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Photographs Are Like A Good Old Wine

David Rubinger is one of the most infuential photojournalists of the past decades. He sat down with Louisa Löwenstein to talk about his most personal photos and the quality of journalism on the internet.

The European: You are originally from Vienna, as a boy you fled to Israel after losing your mother in the holocaust. Still, you speak German fluently and visit often. Does Europe feel like home despite this history?
Rubinger: Not necessarily home. Home is not only where you are born, but also where you have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren like I do. But I still love Vienna and I still love being there. In my opinion, this has nothing to do with the Holocaust. Of course I don’t want to forget the holocaust, I may never forget. But I surely do not want to live it.

The European: What do you think about the German approach to dealing with the country’s difficult past? The idea that you can remember and commemorate the holocaust without becoming suffocated by guilt?
Rubinger: Germany deals very consciously with the burden of the holocaust. But Germany had many accomplices. I can not really say that they work on clearing their past as well as Germany.

The European: You’ve seen the war from different angles. As a photographer and as a soldier. You served in the Jewish brigade and later accompanied the Israeli army as a photographer. Which side influenced your opinion on war the most?
Rubinger: I was very young when I became a soldier. Like 80 percent of all soldiers in the British Army, I was not in the line of fire during the Second World War. When I look back, I remember that I only got shot at once during those four and a half years. To me, it seemed like an trip around the world financed by the king. Israel’s 1948 war of liberation is thus the only war where I really held a weapon in my hands. It was a short period, sometimes dangerous but not character-shaping. To experience eight other wars as a photographer has certainly shaped and taught me more.

The European: Has it ever been difficult to focus on the photography when all you want to do was either run away or intervene?
Rubinger: No. The imbecility which makes journalists put themselves into danger is a contagious disease. I guess it’s because heroism often results from shame. One is ashamed not to act. Answering your question of whether I would help or rather take a picture in specific situations, the only thing I have to say is: If you are a human being (and some photographers still are), you help. But which one is better? To capture the atrocities of war with your camera or shoot your opponent with a gun? I prefer taking pictures.

The European: Your most famous picture depicts a group of paratroopers next to the Wailing Wall shortly after its conquest during the Six-Day War in 1967. Tell me the story behind that picture.
Rubinger: I had been on the southern front outside of El Arish on the previous evening when I heard that something was going on in Jerusalem. I jumped aboard a helicopter that was taking the wounded to Be’er Sheva, where I had parked my car. Around six or seven in the morning, I arrived in Jerusalem, went to see my family and then headed towards the historic city center. The Wailing Wall had just been seized and the old houses were still there, so everything was quite narrow. I laid on the ground and shot upwards to get the Wall into the frame. As the three paratroopers passed, I shot three almost identical frames. Shortly after that, the Chief Rabbi of the army entered the scenery with a Torah and a shofar. The students took him on their shoulders, cheering. I thought I had the best shot of the day. When I developed the film at home looking at them with my wife – convinced that the one with the Rabbi was the best – she preferred the three frames with the soldiers. I said: “What are you talking about? Those are just three people randomly standing there…” As always, the woman was right.

The European: The photo brought you worldwide recognition. The State of Israel gave thousands of copies away without asking for permission. Are you bitter about the copyright violation?
Rubinger: I got the rights back in a lawsuit many years ago. I had given one of the frames to the military spokesman on the same evening I took the photo. Since I had been very secure and could move freely although I was not working for the military, I had wanted to express my gratitude. The military spokesman handed the negative to the press office and they got busy printing copies. Associated Press used it as cover picture for a book. One or two colleagues sent the prints to their agencies with their name on it. For many years, I was upset. But today, I must confess that I am deeply grateful to all those thieves.

The European: Which of your pictures is your most personal capture?
Rubinger: That is hard to say. It is like asking parents which one of their children they like the most. But one thing is for sure: it certainly isn’t the one we just talked about! One of my pictures shows Anwar El Sadat and Menachem Begin in a very intimate conversation. It seems as if Sadat is whispering something into Begin’s ear. I appreciate this picture for two reasons. For one, it is a good classic black and white photo. Not even one millimeter in the frame is unnecessary. And secondly you see two men that fought four bloody wars come together in a very intimate setting.

The European: You are 86 years old now. Have you taken photographs that you value differently now than when you first took them?
Rubinger: I don’t think so. Photographs are like a good old wine. They get better. I have never seen my work as a cover picture for tomorrow’s edition of a magazine. Each and every one of my pictures seemed significant at the time, sometimes that is even more true for the less important ones. That is why I am and have always been a fond archivist. I have lost one entire film – number 577 – and I cannot forget that it is missing. My TIME picture editor once wrote to me: “Consider each of your pictures as a sketch of history”. I took this advice very seriously.

The European: There is a fine line between a serious photographer and a paparazzo. Have there been moments when you had to be careful not to cross that line?
Rubinger: The difference is captured in one sentence: Anything is legitimate, as long as the public has the right to see and to know it. That does not include Mrs. Merkel’s butt.

The European: So you have pictures in your archive that should rather stay locked away?
Rubinger: Every now and then, you take a picture, sometimes even unconsciously, that should better not be printed. About one year ago, I took a picture of a minister in the Knesset while she colored her lips. The look she gave me was enough to apologize right away.

The European: By the way, what’s on film number 577?
Rubinger: Film number 577 was taken at the airport in the sixties and showed Polish immigrants getting out of a plane.

The European: You took pictures of and met most of Israel’s important statesmen and those of other countries. Who impressed you the most?
Rubinger: I had a very good relationship with Ariel Sharon. Once I was in a meeting when they discussed quite delicate issues. I was the only photographer or journalist present. One of his advisors suddenly pointed at me and said: “Ariel, we cannot discuss this openly here”. He was worried about my presence, of course. Ariel looked at me and said: “Oh, I know Rubinger. I trust him. Although I know he never votes for me.” It has been easy with Yitzak Rabin as well. He was an experienced and excellent amateur photographer himself.

The European: Is the internet creating a visual overload? Are we so filled up with pictures of bad quality that we cannot appreciate professional and good pictures anymore?
Rubinger: I fear that my answer is yes. Look at the writing – blogs, commentaries, the quality. The pictures adapt to that! When I started my career, there was LIFE; Paris Match, Saturday Evening Post, LOOK, Picture Post, Oggi and hundreds of magazines looking for good photographers. What can a young, good photographer expect nowadays? To sell a picture to AP or Reuters?

The European: Do you think one reason for this is that, theoretically, it is easier to take good pictures, technically spoken?
Rubinger: No, absolutely not. If only the instruments and not the skills were decisive, then there would have been many Shakespeares. They certainly didn’t lack goose quills. The question: whom photographers can still work for nowadays? Who can give them the opportunities that LIFE gave me?

The European: Are there opportunities to change something about the condition of the press?
Rubinger: I am a photojournalist, not an editor-in-chief. But let me give you an example: We have an evening paper published in Israel that is published on a daily basis. It’s free, hundreds of thousands are given away every day, financed by an American billionaire with the hidden agenda to support Netanjahu. It is a classic case of a troublesome cooperation between wealth and politics. What we need is a multi-billionaire who would put those sums into a paper out of pure altruism – that would be an answer. Unfortunately, that’s the best answer I can give you.

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