The new exhibition of photography by Yuval Chen, the fruit of vigorous and concentrated work of recent years, is characterized by the tension that lies between intimacy and familiarity; and distancing and alienation. On one plain, they correspond with the term ‘photography/chronicle’, coined, in his time, by the editor and art critic Adam Baruch. Baruch, perceived photography as a vehicle for personal creativity and at the same time a poignant means to get involved in the various dilemmas of Israeli society. Photography as a personal and subjective journalistic apparatus could get engaged with the complexity of Israeli layered relationship with place and time. He thus emphasized the central status of photography in journalism and pointed out the dialectical relationship between image and text. This could very well describe the background and daily activities of Chen as a journalistic photographer. The second plain in his work focuses on his intimate social circle of family and friends, which he examines, with a sensitive gaze in this exhibition in specific.
Chen’s relationships with his circle of friends are continuous and strong. In his eyes, they are part of his family. Following this, the works in the exhibition are the product of a planned encounter with friends and their families, at once artificial and personal. Each set, each meeting point is enacted in a different place, surrounded by a different background and settings, familiar and strange accordingly.
Chen’s photographs, call on the observer to ponder over the routinized patterns in his own relations with others as well with the environment. It touches upon the way we build our private memories and questions how we become part of an abundant collective memory. The works deliberately aim at a kind of common denominator, where the terms ‘land’, ‘ground’, ‘landscape’, ‘tree’, ‘abandoned structure, ‘memorial’, ‘friendship’, and ‘family’ are a part of. Into this space, Chen brings the personal ground of his life, the sensory course of his childhood and maturity, and the people he is close to, from the military unit, the team, and other chapters in his life. Their life stories in many aspects are (also) his own. Of the friends from the army, Chen says they are family, “flesh and blood”, a family of life and death, of moments and memories that evokes kinship but also moments of inevitable disparity because the lives of each one of them have carried them on different paths.
The project they were summoned to is not a “reunification” or a “class reunion”. Each family is photographed in a different background, selected for reasons and contexts that Chen raises to the surface. These meetings are very personal – preceded by conversations, explanations, questions, concerns, and fears of exposure, ‘how the kids will react’ – while it is not regarded as an opportunity to present unity, still it offers the value of continuation and perseverance.
The people he photographed are obviously individual humans – men, women, children and it is precisely this that the photographs questions, namely the very theme of individuality, within the family, outside of it, the need for intimacy in the face of separating forces, apparent and subliminal tensions, etc’.
Chen’s photography offers an encounter of sensing and grasping of actuality, from a simultaneously mature and childlike perspective. Childhood memories play a meaningful role in his connection to places and to people, through them he examines feelings of alienation and closeness between friends, partners, and children.
The theme of the nuclear family occupies him a great deal and is at the core of his work process. Chen observes it, dives into it, and investigates his personal experience as well as the way in which the wider circle of his friends experiences it – each in his own personal story.
Chen often mentions cinematic scenes, films that influenced him such as “8½” by Fellini (1963) and “Stardust Memories” by Woody Allen (1980). The connection between these movies and the locals and scenes of his photographs is the duality or concurrency of realism, memory, fantasy and the feeling/emotions manifested in them.
Contemporary photography is fascinating. Over an extended period of time, questions are raised concerning the changing relationships between reality, technology, virtual or hyper-reality, and temporal human experience. Photography expanded fields breach into new circles of materiality, plasticity, and poetics. It has the power to direct a critical stance towards the world and influence the global discourse. As such, it literally constructs contemporary experience, yet, re-examines subjects such as alienation and estrangement in the digital age in a society which has forsaken and given up its privacy in an unprecedented manner. Chen’s work points to such feelings of loneliness, the fear of anonymity in the personal virtual space. We live in political and economic realms that are beyond our control, where political structures are collapsing and large populations migrate and lose their identities, while and on the other hand, ultra-nationalism and separatism are on the rise. We witness the tensions and conditions of conflict, violence, cruelty, and terror. We are deeply affected by this state of things.
Chen’s work, On the contrary, insists on the vitality and conservation of personal and shared memories, on a search that is perhaps romanticist in its essence, for a place, a body, tree trunk which creates a landscape, that which can be understood without words and is the closest to us, that which grants refuge and a certain feeling of roots, continuity and true essence. As a photojournalist, he regularly moves between public and private spaces, spheres of communication, information and artificial representations of reality. As such, Chen is well aware of the key terms of the Israeli ethos, such as the military, friendship, work, money, family, this land, the endless wars, the battles and the memorial sites, landscapes from the days of Saul and King David, in Emek Yizra’el. His photographs express, in the most sincere way, the yearning for the view and shade of the tree, the consoling and soothing, which gives sensuality and restfulness, if only temporarily, to nature and to life.