Oded Wagenstein: The Man Behind the Camera
Oded Wagenstein may be a culture photographer who works with the Hebrew edition of National Geographic, but he is so much more than just a cameraman. He remembers most of the names of people he’s photographed, and takes his grandmother’s advice when it comes to his images. He challenges hundreds of students to photograph strangers in the market. And he overcomes his fear from talking with strangers as he captures their portrait. Oded Wagenstein is a friend.
I first met Israeli photographer and educator Oded Wagenstein through email, and weeks later, being a photographer myself, I asked if I could interview him. He agreed.
Oded texted me fourteen minutes before the allotted interview time and let me know he was ready. We connected by phone and I asked, “How do you want me to address you?” He responded in a thick Israeli accent, “Oded.”
I asked my first question, “How would you define the power of people?”
Oded responded in a quick manner, “For me, people are the most interesting thing in the world, and photography is a platform which allows me to see people better. When I say ‘see,’ I mean it allows me to look into their souls. I believe the camera can be used as a barricade between people, similar to a weapon, or you can use it wisely, and it can become a bridge—a bridge between cultures, between different people. That’s what I do. I try to create bridges.”
He continued while I listened intently. “From time to time, I just indulge myself in conversation and forget to make the image in the end. For me, the process of using the camera is an excuse to get to know someone, to get to know a different culture. I try to find something which connects us, something universal.
I see the power of people in that all of us are from different cultures, but we really are one—all of us age, we have families, and will eventually die. This is the thing I try to bring into my photography. Instead of trying to capture the exotic, or capture our differences, I try to capture similarities and universal themes. That is the power of the people: we all share common aspects, the things that make us human.”
“As a photographer, what type of voice do you feel you bring to your audience?”
He said, “I once heard my students talk about having a photogenic identity. The students had heard the term and asked, ‘Do I have a photogenic identity? Do I have a voice?’ I’m not sure I have a voice. I’m not sure I have something to say. I’m not sure if it is interesting. I will tell you the only thing I do: I see something, I feel something about it, and I transfer it using visuals into another person. I am trying to share the things I have felt and if they are universal enough, my viewers will feel the same.
That is also the way I review my images: I show someone an image and if I manage to transform a feeling I had into someone’s heart and mind—the same feeling I had one week ago, one year ago, ten years ago—I have created a successful image. A year ago, my grandma asked me why people are so sad and melancholy in my images, and she was upset about it. So, maybe this is my voice? But I don’t know. I’m just trying to share my experience and the way I see people.”
I thanked him for his answer and he said, “with joy.” It was the second time he had used those exact words and I thought to myself: What a happy phrase. I filed it in my memory for future use.
He added as an afterthought to his previous comment, “Sometimes you need someone else to tell you about your photographic voice. I am hearing my own voice through my ears, but it would be much easier for someone else to tell me what my voice sounds like. So my grandma — although she said it with a bit of disappointment or anger, because she wanted to see happy pictures — helped me to see a repeating theme, or style, in my images which, from time to time, are melancholy.”
I swept my hair behind my ear and asked him about the most influential people in his life.
“I have so many. I fall in love every five minutes!” he exclaimed. Oded pondered for a moment then continued, “The first would be my parents. I have a father who is a chemist and my mother is a teacher. My mother taught me the importance of enjoying art, music, and discussion. And my father, he taught me about stability. He taught me dreams are important, but you need to make a living by them. Every choice I have made they stood behind me and supported it.”
He went on. “Next would be my wife, whom I married two weeks ago.”
I interjected with my congratulations. He thanked me and said that he and his wife had been together for eleven years. “She has given me the freedom to travel, to wander. It is not easy, but I think that is important.”
He circled back to his instructors as the final influencers, saying, “I try to learn from them. And in reference to your first question — about the power of people — you can learn from anybody you meet. When I’m looking at a sunset, I’m not learning anything, I’m just enjoying the colors and the views. But when I’m speaking to someone, I’m always in a learning process, even if he tells me how he cooks his meal. There are so many people who are important to me.”
At this point, our conversation shifted from the topic of learning through others to human connection. I briefly shared a recent train conversation I had with an Italian medical student named Luca, who impressed me with his knowledge of the American medical system.
My train story led Oded into his philosophy on portraits: “You know, finishing off a portrait is to portray someone, but to tell something about the person, it must tell a story. The image in your ID, or passport, is just an image of you. It is not a portrait. If you are shooting someone with a telephoto lens, from a distance, you cannot tell that story. The story will be superficial. You can tell something about their culture, or their status, which is their living, because you can see their clothes.
