A Conflict Photographer Captures Boys on the Precipice of Manhood
Amit Elkayam's tender photos offer an intimate look at young American men as they transition into adults.
All photographs by Amit Elkayam
Amit Elkayam is a recent graduate of the International Center of Photography (ICP). Prior to moving to the United States, he spent three years in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), where he served as a photojournalist in the spokesman unit. Despite having exclusive photographic experience as conflict photojournalist, his work at ICP exhibits an uncharacteristically youthful and soft tone, that is both charming, naïve, and thoughtful.
His most recent body of work, Two Blocks Away from the Sun, explores the notion of "boyhood" and the inevitable journey of "becoming men" by illustrating the vulnerability and fragility of pre-masculine behaviors in adolescent boys. He uses his subjects as metaphors of his own self-discovery and contemplates the transitional moments when the freedom to daydream reveals one's true self.
I sat down with Amit to discuss his thought process, his experience as a photography student, and how he sees himself evolving as an artist.
VICE: When did you come to the US?
Amit Elkayam: I came to New York last year from Israel, just two days after I completed my military service in the IDF. It was a strange transition because in the IDF, I was a pure photojournalist. I came to the States not knowing much about who I was as a photographer, nor having had any formal photographic training or education. That’s why I wanted to come to the US and study at the International Center of Photography (ICP).
How did you get into photography in the first place?
Before joining the IDF, photography was more like a hobby. Six or seven years ago, Instagram was first used by amateur photographers who were excited about the filters and wanted to share their images with their everyone. There was an Israeli community of Instagram photographers that would participate in contests and groups and meetings, which I belonged to. That’s how I got my start.
As a former photojournalist for the IDF with a regimented and structured way of shooting, how did your experience at ICP change your approach to making pictures?
When I made work, I tried to understand what actually moves me about the medium. My project at ICP was very subconscious. At first, I didn’t have an idea. I would just go around photographing things in my neighborhood in Ridgewood that would catch my eye. One day, I stumbled upon these basketball courts in this beautiful park and I realized that there was something—I didn’t know what yet, about the space that I was intrigued by. I didn’t want to force myself to choose a subject. Once you pay attention to your subconscious, you’re better able to tell a story.
So what themes did you draw from photographing in the park?
I grew up in this really small village in Israel and I never had this experience of coming of age in such a public space, surrounded by so many different people with different backgrounds. Because it was such a foreign concept to me, I was intrigued. It wasn’t the aspect of sports on the basketball court that caught my eye. I wasn’t interested in the action element. It was about people—the younger generation in particular, gathering in this space that excited me. The color, the diversity, and the self-expression. I felt like it wasn’t only about play, but socializing with different people.
The more I photographed, the more I realized that my work became more of a general observation on the world, and growing up as a kid. I was curious about the ideas of masculinity that we are raised to understand and accept. The project became an effort to understand the fragility of pre-masculinity. I feel like this work is an observation about myself, and how I grew up.
What is the photography scene like in Israel?
I only had a small window of time to engage with photography as a teenager, because I joined the IDF when I was 18, and came to the US right when my term ended. But I feel like there’s less understanding particularly about photography as a form of fine art. There is either photojournalism or fashion photography. And even though I was a photojournalist in the IDF, I don’t see myself as a pure photojournalist. Compared to New York’s photography scene, it’s unfortunately quite dull.
So you mentioned you don’t see yourself as a photojournalist—how do you see yourself?
It’s not necessarily that I’m not interested in photojournalism, but I’m interested in a different approach. I just feel like I’m in somewhere in between the photojournalism and fine art. I think people are beginning to realize that there’s nothing in photography that’s 100 percent true. There’s always some sort of abstraction or bias. On the other hand, though, I don’t like 100 percent fiction either. I do want to stay on this side of reality, but I also want to say that our thoughts and dreams can also be real.
What is something that you hope that your work conveys to someone who is seeing it?
I really believe that there is a positive way of doing documentary work. A lot of documentary work is pessimistic—bringing awareness to a social issue, a crisis, or a tragedy. But I think there’s ways to make positive work that still has the ability to leave a lasting impression. I hope that my photographs come across as uplifting.
On the other hand, what is something that might be a misconception of your work?
Some people see my work and say, “Oh! You like to photograph kids!” And seriously, I’m not driven by children. Photographing them is just a way for me to express something more general about my own experience.
What do you do in your spare time?
I spend a lot of time thinking about the next project I want to do. I’ve also been playing the piano. Before I became a photographer, I was almost sure I was going to be a concert pianist. I’ve played classical music ever since I was a kid, but because of stage fright I just couldn’t continue. I prefer much better to be behind the lens, not the main event.