For the past three years, Nino Herman and his camera have been wandering the streets of south Tel Aviv. His photographs reveal the beauty that hides under the ugliness of these rundown streets, a splendor that many do not take the time to see. The diversity of humanity, coexistence between people from amazingly disparate backgrounds thrown together by chance, the joining of hands to move beyond war, poverty, and misfortune, and the transformative power of hope and love all receive an honored place in Herman’s work. > Photography: Nino Herman Text: Heidi J. Gleit
In a moment of introspection, Nino (Chananya) Herman, 61, comments, “Things happen because I am willing to see… Until I reached my 40s, I was an observer. Then I spent 10 years learning and now I am observing and influencing.”
Since Herman spent three decades working as a photojournalist, the tool he uses to accomplish this is his camera. However, when he returned to photography in 2009, after not picking up a camera for 10 years, he trained the lens, that he once had aimed outward, inward on the heart. He sees photography as a way to connect with people, explaining, “Photography is a way to bless people, to remind them of their beauty. I see the beauty which exists in each and every person and seek to show it.”
His journey to this point was a long one, he adds, and more than a few people helped him on the way, from Ronit Galapo, who taught him about relationships and mutual responsibility, to his mother, Lore Herman, who taught him to pay attention to people’s tone of voice and not just their words.
Herman was born in 1952 into a Tel Aviv home that was immersed in art, photography, and journalism. His mother was an artist who has been born in Berlin and had come of age in Amsterdam, where a Calvinist minister hid her and her parents from the Nazis after her twin brother was sent to a death camp. His mother passed her time in hiding by using her artistic skills to forge documents for the underground. After the war, she met Gabi Herman, who was serving in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army. They married and decided to make their home in the land of Israel, arriving on July 22, 1946, the day that the southern wing of the King David Hotel, which the British Mandatory authorities had made their headquarters, was blown up. Lore Herman’s parents soon followed them and Gabi Herman’s parents already were there. His father Hugo Herrmann had been a Zionist leader in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and had been active in the Bar Kochba student society. He studied Hebrew with writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon in Berlin and moved to the Jerusalem area in 1934, where he dedicated his time to writing essays in the resurgent language, editing newspapers, and writing a book.
Upon settling in Tel Aviv, Lore Herman made more conventional use of her artistic skills by painting and by teaching painting to adults and children.
“She would ask me to tell her what I saw in her portraits from the time I was a child,” Herman says, recalling his mother’s confidence in his ability to see the truth in her work.
When Herman was struck by polio at the age of two, his parents and older sister Judith did not make it into an issue.
“I did everything anyway. Polio did not limit me because I realized that limitations come from my head, not my body,” he says.
Polio did, however, prevent him from serving in the IDF. A desire to be close to the action despite that led him to pursue a career in photojournalism. While his contemporaries were in basic training, Herman was scrambling from one newsworthy event to another and then on to the offices of the daily newspapers in an effort to sell his photographs. He slowly climbed the ladder to success, learning from more experienced photographers and journalists. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Herman’s boss was reluctant to send him out on dangerous assignments, but photojournalist David Rubinger had no such qualms and invited Herman to come with him to photograph the fighting on the Golan Heights. Many years later, in 1984, Rubinger’s recommendation helped convince Israeli President Shimon Peres to appoint Herman his official photographer when he was serving as prime minister.
Working for the Ma’ariv daily newspaper, the Zoom 77 photo agency which he founded, and the Israeli Government Press Office, among others, Herman found himself traveling from IDF operations in Africa to ceremonies at the White House to then-prime minister Menachem Begin’s condolence call on Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s widow Jehan after his assassination. Even then, he worked differently than the other photographers, he recalls. When he photographed public figures, he also focused on documenting them as a person not just getting the official shot.
This all came to an end in 1998, when Herman fell and broke his leg so badly that he was confined to a wheelchair for several months. He took a leave of absence from Ma’ariv and never returned.
“When I see the news, I think I had enough of it. I was in all those places and had many experiences as a photographer, but I do not miss it because I did it. I prefer the people and the simple things in life to the news today,” he says. “By the time I left journalism, I was ready to leave it. News publishes the ugly and it is hard to be exposed to that all the time. As the photo editor at Ma’ariv, I was presented with horrible photos every night, photos of suffering and violence. I was inundated with material and needed a break from all the data and images.”
This actually was the second time he stepped away from journalism. When he was 32, Herman took a year off to establish the community of Nataf in the Jerusalem Mountains with a group of friends.
“It was an opportunity to fulfill a dream and blaze a new path. My grandfather built the first building at what is now Kibbutz Ramat Rahel and my father was one of the founders of Kibbutz Ein Gev. My wife Tehiya and I went there with young children and raised our sons, Eitan, Yair, and Daniel, there,” he says, adding that he has lived in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and feels very connected to them, though Nataf has been his home since it was founded.
This time, he began his break by studying with Galapo, whom he had met a few years earlier. Her teachings that everyone is responsible for – and has a major impact on – the people close to him even if he is not always aware of this led Herman to change the way he thinks and leads his life. It also helped him cope with the death of his son Yair, at the age of 20, in a car accident in 2000.
“She helped me to open my heart. Life gave us a chance to pick what to do and we chose not to be victims or objects of pity [after Yair died],” he says.
In 2009, the vitality and beauty he encountered in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood prompted Herman to return to photography. Intrigued by their diversity and love of life, he began photographing the young people in this neighborhood where aspiring Israeli artists live side-by-side with African refugees and migrant workers from Asia.
Herman describes himself as a street photographer and carries a membership card to the artists union instead of a press card these days. He visits Florentine frequently and when he sees people in a situation he would like to photograph, he requests their permission. This is something that rarely is done in photojournalism because the photographer has no reason to connect with his subjects, he notes. However, Herman wants to reach out to his subjects and so he only photographs with their consent. He does not speak to or interact with them a great deal, but something about his presence gives them the sense that they can trust him and be open with him and so they gradually reveal themselves to his lens. The trust his subjects place in him by allowing him to photograph them is a reminder that there is a place of trust in everyone, he says.
“I returned to photography in a real, honest, and profound way because I want to show my love and highlight the little moments of life, which are what life really is,” Herman says.
“Today people are so caught up in themselves that they no longer see the beauty of humanity,” Herman explains, adding he wants to share his faith in and love of humanity through his pictures and show that all people are the same, from the prime minister to the homeless man on the street.
In order to make his photographs accessible to all, Herman launched a blog titled “Spaces in the Heart,” which he updates several times a week. Not long after he returned to photography, the owner of an ice cream parlor in Florentine asked him to exhibit his work there. The small shop was a long way from the front pages of newspapers where his pictures once appeared regularly, but he agreed because this would provide the people he was photographing with the opportunity to see the results. He has since exhibited at a number of art galleries, including the Benyamini Contemporary Ceramics Center (see “Tel Aviv, Berlin, in Transit,” ERETZ 138).
“Herman illuminates the connection between reality and art. He succeeds, like a magician, to bring everything together. The people that he photographs connect to him as a person and the places where he photographs are not simply sets, but living spaces. Herman enters and exits them, entering the reality and drawing the art from it, entering and exiting again and again,” artist and curator Jennifer Bloch observes. “Herman illuminates his natural inclination to connect elements and people, to create a harmonious world in which everything sits well together, with an additional light. In opening the heart, Herman expresses what he wishes to say in a clear and strong voice, with the power of his expression and with the apt use of the tools that are at his disposable… There is a quality in his work which elevates man, and this is not merely an idealization, but rather a true offering of a different understanding of humanity.”