But if you want to tell the story of a person, you must speak with them. And the thing I want to emphasize in this interview is: it wasn’t—and still is not—easy for me to speak with people. Most people think that a portrait photographer needs to be someone who can mingle with everyone and who is friendly. It’s not me. For me, I use the camera as a platform to challenge myself to approach people. I use the camera almost as a therapy. It is important to know, because there are many people out there, including my students, who have this fear of approaching someone. I ask them to use that as a challenge, and not as a gift that either you are born with it, or not.”
His response got me thinking about the nature of fear and and I asked him how he handled it. Oded revealed that he’s pessimistic in his approach to handling fear. When faced with a difficult situation, he will ask himself, “What is the worst possible thing that can happen right now?”
He elaborated: “When I am approaching strangers with the intention of interacting and photographing them, I think about the worst possible thing that could happen and for me, it would be for them to say ‘no.’ But it’s okay, because I have prepared for it.” He paused before continuing, “That is the way I approach my fears when traveling to foreign or dangerous countries and photographing people. It has helped me overcome my fears, to see that things are not so bad.”
I was curious to know his thoughts on how cultural photography influences communication across cultures.
He said, “In English, it is called Travel Photography. Culture photography, I believe, is something I made up. It is the first time I have heard it called that. I don’t like the word ‘travel photography’, because travel photography suggests you have to travel. For example, I think there are cultural moments at your family dinner table, which are probably very different than mine. I don’t think to be in travel photography, you have to travel anywhere. The most important thing I teach in my college course is anyone can shoot a wrinkled face in India, but not everyone can see the beauty of their own family, or their own town. So, that’s what we do as photographers, we travel together in the universal and the local.”
I learned as we chatted that Oded Wagenstein’s childhood memories did not include many friends. But as he grew into his teen years, he used the camera to make new friends. In a humble manner, he confessed to me that now he has “thousands of friends,” with emails and telephone numbers, and he knows the names and stories of approximately ninety-five percent of the people in his portraits.
“That’s what I do,” he said. “I don’t create images. I make new friends. Maybe this era in my childhood — this period of having small groups, or no friends — helped shaped me to what I am today.”
I asked him his age. He revealed he had recently celebrated his thirtieth birthday. I recognized his birthday was near his wedding date and chimed in with my congratulations.With cheer in his voice, he remarked, “Thank you, thank you very much.”
A few weeks before, I had studied Oded’s past interviews and read his ebook, The Visual Storyteller. My next question centered around the wisdom and depth of knowledge he had displayed in interviews and in his photographic craft. I asked him, “How have the people you’ve met helped you develop this wisdom?”
He said, “There is a saying: ‘If you are not traveling, it’s like reading the first page of the book.’ For me, traveling and meeting different people and cultures has taught me about family and other important things in life, such as education. At home, I am a very strict person. I like order. You can see it in my photos. They are clean and orderly. I like things to be planned in advance. When I’m traveling, I am the opposite. I like people to invite me into their houses, their weddings, their funerals. And from those people, I have learned. I don’t know if I have wisdom, but when you travel you learn.”
Oded explained to me he is trying his best to be a good ambassador as he travels. He works hard to seek a bridge, to be loving, and to have patience. He endeavors to respect and learn about every culture in the world—from Muslim to Buddhist and everywhere in between.
He said, “It is good to be able to place your roots anywhere, then cut them, and live in another place. When I’m in Tajikistan, I am trying to my best to dress and eat and speak like a Tajik. When I am in New York, I try to do the same. I have fans from all over the world, such as Pakistan and Iran, who write to me, and I am trying hard to be a citizen of the world.”
I was touched by his statement. I wished it were true of everyone.
Curious about his role as an educator, I turned my thoughts toward his students. “In what ways have your students surprised you?”
“That is a beautiful question,” he said. His voice increased in volume as he went on: “They remind me each and every time that we are all the same. We think we are so special and that our fears are unique to ourselves, but they are not. We all have fear of approaching someone from a different culture — being a bit shy about it. Some talk about their fear. Some make excuses about it.
This may sound like a contrast to my first statement, but my students have also surprised me in their point of view. We all stand in a specific place and everyone brings a different background and perspective — a voice, as you said before. On one hand, we are all the same in terms of universal feelings and fears, but on the other hand, each one of us has our own perspective and voice. These are the things which surprise me about my students, they are
similar, yet so different. It makes things interesting.
