Gili Yaari photographs the Purim celebration in Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem

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Yaari is a photojournalist, first and foremost, focusing on reportage but often documenting life in his homeland. “Israel is such a small country, and the contrast between the various religious groups – secular, Ultra-Orthodox, Jewish, Christian, Muslim – is fascinating, even from a visual perspective.”

His empathetic eye and forethought enable him to capture the rich complexity of the Israeli landscape from a perspective afforded few, resulting in numerous international photography prizes and exhibitions, the most recent of which was a 2015 Sony World Photography Award for his image, Purim Holiday In Jerusalem, from the series Ultra-Orthodox Jews Celebrate Purim in Mea Shearim 2014, one of the most visually intriguing series in his ample body of work.

“Leaving aside the historical story, according to the Jewish religion, Purim is a time for happiness. Most Israelis just have parties and wear costumes, but the Ultra-Orthodox community take celebrations to new heights. All the men drink wine (and lots of it!), and they dance and celebrate. There is an indescribable electric atmosphere when hundreds, even thousands, of men and boys dance and sing loudly. This is the only day of the year when the children smoke. They’re allowed to – it’s part of the tradition.”

He interacted with the community during their celebrations and “merged” with them, he says, so as not to intrude on the festivities but rather to share in the joy as a respectful, interested onlooker. “People generally like it when others are interested in them, so when they felt comfortable I started taking pictures. I showed respect and didn’t treat them as ‘subjects’. Sometimes no words are needed, just small gestures, like nodding your head. Even making eye contact can be enough. I guess that since most of the men were drunk anyway, they were happy to be photographed. Some of the men even started dancing with me! That was fun.”