Book Review for “Women on the Front Lines: Inside the Combat Units of the Israeli Army” by Debbie Zimelman.
Yes, this is a photography book, and yes, I’ve never reviewed one of these before. But you see… Debbie is a personal friend of mine. We were work colleagues for a while many years ago, just when she started to believe in herself as a photographer. I was sorry to see her leave, but glad she did so to follow her dream. Of course, like many photographers, there is always the need to work commercially to make ends meet, while pursuing their artistic dreams. I hope that I was able to encourage her at least a little bit on her journey by hiring her to photograph some of my family events. So, for me to see her publish a book of her photography was exciting for me personally. That she decided to make this about women in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was heartwarming. It made me think of my own daughter’s army service, although she wasn’t a combat soldier. I remember that when my daughter was born, I dreamed that she would become a fighter pilot someday. That didn’t happen, but I’m still very proud of her service (as I am of my two sons’ service, as well). But hey! I’m supposed to be reviewing this book, not taking walks down memory lane, so here goes nothing!
Apparently, this is the culmination of five years of photographing women serving in the IDF. Now, that might sound like you’ll be getting a thick volume of pictures, but if you know anything about the IDF, you’ll know how very hard it is to get anything out of them, especially when it comes to their combat units. Just being allowed to take these pictures must have no small hurdle. I can also imagine that once she had taken all the pictures she wanted, that the IDF probably had a say in which ones they’d allow and which they would not. For example, one of the photos has the faces of the soldiers blurred out. Now that could partially be because those women didn’t want their pictures published in a book, but I’d bet that the IDF might have balked at allowing these faces as well. So, although the volume isn’t large, it certainly has a wide variety of photos. That also means we do get quite a bit of “white space” where quotes from the soldiers are placed, as opposed to their being next to the pictures themselves. These quotes range from being funny to almost heartbreaking, and they’re very much worth pondering over.
I should mention that the pictures might feel a touch on the monotone side, but that makes a good deal of sense, seeing as the subjects are almost all in their combat fatigues or work uniforms. Add to this that that Israel is a fairly arid country, with lots of sand, and you’re not going to find a whole lot of “feminine” colors here. This also means that when you get a picture that isn’t mostly khaki, ocher or brown, they stand out in stark contrast from all the rest. For example, the picture of the female naval officer, standing in her white shirt and navy slacks – it just brightens up the whole thing. And while some of these photos look posed, a good deal of them seem mostly candid, which is definitely a good thing. By the way, one of my favorite shots is of the woman in camouflage fatigues from the mixed-gender combat unit called “Caracal,” which was taken during an exercise which took place on a base called “Har Keren”. Why is that one of my favorites? Two reasons – the composition is really neat, and well… one of the bases my daughter served on was “Har Keren” so there’s that!
There’s also an article at the end of the book by Dr. Shlomit Harrosh, who is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. In this article, Dr. Harrosh discusses the background of women in the IDF, and their formal entry into combat units. It is quite interesting, if you’re into that kind of thing, and a good addition for anyone not familiar with the subject. Personally, I found it a touch too long, but that’s probably just me. I’m sure it will be invaluable to others.
What really got me, though, was how Debbie arranged these photos in this book. They almost feel like they move for the viewer, and tell their own story, even if you don’t read any of the quotes. Most importantly, I truly understood the significance of the front and back cover photos of the training wall. These two pictures seemed to say to me “these women certainly don’t have an easy time of it, but they’re trying, and in the end, they’ll make it” and that is a truly lovely sentiment. I’ve got to hand it to Debbie; this is quite an accomplishment, and a book that I keep opening again and again. I think that’s exactly what anyone would want from a photography book, so Brava, my friend, BRAVA!
“Women on the Front Lines: Inside the Combat Units of the Israeli Army” was self-published by Debbie Zimelman in April 2019, and is presently only available for purchase through her website. (You can find a sneak preview of this book from Jessica Steinberg’s article “Guns n’ Poses” the Times of Israel – and damn you Jessica for thinking up that brilliant article title!) This review first appeared on my Times of Israel Blog here.