihi: “At the end of the day, we were hoping to create dialogue through art. And we have.”

“Women of the Israel Defense Forces” runs Nov. 20 through January at Hotel des Arts, 447 Bush St., S.F. Information: (415) 505-4734.