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Interview

UK photographer fed up with antisemitic fake news turns lens to social media

During Operation Guardian of the Walls, Blake Ezra widened his aperture to focus on fighting online hate and busting myths with his popular Instagram account

  • Kathryn Drysdale of Netflix hit 'Bridgerton,' at Claridge’s for the virtual SAG Awards in March 2021, photographed by Blake Ezra (Courtesy Blake Ezra)
    Kathryn Drysdale of Netflix hit 'Bridgerton,' at Claridge’s for the virtual SAG Awards in March 2021, photographed by Blake Ezra (Courtesy Blake Ezra)
  • One of photographer Blake Ezra's early photographs, during a trip to Israel (Courtesy Blake Ezra)
    One of photographer Blake Ezra's early photographs, during a trip to Israel (Courtesy Blake Ezra)
  • An image of Queen Elizabeth from 2008, by Blake Ezra (Courtesy Blake Ezra)
    An image of Queen Elizabeth from 2008, by Blake Ezra (Courtesy Blake Ezra)
  • An image of British Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks from 2013 (Courtesy © Blake-Ezra Photography Ltd.)
    An image of British Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks from 2013 (Courtesy © Blake-Ezra Photography Ltd.)
  • An image of Maureen and Eddie, an elderly couple reunited after a year’s separation due to COVID by Blake Ezra (Courtey Blake Ezra)
    An image of Maureen and Eddie, an elderly couple reunited after a year’s separation due to COVID by Blake Ezra (Courtey Blake Ezra)

Well-known London-based photographer Blake Ezra is accustomed to being recognized for his pictures — not his op-eds or his Instagram account. As a prominent portrait artist, he has captured Queen Elizabeth II and the rest of the royal family, international diplomats from former Prime Minister Tony Blair to US president Barack Obama, and Hollywood stars.

But recent events have turned Ezra’s focus to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to exposing fake news and global acts of antisemitism. Thousands read his viral mid-May blog post “I’m Fed Up” on The Times of Israel blog platform, and his Instagram handle @blakeezraphoto has gained such resonance that new followers may be confused why his moniker has the word “photo” in it.

Ezra told The Times of Israel that he never planned to become a prominent social media voice about the recent conflict escalation.

“It was absolutely not my intention to speak out in the way that I’ve spoken out,” Ezra said. “I was actually out one afternoon and just saw this tsunami of hatred coming towards Jews, towards Israel. And that’s one thing, but when you see so many blatant lies being shared on an industrial scale — that’s probably what bothered me the most.”

Ezra felt the need to vent when he got home, and quickly wrote and posted “I’m Fed Up.” The overwhelming response to that piece sucked him into intensive weeks of tackling misinformation online.

British photographer Blake Ezra began fighting back against the tide of antisemitism he was witnessing on social media with a blog post (Courtesy Blake Ezra)

“Generally speaking, [my photography work has] gone on hold and it’s become a very exhausting and emotionally draining full-time job,” said Ezra.

While working to complete his existing photography assignments, Ezra spent hours on Instagram exposing falsehoods in social media memes and infographics —  such as a photograph posted by Palestinian-American model Bella Hadid of the 1939 Palestinian soccer team, which was actually comprised of all Jewish athletes.

He amplified footage of global acts of antisemitism that he felt weren’t being adequately covered in mainstream media, sharing, for example, a video of pro-Palestinian demonstrators shouting vulgar and violent antisemitic threats in London.

Ezra has also advocated for acts of antisemitism to be met with repercussions and is vocally urging Google to fire its former diversity head, Kamau Bobb, for a 2007 blog post in which he said Jews should be concerned about their “insatiable appetite for war.” Following widespread blowback after the post resurfaced, Google reassigned Bobb to a new, STEM-focused position.

Using his academic background on the subject — he earned a degree in Manchester University’s Middle Eastern politics program — Ezra has also been contextualizing the current escalation within the longer history of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A long-term relationship

In a way, the Israel-Palestine conflict has always been intertwined with Ezra’s photography work. His camera and connection to the Middle East have been linked for decades.

