Snapshot of life in Jaffa

THE Israeli city of Jaffa on the edge of Tel Aviv has a diverse population of around 46,000 residents – Jews, Christians and Muslims – and a history that goes back to biblical times and is dominated by conquerors including Saladin, Richard the Lionheart and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Today Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew and Yaffa in Arabic), with one of the oldest ports in the world, is a hub of culture, entertainment, food and tourism, and a place close to the heart of Melbourne photographer Nathan (Natti) Miller, who was born in Tel Aviv.

His photographic book, Somewhere in Jaffa by Melbourne publisher M.33, was launched recently at the Sofitel Melbourne On Collins, where an exhibition of some of his photos is being held until July.

But the love affair with Jaffa got off to a slow start for Miller, who was born in 1950 in the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv but rarely ventured to the ancient city a short distance to the south in the 22 years he lived there.

“I didn’t have any friends there and I had no interest in going there. Jaffa was not my cup of tea,” he says.

After marrying Lindsay in 1977 and living on a kibbutz, they moved to South Africa in 1984 and later settled in Australia, first in Adelaide in 1989 and then in Melbourne in 1997.

Five years ago, while visiting Israel, Miller couldn’t find a hotel room in Tel Aviv and opted to stay in Jaffa.

“Suddenly a new world opened up to me and I fell in love with the place,” he recalls. “Every time that I returned to Israel I would stay in Jaffa.”

It was while visiting Paris last year, to participate in a Magnum Photos international workshop conducted by renowned photographer Abbas, that he decided to do a photographic project on Jaffa.

So Miller returned to Jaffa for almost a week – the first of four visits during 2013 – armed with a compact Fujifilm X-Pro1 camera to photograph the locals.

“I would sit in the corner of a street for an hour waiting for something to happen,” he says. “As I walked the streets and sat in cafes, I met people over breakfast, in the shops, markets and building sites.”

His task was made easier after befriending Jaffa-born Arab-Israeli activist Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka, who proved invaluable in introducing people to him.

“People felt comfortable being photographed by me after being introduced by her and many took me into their homes,” he says.

In the foreword to the book, Miller notes: “Jaffa is a place of contradictions. There is a cross-culture of embrace and rejection, political left and right, love and hate, the traditional and the contemporary and all in one small city.

“I have not attempted a comprehensive study of Jaffa, instead I just aimed to frame moments as I found them in the streets and homes of the city, hoping to capture the ambience and the diversity of Jaffa, keeping in mind ethnicity, tradition, the old and the modern.”

Miller prefers to use black-and-white photos in his books and exhibitions.

“Black-and-white photos add to the atmosphere – the viewer is not distracted by the colours.”

Miller invited Agbarieh-Zahalka to write a short essay for the book, which appears in English, Hebrew and Arabic under the heading “How narrow life is without the space hope grants us”. The essay explores the hard times and challenges facing Arabs and Jews living together.

She praised the book as a genuine contribution towards understanding Jaffa.

Although Miller was born into an artistic family – his mother was a painter – it was only when he turned 49 that he gave photography a serious tilt, making an 11-day trip to Havana, Cuba in 2001 to document the role that music played in people’s lives. The result was an exhibition, 11 Days in Havana held at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran.

Miller’s next project was documenting the Mississippi Delta in the United States, where the Delta blues music style originated. “I came back with some great photos,” he says. This led to Notes from the Mississippi Delta being published in 2008, with his work being exhibited in Melbourne that year, as well as at the Delta Blues Museum in the American town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 2010.

Two years ago Miller decided to concentrate on photography after the company that he was CEO of decided to close operations in Australia.

“My wife Lindsay was working full-time, we had income from a vineyard and I wanted to spend more time on my photography,” he explains. “It has been great – I’m very proud of my photos.”

Somewhere in Jaffa is published by M.33, $50 (rrp). Enquiries: www.m33.net.au; www.nathanmiller.co. The exhibition is at the Atrium Gallery, Sofitel Melbourne On Collins until July 6.

REPORT by Danny Gocs

PHOTO: From left: publisher Helen Frajman, photographer Nathan Miller and curator Natalie King at the launch of Somewhere in Jaffa at the Sofitel Melbourne On Collins.