And finally, in the past, they have surprised me when they step out of their comfort zone. When they allow themselves to do something they may have feared before, but find they are enjoying it with a big smile.” Oded’s voice cracks in pride.
I didn’t need to see him in person to detect his fondness for his students—I could hear it in his tone and the words he chose.
“That’s my job as an educator,” he continued. “I challenge my students to go to the market to photograph someone. I send them with fear, and let them come back with a big smile from interacting with someone else.”
In this point of the interview, I was feeling more comfortable in our conversation. I told him I appreciated his approach to teaching and asked my next question, “When you travel, how have you seen the local people of an area overcome difficult things?”
“I don’t like the cliche of being ‘poor and happy,’” he said. “Sometimes as Westerners we travel the world and we meet people with nothing and we say to ourselves oh, but look, they are smiling. I have a story:
I went to Laos and I met a tribal lady from the Akha tribe in the Northern part of Laos. She showed me a coin from the time the French ruled in Laos. The coin was from the early twentieth century and it had the Statue of Liberty—you know, it’s a gift from France to the United States—on it. I told her in excitement, ‘You know I saw that in person. I saw the Statue in New York.’
Then I asked her, ‘What is your dream?’ I was so hoping she would tell me she would like to travel to New York to see the Statue.
And she said, ‘Do you know what my dream is? My dream is to fix my bad tooth in the nearest town, but I don’t have the money to go there. It’s like twenty minutes.’
So I told myself, ‘You are so stupid for bringing your Western dreams of fulfilling yourself and achieving your goals, when there are people who just want their tooth to feel better.’”
Oded was getting passionate now. “There are people who manage to live in very hard — very hard — circumstances. I don’t know if they are happy, but they have overcome, and I think it is wonderful. It has taught me to humble and happy with what I have. I see from time to time my students give candy and presents to people. I don’t like it. I think it is arrogant to bring gifts to someone who did not ask for it. If someone is hosting you in their home—yes, bring a present—but those people who are giving away presents and candy like it is a milkshake? I don’t like it. I have seen people who are not happy, but they are proud of who they are.”
He stopped for a brief moment, then said, “I hope I told a nice story. I hope I answered your question.”
I assured him he had. He said, “That is the path your question took me. It took me to that story and that feeling.”
I confessed I wanted to hear more of his stories.
There was a long pause and I shuffled through my papers. I had been so entranced with his story I forgot what question I wanted to ask next. He waited for a bit and said, “Throw away your pages and ask whatever you like. Don’t be afraid of all those pages.”
I said okay, and stammered to form my next question. I realized he had been right.
I asked Oded Wagenstein how he had changed over the years.
He told me a story in response.
“A few years ago I was working in a park in Tajikistan — which is a Muslim country on the southern tip of Central Asia near the Afghan border — and I saw a wedding. It was a wedding where the bride and groom and everybody was happy. I took a few photographs of them without too much conversation, which I don’t usually do, but felt it was right in the situation. I did not want to interfere. One of the groomsmen approached me and asked if I wanted to join them.
I was faced with a dilemma: on the one hand, it was a wonderful opportunity to shoot unique and amazing images of a Tajik wedding. On the other, the language barrier did not allow me to ask several questions I had in mind. I knew they would not hurt me. I knew if they invited me to the wedding, they did so out of respect to me as a foreigner. But what I didn’t know was where we were going, who we were coming back with, and who was responsible for me getting back safely.
Plus, I’m vegetarian. In those places they eat only meat. I asked myself, ‘Should I bring food, or a present?’ I didn’t know, but I said yes. I entered the car and four other guys immediately got into the car with me. The driver of the car drove really, really fast, playing loud music, with everyone singing out of the window.
I thought to myself, ‘Maybe this wasn’t the best decision to join this group.’ Then I used my pessimistic approach in solving problems: I thought of the worst thing that could happen. And it was a car accident. Then I realized, well, that can happen in Tel Aviv too, and is more likely. A car accident can happen anywhere. I believe the hardest thing would be to drive for hours and hours, as we are right on the border of Afghanistan. And I would like to come back.
I thought of how they may put me in the middle of the desert and say, ‘If you want to go back home, you can hitchhike from here.’
Then I asked myself, ‘Okay if this happens, what will I do? I have four hundred dollars in my pocket. I have cash. I can pay the men to just get me back.’
That theoretical solution helped me to stay in the car — not calm, but without hysteria. After half an hour, we arrived at a restaurant, and it was a perfect wedding and event. Ienjoyed it so much.
