Behind the Lens in Jerusalem

View of Old City from atop the Old City wall at Damascus Gate. (Photograph by Alexandra Avakian)

Photojournalist Alexandra Avakian has photographed for both National Geographic Magazine and National Geographic Traveler. Her coverage of Egypt appeared in the September 2011 issue of Traveler, and you can see the fruits of her labor in a story about Jerusalem in the May issue. Our photo editor Krista Rossow asked Alexandra what it was like going on assignment in a city with such a long and complicated history. This is what she had to say.

Krista Rossow: What’s your overall impression of Jerusalem?

Alexandra Avakian: I have been to Jerusalem countless times since 1988 and have even lived there part time, so I love being in the city and always will. This time was interesting because the story is a journey of memory by an Israeli-born journalist, so I got to delve into Jewish history and culture, as well as covering Muslim and Christian sites. My overall impression of Jerusalem is an infinitely layered one that lives within me and changes constantly — and my knowledge and appreciation for it deepens every time I go.

KR: Was it difficult to gain access to certain religious sites and neighborhoods?  Did you have to dress differently when you went out to shoot?

AA: Yes, it was more difficult this time than ever before, at two key places in particular.

At the Dome of the Rock in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, I needed the permission of the Islamic authorities. I dressed as a Muslim woman, covering my body well and wearing a long lightweight cotton pastel scarf on my head. The Palestinians there said I was dressed in the style of a woman from Khalil and let me work for over an hour. I was very grateful because it is almost impossible to get permission these days, from either the Muslim, or Israeli authorities. This is the great holy hotspot on the planet: it is extremely sacred to all sides.

In Mea Shearim, an ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, photography is harshly discouraged, so I really had to be careful and very politely persistent. I dressed extremely conservatively in a long, high-necked blouse with full-length buttoned down sleeves, a full-length black skirt with black stockings, and very sensible black shoes. But in the street I was hit on the back as I tried to take pictures in the main square, and had plastic bags put over my lens.

KR: What was the most interesting thing you learned about Jerusalem while shooting this assignment?

Jerusalem has become more religious than ever. Because I know this place well, I shouldn’t have been surprised in the least that even though I was clearly shooting a cultural, daily-life story meant for travelers, locals still wanted to talk about politics, first, foremost, and always. I recommend that any tourist who wants to truly understand Jerusalem, should besides visiting the holy sites, spend some time listening to all sides.

KR: Did you discover a favorite restaurant, hotel, museum, or site while photographing Jerusalem?

For the first time I was able to photograph the prayer space under the Rock at the Dome of the Rock. That was a special thrill for me.

Another special experience was catching a feast day at the exquisitely beautiful Church of St. James in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City.

KR: A picture that ran in the story was of a couple of young men from Brooklyn who were studying in Mea Shearim. Do you have a favorite image that didn’t make it in to the piece?

One of my favorite photographs is a portrait of Ethiopian monks on the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Another favorite image was taken at Latrun, an important Israeli historic site and war memorial outside Jerusalem, of a mother and child.

To see more of Alexandra Avakian’s photography, check out a gallery of images from her National Geographic book Windows of the Soul, a collection of images and text from her time covering the Muslim world during two decades, or visit her personal website.

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