Photographer Debbie Zimelman never got the chance to serve in the Israeli army, having been too old for the draft when she immigrated to Israel.
So she did the next best thing, and spent five years creating “Women on the Front Lines, Inside the Combat Units of the Israeli Army,” a book of photographs of female combat soldiers.
The collection was snapped by Zimelman during time spent with 20 units, including being embedded with one unit for a 12 kilometer hike and hunkering down with a field intelligence unit near a fake hill-sized boulder around Eilat.
“It was the next best thing to being in the army,” said Zimelman at a launch of her book in her hometown of Modiin, surrounded by friends and family as well as two of the young women whose photographs appear in the book.
The book is the first of its type permitted by the Israel Defense Forces, said Zimelman.
She was always accompanied by a member of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, often more than one, and ended up using them to help carry her equipment.
Her best experiences were when her subjects, the young women soldiers, forgot that she was there and conversed about all kinds of topics during the hours-long treks and guard duty.
Most of the photographs are “half posed,” said Zimelman, explaining that subjects’ body language is more powerful when the shots are candid, revealing more about who they are and what they’re doing than if someone tells them how to stand or sit.
Part of the evening included a conversation with Syd Smith and Noa Ebstein, two former female combat soldiers featured in the book, who spoke with journalist Larry Derfner about their experiences in their units.
Ebstein served as a medic, working for part of her service with wounded Syrians on the northern border, while Smith served in a search and rescue unit in the Etzion Bloc and on the Egyptian border.
“All of the young women I interviewed and photographed said the army was very empowering,” said Zimelman. “It gave me a taste of something I never experienced, and helped me understand a lot more.”