Nir Avissar (Grad ‘13) recalls staring out the back of his Israeli army unit’s stalled Jeep. He saw a landscape of hills and mountains near the Dead Sea, dotted by a few houses and a handful of tents. Nearby, a shepherd mother and her two sons herded their sheep, and Avissar watched their brief but intense interaction. “In minutes, there was anger, there was compassion, there was love. And they didn’t pay attention to me at all; they didn’t even know I was there, watching,” he says. He wanted to capture and preserve this moment, a private scene turned public by the desert landscape of the West Bank. He imagined that photography could articulate his vision.
Soon after, while at Elyakim training base, Avissar began documenting the experience of his reserve duty in the Israeli army. He had completed three years of service—mandatory for all male Israeli citizens—a decade before being drafted once again, in the summer of 2006, at the end of the second Lebanese War. Already a graduate student of history when returning to the armed forces as a reservist, Avissar began to think of “the army as a cultural system” and planned to capture military life with the camera lens for later examination.
“Once one is drawn by force from civilian existence into military life, one no longer has control over one’s own life,” says Avissar. Changing from a private individual into a reservist with very little privacy can be a shocking experience; Avissar describes it as a “rupture,” a shift away from individuality. “I had to be more honest with myself,” he says. As a result, “I was more receptive to what was around me and what I saw.”
Avissar amassed hundreds of photos by the end of his 2007 tour in northern Israel. He never told his fellow soldiers when he was taking their photo; his shots are candid and raw. He frequently left formation to capture a shot, confessing that he acted and thought less like a soldier and more like a photographer.
Several months later, Avissar sifted through the images to form the visual narrative of Fragments of Violent Memory, a photographic essay exhibited in 2008 at Tel Aviv University and again in 2010 at the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative in Charlottesville. The story that had evolved, Avissar realized, was one not about cultural systems but about memory.
As a Ph.D. candidate in UVA’s Corcoran Department of History, Avissar’s stock and trade is the written record that holds the collective memory of the past. With photography, he’s also making sense of the past, of the myriad influences that come together to create a moment in time, but he uses images instead of words to do so. “My take on photography is that it has to strike the viewer,” he says, insisting that an image immediately evokes feelings and associations that words sometimes fail to articulate.