The museum gallery housing Sarah Muchtar’s first photography exhibit presents four white walls of her photographs, with large portraits and smaller works that offer intimate hints of the tragedy that completely altered her family’s life two years ago.
The exhibit, “By a Thread,” opened December 26 at Jerusalem’s Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art, a third-floor space that is part of the historic Heichal Shlomo Synagogue in downtown Jerusalem, and will run until March 22.
In July 2017, the Muchtars’ car, packed with her, her husband Alon, and four of their five children, was sideswiped by a truck on a quiet road in northern Israel. The Muchtars were on their annual summer vacation with Alon’s extended family, and their car was the first in line in a caravan of five vehicles.
Alon, 48, and two of their children — Ella, aged 13 and their youngest son, Yoel, age 7 — were killed instantly.
Sarah Muchtar was hospitalized for several weeks with severe injuries. Over the months of recovery and rehabilitation with her surviving children, she picked up her camera and began photographing images from their new, broken life.
Photography wasn’t new for her. The Philadelphia native, who had moved to Israel with her family when she was 11, attended the Musrara School of Art, followed by her studies at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.
During the ensuing years, however, she married Alon and focused on raising their family of five children. She had continued taking photos, mostly of her kids. Now, however, the camera called to her for different reasons.
She used it to capture her youngest daughter, then 11, who was sleeping with her in the same bed. She photographed Yoel’s sneakers and his tricycle, its wheels sinking into the layers of leaves in the backyard; her husband’s clothes folded in their bedroom closet.
As the months passed, Muchtar continued photographing images that moved her. Sometimes it was the intimate objects of their life: Alon’s undershirt, a baby romper, Yoel’s tzitzit, her younger son’s red rubber duck on the floor of the shower stall. At other times, it was exterior objects that moved her, a pile of rotting clementines in their backyard or three stones at the side of the road.
“I have to capture the moment. It has to be authentic, like a journal,” said Muchtar. “It’s a very intimate journal. It was just for me, I didn’t think I’d show anyone what I was feeling. It was very intuitive. It was what reminded me of them, of what I felt.”
It’s the very starkness of the photographs, dark fruit amid piles of leaves, slate gray stones, the hint of a profile, that lend such strength and power to the exhibit.
Muchtar had not planned to make an exhibit out of her intimate portraits. She showed some of the photographs to a friend, who was awed by the body of work. Muchtar was then introduced to portrait photographer and curator Vardi Kahana, and the two worked together for close to a year, honing and winnowing the collection of pictures.
Kahana originally didn’t want to curate the exhibit.
“I said, ‘Thanks but no thanks,'” said Kahana. “I didn’t want to enter that vortex of emotion.”
Her reasons were sound.
“The work of a curator is like that of an editor,” explained Kahana. “You need to say when things don’t belong. It’s a kind of dialogue that sometimes is critical or a little patronizing and that can be hard, and certainly in a project like this where she is putting her heart on a table. I’d had experience with these kinds of works that are wrapped in mourning and it scared me.”
Yet she was deeply drawn to Muchtar’s works when she saw them. Kahana told Muchtar that she would curate it if they were “super professional” about it.
“I’m not going to be afraid if certain frames aren’t good or repeat themselves,” she told Muchtar.
That made sense to Muchtar. She had become accustomed to “putting up a wall” between her emotions and her persona; this was no different. At the same time, this professional development was something that her husband, Alon, had wanted for her.
The curation was a long dialogue, said Kahane. There was the selection of the oversized, formal portraits, which show emotion and Muchtar’s attention to detail, said Kahane. There were also smaller photos taken with a phone, when Muchtar was still physically weak and the phone was what she could hold.
Some three dozen photos in all are displayed in the exhibit, with one wall dedicated to what is outside Muchtar’s house, and another to what is inside. There are portraits of one child’s milk tooth and of a rubber ducky, trivial objects that became symbolic because of the disaster that happened to the family.
There are no titles or explanations under each photo, just Kahana’s introduction, which creates a story-like element to the exhibit.
“It’s basically about what I’ve been going through,” said Muchtar, “hanging on by a thread.”
The exhibition title in Hebrew, “Al Bli-ma,” is a play on words that also means hanging in the ether, in the netherworld, which is what Muchtar said she feels like much of the time.
In many ways, Muchtar has moved forward — working on this exhibit, learning to drive, and enrolling in a course to teach photography therapy.
Her surviving children are also thriving, having returned to school, to their youth movements, and to their futures.
They support her photography work, teasing their mother over the twists of the unexpected and unusual in her photographs.
“My kids always say, “It’s weird, Mom, you probably want to take a picture of that,'” she said.
But their trauma and tragedy remains central to their existence.
The one non-photographic element that Muchtar insisted upon at the exhibit was the placement of dozens of empty glass memorial candle holders, from the candles she still lights each week since her family members were killed. The glasses were placed in rows in a glass cabinet at the end of the exhibit.
“The artistic experience that you grasp from Sarah is clear,” said Kahana. “It’s true that she learned this 20 years ago and didn’t make a career out of it and that this tragedy made her come back to it. Sarah opens an aperture to what she’s going through and she’s saying, ‘It’s okay to touch the pain, it’s okay to deal with it.'”