DEAD SEA, Israel — In the small alcove where Jaky Ben Zaken pushes his military-grade rubber Zodiac boat into the Dead Sea, a crystallized salt formation juts out of the water, reaching 1.4 meters (4.5 feet) into the air. It stands at attention over the brilliant turquoise bay, passively watching as the waves recede, exposing more and more of its base.
This specific salt “chimney” is the measuring stick for Noam Bedein, a photographer and activist who founded the Sderot Media Center in 2007. When Bedein first came out with Ben Zaken on his boat in April 2016, the top of the chimney was just peeking out of the water. In the past nine months, the level of the Dead Sea has dropped 1.18 meters (3.8 feet). Nothing shows this drop as starkly as this particular salt structure.
“Only by showing it visually will people understand what it means when we say that the Dead Sea is drying out,” said Bedein.
“Once you see those pictures, and you’re on the boat and you can see how big it is right now, you get this smack in the head of understanding. Just nine months and it went down this much?”
Bedein is no stranger to understanding how photography can influence emotions. While attending Sapir College in Sderot, he started documenting life in the city closest to the Gaza Strip. He wanted the rest of the world to understand the challenges of living in that area under constant rocket barrage from Gaza.
“With Sderot, I was trying to show people, visually, what does it mean to run for your life in 15 seconds?” Bedein explained. When air sirens go off warning of an impending rocket launch from Gaza, residents have about 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter of find a protected place.
Bedein credits the Sderot Media Center, which provided flurries of text messages, photos, videos and updates about rocket attacks in both Hebrew and English, with putting Sderot on the international map.
After years of capturing human-made destruction in Sderot, Bedein wanted a change of scenery and decided to move to Nokdim, a settlement in the Gush Etzion Bloc, in 2013. Now he focuses his camera lens on tourism promotion in the Jerusalem hills region. “I call it ‘From Rockets to Rainbows,’ because I was chasing rockets for many years, and then I was seeing the Judean Desert like never before,” he said.
Because of the desert’s unique position next to the Jerusalem mountains, which gets rainfall, many rainbows form throughout the winter.
“Now I’m exploring beauty without the human drama, documenting something a bit more positive and uplifting,” he said.
“You get the same surge of adrenaline chasing these rainbows as with rockets, you only get a few moments to capture it,” said Bedein.
In April 2016, Bedein was looking for off-the-beaten path tourism sites in the greater Judean hills region to photograph, and someone mentioned Jaky Ben Zaken’s company, Salty Landscapes, which runs boat trips on the Dead Sea for tourists and researchers. The next day, he set off from the alcove just down the hill from Mitzpe Shalem, where Ben Zaken lives.
“I was blown away,” he said. “Every time I shut my eyes that first week, I would see all those colors and formations and salt layers.”
Three months later, he came back with his family, and was shocked at the difference. The same places they visited were now completely changed or gone altogether.
“Going out and seeing it dried out, it was pretty shocking,” he said. “It pinches you somewhere. You see this magical formation of the salt coming out, then you come back a few months later and it’s gone.”
Bedein and Ben Zaken struck up a partnership, and now Bedein goes out twice a month with Zaken, photographing the drastic changes.
Ben Zaken started Salty Landscapes with his wife, Orit Sol, five years ago, during the height of the campaign to get the Dead Sea recognized as one of the Natural Wonders of the World. The Dead Sea did not make the cut.
Although Ben Zaken’s company is for-profit, he has a soft spot for researchers, activists, journalists and photographers, and anyone who will help raise awareness of the Dead Sea’s precarious position.
“These geophysical chimneys that you see, we found them five years ago by accident,” said Ben Zaken. “We were doing another research and found that there are fresh water springs coming up from under the sea, and these salt chimneys form around them with fresh water coming up the inside.”
Ben Zaken, who spent years traveling around the world, working on boats and cars from Sweden to Alaska to Antarctica, moved to Mitzpeh Shalem 12 years ago. He started the company because he missed being on the water. His boat is made of a special hypalon military-grade fabric, a multi-layer rubbery material that includes neoprene, which he must wash down every night to avoid the salt’s corrosive destruction.
Because the Dead Sea is a closed military zone, Ben Zaken coordinates with the authorities for every boat launch. He used to set sail from Mineral Beach, but after sinkholes forced the beach’s closure in 2015, Ben Zaken had to close his business while they looked for a new launch spot. Today, he uses a spot just below his kibbutz, but is candid about their precarious position. He never knows if sinkholes will render this access spot impossible as well.
Although Ben Zaken visits the same spots with tourists and researchers nearly every day, his unmistakable passion for the sea never wanes. “It’s more of an educational tour than a boat tour,” he said. “The idea started from the need to bring knowledge about the Dead Sea to people, about all the beauty of the Dead Sea, all the problems of the Dead Sea.”
“If there’s a place I’m not coming to weekly, it’s totally different. You see the changes over the course of weeks or even days, it’s sad,” he said.
Ben Zaken’s boat only has 10 seats, though he is planning to build a new fiberglass boat that will seat 15. He has no plans to go larger than that, cautious about disrupting the delicate ecosystem.
Bedein knows photographs can reach an unlimited audience, especially those who will never have a chance to sail with Ben Zaken.
“We’re seeing the Dead Sea like never before on this boat,” said Bedein. “We’re discovering these newborn beaches, we are the first people in history setting foot on all these alien-looking beaches.”
Bedein currently has a small photography exhibit at the Gush Etzion Community Center near Alon Shvut. He hopes to eventually bring his exhibit on a national tour of Israel and then the world.
“The common tourist, when they come to Israel, they go to Ein Bokek, to the hotel district,” Bedein said, with unmistakable pity in his voice. “Just look at the satellite image. It’s not a sea, it’s a pool of salt that’s left over. If we don’t do something now, the next generation is not going to have a Dead Sea. By the year 2050, there will be a pool of salt.”
“No one wants to think 20-30 years ahead,” Bedein added. “We have these pro-Israel videos, saying Israel is saving water in Africa, but we have our own water problems that are so easy to solve, they don’t cost anything, it’s just about opening the Jordan River, that’s the only solution.”
“During the rocket attacks [in Sderot], when I got to the area after the rocket explosion, I’d see all these artistic angles of destruction, and taking a picture I can capture that image,” he said. “It’s very familiar to what I’m seeing now in the Dead Sea, seeing the salt layer collapsing and seeing the beauty of it.”
As a photographer, Bedein is particularly intrigued by the swirls of colors the water uncovers, alternating layers of salt and mineral and dirt that look like eddies of brilliant acrylic paint slathered on the ground and rocks.
Dov Litvinoff, the mayor of the Tamar Regional Council, also fell in love with the brilliant colors, but for a very different reason.
“Cosmetic companies around the world spend a lot of money trying to create colors that we have right here,” he said. “There are colors in the sinkholes made by bacteria. Hi-tech companies can learn how to take that bacteria to make these colors in their labs.”
“These layers of salt have been here for hundreds of years,” said Bedein. When the water level goes down, these colorful swirls become brittle salt formations. Eventually, the salt is covered with desert dust, and it blends into the mud.
“I’m really capturing these treasures of the Dead Sea, all these unique formations coming out, documenting the water level going down,” said Bedein. “This is beauty, and it’s disappearing. I try to look at it positively, and connect people visually. I have to show this beauty and the true magic that is disappearing very fast in front of our eyes.”