Ezra, raised in a traditional Jewish Ashkenazi home with some Sephardic background, first spent a significant amount of time in Israel during a gap year in 2001 between high school and university when he enrolled at the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad in Jerusalem. He also volunteered at a project in northern Israel that introduced Lebanese refugee children to Israeli kids, and traveled the region, including a trip to Jordan.

One of photographer Blake Ezra’s early photographs, during a trip to Israel (Courtesy Blake Ezra)

“There was probably one key moment, which was being in Jerusalem and being very near to a suicide bomb,” said Ezra about 2001, when he narrowly missed being the victim of a terrorist attack. “It made me realize in a really stark way that if I was going to spend my time doing something, then it would need to be something that I enjoy and that hopefully helps others.”

When Ezra returned to the UK, he promptly dropped out of the accounting course he was enrolled in and transferred to Manchester University’s Middle Eastern politics program. It was while studying the complex history of this region that Ezra decided he wanted to be a storyteller. He momentarily considered becoming a journalist, but ultimately decided to pursue news photography, which he ended up learning while on the job.

After completing his undergraduate degree in 2005, Ezra knew he wanted to return to Israel and be a photographer. He contacted The Jerusalem Post and spent a year as a photography intern capturing news, protests and soccer games for the newspaper.

An image of Queen Elizabeth from 2008, by Blake Ezra (Courtesy Blake Ezra)

Ezra then returned to the UK and quickly got a salaried position working for a press agency, where by his second week he was sent to conduct the first of what would turn out to be many photo shoots of Queen Elizabeth II. Ezra believes one of the reasons he’s been successful in this career path is his ability to connect with a wide range of people while simultaneously respecting their need for space.

“Strangely, it was almost a reintroduction to humanity, because the people I was meeting on a daily basis were people who I would never necessarily bump into in my everyday life,” said Ezra of his time as a news photographer.

“[I’d see] everyone from every walk of life — from the people who are completely impoverished and can’t put food on the table, all the way up to the wealthiest people in the country — and people with every political opinion; normal people to whom remarkable things had happened,” he said.

Ezra photographed news for five years, and then transitioned into photographing private events after a friend asked him to shoot his wedding in 2010. Eventually, the private events took over, which is what he’s been doing for the past decade.

An image of Maureen and Eddie, an elderly couple reunited after a year’s separation due to COVID by Blake Ezra (Courtey Blake Ezra)

Among his favorite recent photographs is one of a reunion between an elderly couple that hadn’t been in the same room for over a year due to COVID, because one of them lives in a nursing care facility with a strict visitation policy.

“To be the only other person in the room at that point, yeah, it’s moving, but it’s just a massive privilege,” said Ezra.

From COVID to conflict

Ezra usually has a full roster of projects — some booked years in advance — but his calendar emptied last March after the pandemic hit. Work was slow until some four months ago, when he opened a portrait studio that has since photographed celebrities such as actress Kathryn Drysdale of “Bridgerton” — a photograph reproduced in Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar, among other places.

Kathryn Drysdale of Netflix hit ‘Bridgerton,’ at Claridge’s for the virtual SAG Awards in March 2021, photographed by Blake Ezra (Courtesy Blake Ezra)

When the conflict that resulted in Operation Guardian of the Walls escalated both in Israel and on social media, Ezra chose to accept fewer new bookings. He has spent hours on Instagram exposing stories and histories that hadn’t reached mainstream media, raising awareness about incidents of antisemitism, and, as he puts it, “calling out lies.”

Ezra says he wouldn’t be surprised if being so vocal has cost him future jobs, but adds that he’s not worried about that.

“If standing against hatred costs me photography commissions, then those weren’t the ones for me,” said Ezra. “There are way more important things to worry about.”

As a result, Ezra has spent far less time behind his lens of late. Now, weeks after the ceasefire, he’s slowly resuming his work as a full-time photographer.

“For me, actually, the driver was never the camera,” said Ezra. “The driver was always communicating a message to people — whether that’s in words or photos.”

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