Vulnerability and tenderness animate Kobi Israel’s large-scale portraits of Israeli men, many of them soldiers, photographed in private and personal spaces that hint at their inner lives. Although many are partially nude, the relationship with the viewer is not so much voyeuristic as it is empathetic.
Many of Israel’s images recall his own sexual awakening in the intense atmosphere of bonding and camaraderie that characterizes military service. More recently, Israel has brought the same intimacy to bear on his portraits of Cuban men, in whose lives he finds echoes of the Israeli society of his youth.
What drew you to photograph Israeli soldiers?
Like most Israelis, I joined the army at the age of 18. I took it for granted -- it was a part of life. I didn’t feel anything erotic about wearing a uniform or having communal showers with other young men; if anything, I was confused and horrified about my sexuality. When I moved to London, I found many people fascinated by the fact that I had served in the army for three years. I started seeing things from their perspective, from a “foreign” eye -- the distance in time and place made me reflect on the challenges and conflicts I faced back then. So it was, in fact, that foreign gaze -- seeing things from someone else’s eyes -- that drew me to shoot “Views,” my portraits of Israeli men.
What’s the relationship between Cuba and Israel in your work?
Although for me Cuba is a foreign land and society, I discovered many parallel experiences to my youth and adolescence in Israel, many similarities between the societies and their inherited macho/homoerotic conflicts and paradoxes.
Traveling in remote villages and small towns in Cuba, socializing with the locals (a bottle of rum will do), dining at their tables, I found myself having an extremely passionate experience of falling in love with a local Cuban cowboy. This secret, forbidden affair that lasted for several weeks evoked deep emotions and feelings that led to this work.