FotoFest Exhibitions

Rachel Papo

Selected By: Christoph Tannert, Director, Künstlerhaus Bethanien,
Berlin, Germany

Click to enlarge
Serial No. 3817131

Rachel Papo’s photos are hardly understandable without some background knowledge of Israeli society and the Israeli military, or without comparing them with other documentary photographic series on the theme of “women in the military,” for example, Jenny Matthew’s Woman Serving in Iraq and Iranian Tank Girls or Anastasia Khoroshilova’s 9,5% PLUS.

For women, being emancipated is “in.” Does this mean that women must therefore be drafted for military service? Does military service develop a feminist consciousness or only a consciousness of citizenship? Jenny Matthew, Anastasia Khoroshilova, and Rachel Papo provide differing answers.

There is no universal regulation requiring women to defend their country, though today most nations permit women to serve in their armed forces. Except for Israel, Libya, Eritrea, and North Korea, however, only men are required to take up weapons in national defense. In Israel, women have been subject to universal conscription since the founding of the state. (One-third of them are exempted from armed service, mostly for religious reasons; instead they serve in a large number of technical and administrative support positions.) Israel is one of the few countries in the world with institutionalized military service for women, though at two years it is shorter than the men’s three-year duty. Participation in combat missions, however, made possible by a court ruling in 1994, remains voluntary.

Military service and military discourse shape Israel’s political culture, social structure, economics, symbols, and conceptions of society. In Israel military power and preparedness to fight have always been the answer to a whole complex of threats to the existence of the Jewish state. They are the answer to the Shoah and the answer to some of Israel’s neighbors’ refusal to recognize it.

Rachel Papo’s photographic images describe the everyday military life of female soldiers and the comprehensive militarization of Israel. She casts her gaze on “womanliness” in the military’s structure of domination without addressing its contrast to the political-industrial-military male oligarchy. Her pictures are not a sociological work to investigate gender relations in order to improve the effectiveness of the army. Indeed, they provide evidence that the mere presence of women in masculine institutions like the military does not eliminate gender dichotomy and the associated mechanisms of oppression.

Jenny Matthew’s Woman Serving in Iraq and Iranian Tank Girls maintain a war correspondent’s distance to the soldiers pictured. In 9,5% PLUS, Anastasia Khoroshilova portrays the female presence as a moderating factor in the Russian armed forces. In contrast, Rachel Papo has been successful in finding a language for situations of extreme stress—moments of failed strength, of loneliness, and of fear of loss. Yet, despite their drastic themes, Rachel Papo’s pictures are gentle and human.

- Christoph Tannert


Rachel Papo was born in 1970 in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in Israel. She began working as a photojournalist in the late 1990s and graduated from the School of Visual Arts, New York, with a M.F.A. in photography in 2005. Her works have been exhibited widely, including at ClampArt Gallery, New York; Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, Massachusetts; Paul Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles; and Photographic Center Northwest, Seattle. They have been published in the United States, Germany, Israel, Switzerland, Spain, France, Poland, Brazil, Estonia, Hong Kong, China, and Turkey. She has won many awards, including selection as a finalist for the Santa Fe Prize for Photography, a 2006 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and selection as a finalist for a 2009 Lucie Award. A monograph of her series Serial No. 3817131 was published by powerHouse Books in 2008. Papo’s works are included in several public and private collections, including those of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago.