Lens on the Holy Land: Photo exhibit in S.F. redefines military landscape

His pictures depict the detritus of war: a Katyusha rocket crater blackening an olive grove; a grounded Israeli Air Force Skyhawk rusting in a river bed; an ammunition depot in Nachshonim blown to bits.

But Shai Kremer insists he is no war photographer. He prefers to call himself an anti-war photographer.

The Israeli artist has an uneasy relationship with his native country. On the one hand, he loves the land of Israel and the ideals upon which it was founded. On the other, he decries what he calls “40 years of occupation” and what occupying the Gaza Strip and West Bank has done to Israel’s self-image.

Kremer grapples with these conflicts in a new solo exhibition titled “Broken Promised Land.” It opens at San Francisco’s Robert Koch Gallery on April 3, with support from the Consulate General of Israel.

In almost every photo, Kremer captures both the wild beauty of Israel and the military might necessary to keep the country safe. It’s landscape photography with a heavily armed twist.

“Basically, I use the landscape as a platform to raise a discussion of occupation and Israeli identity,” he says from his New York home. “I don’t give answers.”

Adds Tamar Akov, the cultural attaché at the Israeli consulate, “The message is how civilizations are ruining the land.”

Several of the photos in the exhibit were shot in Israel Defense Forces training camps.

In one, the IDF built a mock Arab village, complete with mosque, to teach soldiers urban warfare. In Kremer’s images, however, it’s a lifeless ghost town.

In other pictures, desert sandstorms sweep over the plains and valleys. Usually there are no people in the photos; just earth and sky pockmarked by the instruments of battle.

“Beauty for me is like a tool,”he says. “A war photographer tries to shock immediately. I go the opposite way, to be more subtle and distant.”

Born on a kibbutz in 1974, Kremer grew up embracing the socialist ideology of Israel’s founders. His parents were chalutzim (pioneers) who, he says, “devoted their life to this community, to the values of sharing and doing good. I grew up in these leftist values that don’t exist in Israeli society today.”

He discovered photography during his teen years and planned to attend art school. Mandatory army service interrupted that; however, the experience proved formative.

During boot camp in the Golan, he was injured during an exercise with hand grenades. Kremer had to abandon his military training, instead spending his army years as a medic.

“That was a moment of trauma,” he recalls, “where I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here?'”

He began questioning much of the conventional wisdom about Israel’s motives and tactics. At the same time, he began studying art photography, first at the Camera Obscura School in Tel Aviv, and later at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

In recent years, he has won the Israel Pais Grant for Art and Culture, and he took first prize in landscape from World Press Photo. His work has been featured in exhibitions worldwide, including the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and the Contemporary Art Museum in Tel Aviv.

His first volume of photographs is due out this fall. Titled “Infected Landscape: Broken Promised Land,” the book may outrage some in the Jewish community who find his work too critical of the Jewish state.

“Some of the biggest critics of Israel are Israelis,” notes Akov. “You sound your voice because it is such an open society. I certainly don’t think [the exhibition] is anti-Israeli.”

Kremer feels the same way.

“I feel at home in Israel,” he says. “I just finished my first show in Tel Aviv. We had a lot of discussions and a lot of people came. [Israeli newspaper] Ha’aretz dedicated a whole page to my show and said it was too soft.”

Kremer is already planning a new series of photos, one that will explore centuries of military campaigns in Israel, from the Romans to the Ottomans to the British.

The army vet would include the IDF among that list.

“As an anti-war photographer, I’m on the side of the victims always. I don’t distinguish. There are human beings on both sides.”

Photographer Shai Kremer’s “Broken Promised Land” will be on display 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, April 3-May 31 at the Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary St., S.F. Information: (415) 421-0122 or online at www.kochgallery.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.