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About the Photographer
American, b. 1970 Columbus, OH
Rachel Papo's photographs of Israeli women between the ages of 18 and 20 during their mandatory military service present a side of the Israeli armed forces that is not often seen. These women are pictured at various moments in their daily lives, both in the midst of training exercises and off-duty, and throughout the series the young soldiers respond to their situation in a wide range of ways. Photographs of Israeli soldiers commonly depict them as stoic or heroic figures, but Papo captures a more complex state of emotions, including loneliness and uncertainty. Born in Columbus, Ohio but raised in Israel, Papo served in the Israeli Air Force as a photographer from 1988 to 1990, and she has described this project as an effort to come to terms with her own experience as a soldier. Its title, Serial No. 3817131, comes from her military ID number. Papo has said, "The photographs in this project serve as a bridge between past and present—a combination of my own recollections and the experiences of the girls who I observed." In this regard Papo draws on a strong sense of empathy, founded in her own involvement, while using photography as a means to make broader social observations.
These teenage girls are asked to become soldiers at a formative time in their lives, and as Papo describes, they enter a regimented, masculine enviroment just as many are exploring their sense of self. In focusing on young people in a period of transition Papo joins renowned Dutch photographer Rineke Dijsktra, who has expressed a similar interest and has also photographed Israeli soldiers. But whereas Dijkstra's large frontal portraits have an air of cool detachment, Papo's approach is more spontaneous—she works quickly and with a more candid photographic style, relying on ongoing observation. Rather than depicting single moments of ambiguous vulnerability, as Dijkstra does in her portrait sessions, Papo's photographs present the soldiers in context, registering the milieu and the activities that gradually shape their individual transformations.
Papo portrays her subjects both alone and in groups, and some of her photographs convey visually the necessity for these young women to negotiate between their sense of individuality and the institution's collective emphasis. In the image Hani during instruction on hand grenade throwing, Southern Israel, 2005 (#85), for example, one girl is seen sitting on the ground with an anonymous crowd of uniforms and rifles towering above her. Other photographs in the series discreetly connect the soldiers' experiences to the broader realities of life in Isreali. Michal on the train going home, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2006 (#98), for instance, depicts a girl talking on her cellphone with a large rifle in her lap. It is a seemingly incongruous moment, but beside her sits a man calmly reading a magazine, which signals this to be a commonplace occurrence in a country with a ongoing miltary presence.
Rachel Papo earned a BFA from Ohio State University (1996), and an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City (2005).