While most Israelis were cooped up in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic, photographer Israel Bardugo (37) was hovering between heaven and earth, taking spectacular pictures of the landscapes of Israel. For him, the risky business of snapping photos out of helicopters is par for the course, in an expansive career in aerial photography.
Despite having the rare opportunity during the pandemic to photograph famous locations free of people, the photograph that Bardugo is proudest of is actually a picture showing tens of thousands of people, taken in 2019.
“There is one moment in the year when the Western Wall Plaza is the busiest for worshipers, a period of fifteen minutes after midnight on the eve of Yom Kippur,” he explained. “We worked for many years to capture this exact moment.”
Bardugo’s aerial photographs taken around the world have earned him international fame, but the image of the Western Wall Plaza especially gives Bardugo a sense of pride.
“You end up taking hundreds of pictures to achieve one perfect frame,” he said.
“One year we flew over Jerusalem – but at the same exact time, clouds formed,” he continued. “Each night time flight requires a lot of permits. We have ten minutes to achieve a stabilized and sharp photo when lighting conditions are difficult. In 2019, we managed to get the shot and produce this work – Jerusalem of Slichot.”
“I belong to a family that has been involved in photography for generations in Europe during World War II. My father, in his military service, also did aerial photography as part of the Air Force,” Bardugo said. “It’s a profession that runs in the family. As a photographer you are always looking for that different, unique angle. Aerial photography allowed me to bring just that.”
He says that behind every successful photo shoot, there are a number of flights, with pilots proficient in aerial photography.
“Tel Aviv, for example, cannot be photographed at just any time of the day. There is fog or humidity. You need to find an exact time and even then that is at a certain time of the year,” Bardugo explained.
How does it feel to be hanging from a helicopter with the camera?
“For optimal aerial photography, we remove the doors from the helicopter. There are not many photographers today who use helicopters. My colleagues from overseas switched to shooting from planes or using advanced skimmers. But we do the real thing. On the plane you cannot get out in the middle of a flight and stand on the 'skis' [of the helicopter]. We are tied to a safety harness, and also secure the equipment. When you get out of the helicopter, exposed to the wind, and when you see the frame, you realize it was worth it.”
Aerial photography is a profession that requires patience and quite a bit of luck, according to Bardugo.
“There were flights I made over the years in which I returned from without a single photo. Each such flight costs thousands of dollars and there is an investment in preliminary research, but it does not always succeed. Photography is like hunting, you have to wait a lot and when the right frame comes, it is exciting.”
Bardugo's photographs sell for tens of thousands of dollars in the United States, Europe and even Arab countries. Bardugo won the Best Picture Award in 2014 from the Government Press Office, which he received from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Over the years, he has carried out projects around the world: In 2013 he accompanied the establishment of the new World Trade Center in New York; In 2014, he filmed the World Cup in Brazil from the air; and in 2017, he documented the US President's (Donald J. Trump) visit to Israel.
"When you rise above the old city it gives perspective"
Does photographing in Israel feel different than in New York or Brazil?
“In Israel, within an hour's flight in each direction, you can see desert views, snow, a huge crater in Mitzpe Ramon, and also the beaches of Tel Aviv. This is something that is unique to Israel. You also see history. As you rise above the Old City and the Temple Mount [in Jerusalem], a small place that cultures and peoples have fought over for thousands of years, it gives you some perspective.”
Bardugo's latest series of photographs was completed in Israel during the coronavirus lockdowns. Behind the series, which will be released on a special album, there are also two sad stories. The project was dedicated to the late helicopter pilot Zvi Paz, who took Bardugo on his first photo flights in 2004.
“It was before the era of skimmers, and it made it possible to shoot at angles that people were less familiar with,” he said. But in November of that year, Paz was killed in a plane crash.
The photographing of the series was accompanied by the late pilot Amos Givol, who was also killed in a crash this past February.
"It broke me and my team," Bardugo said. “Amos really liked the project and was attached to it. He would advise on the planning of the photo and how to guide the helicopter when we reached our destination. He came to the studio to see the products, and accompanied us for almost a decade as a chief pilot. He was crazy about aerial photography and an expert in the field. As an Air Force veteran, he knew how to take it to the extreme, but was also very meticulous in terms of safety. This is a really big loss. We will miss him very much.”
After these stories, are you not afraid of working in helicopters?
“It's a dangerous profession and there's always some apprehension. But it's my profession and I love it. You say the Tefilat HaDerech [Traveler’s Prayer] twice, and go for it.”
The challenge and risk taken to produce stunning and thought-provoking images, according to Bardugo, underscores the importance of copyright and photographer protection.
"You risk and invest decades to create, and eventually discover your photos in a British magazine or on some product sold in the Netherlands for free and without credit.”
“As the head of policy at the Israeli Photographers' Association, it is important for me to take advantage of every platform to call on media users to respect Israeli work and to maintain credit and royalties for the creator. Today, when the works are available digitally, they sometimes go viral. The credit in which the author's name is indicated next to the work is the factor that produces the author's reputation. This is much more important than the payment.”