In the end, they all got drunk so I didn’t have anybody to take me back. So one of them invited me to his house to share his home. They had two rooms in the house. I slept in the kitchen and the whole family slept in the living room.”
He finished his story and laughed in a full, hearty manner. He told me he could not remember my original question, but I had wanted stories. I laughed, too. Suddenly he seemed to remember my question and he jumped to continue talking.
“I think this is the thing that surprises me about who I am today,” he said. “I try to challenge myself, to overcome my fear. I believe fear is important. For example, I have asthma and as I am speaking with you, I have an inhaler in my pocket. I am ready in case an attack happens, however, I do not let asthma stop me from doing things. I carry my inhaler and my money, and I trust things will be okay, even if bad things were to happen. I know how to manage.
This is the thing that surprises me about myself: if you told me ten years ago I would travel to a foreign country and get inside a car with four strangers who would let me stay at their house, I would not have believed you. The thing that surprises me is that through my fears and pains, I still do what I need and want.”
I thanked him and I heard the smile in his voice as he said, “With joy.”
I asked, “How do you want to be remembered?” He stumbled over a potential answer as he looked for the words to express himself. The answer did not come. “I need some time to think about that question. Can we come back to it?” he asked.
“No problem,” I said.
I wanted to know if he had a lucky pair of shoes, or something like that, so I asked him. I smiled and thought, here I am asking a National Geographic photographer if he has a lucky pair of shoes.
“I hope you don’t mind,” I said.
He laughed heartily. “No, it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
His answer was perfect: “I am not a religious person, but in Judaism we have a small thing we like to call the Prayer of the Road. It is something you read before you travel, to ask to be safe and to come back safely. I keep the prayer in my pocket and read it every time I am at the airport, which is about once a month during this time of year. I also carry a Hebrew song called “A Kiss in the Pocket.” My mother gave it to me. It asks to keep you safe and warm wherever you are. So I carry the Prayer of the Road and the Kiss in the Pocket everywhere. But that’s it. I don’t have a lucky pair of shoes.”
I chuckled and told him I didn’t care about him not owning a lucky pair of shoes. I liked his answer much better. I was nearing the end of my questions. “What is one of the greatest accomplishments you’ve seen in someone else?”
He didn’t hesitate to answer. “I had sent my students to the market for an assignment. I asked them to photograph someone’s portrait and get their name. I also wanted them to indulge in a conversation with the person. When one of my students came back with her photo of a person, she told me it was the first time she had done it and burst into tears. I asked her why she was crying. She told me a few weeks ago, as a student in university, she had gone into a class. She did not know if she was in the right class or not, but she was so ashamed of approaching anyone to ask, she just sat there — like the way she put it — like a dog.
For her, approaching a person in a market was life-changing. She said she will never just sit in this type of situation again. She will never sit like a dog without speaking. Again, this is the perfect example of using photography and portrait-making to make life easier and better. This is an extreme story, and not all my students react the same, but I will always remember the story of this girl. She approached a stranger for the first time because I had asked her to do it.”
As he told the story, I imagined the scenes. I imagined the girl who sat like a dog and I cheered for her accomplishments. I expressed my gratitude to Oded in telling me the story and he repeated, “With joy. With joy.”
I started with another question: “You are known for your visual storytelling.”
He interjected and gave me a hint about a new ebook being published. He told me it will focus on how to tell a story with composition. I asked if I could announce that in the article. He agreed and I continued with my question.
“You are known for your visual storytelling. Why do you think great storytelling photography has the power to influence people?”
“I think by definition a story is a few events that carry one after another,” he said. “I don’t think a single image can tell a story because a story by definition is something with a beginning, middle and end—one event after another. But I think if your image is an emotion-maker, then people will imagine the story. I think this is the important thing — to let the viewers imagine the story. You give them a small slice — one moment of the story and let them imagine it. It’s like a good horror movie. A well-made movie will make people jump in the same spot in Japan, in Israel, in New York. I think that’s the key to a good story. You make people imagine their own story, with their perspective, and connect on a universal level. If I meant to make you laugh with my image, and instead made you cry, that’s not a good image. That’s the way I review my images. I ask people to tell me how they feel. If most of the people are talking to me about certain similar emotions, then I know I was correct and on the spot.”
“That’s a great idea,” I said. “I had never thought to do that with my photography.” I had a couple more questions for him before we wrapped up: who was his personal hero and how did he want to be remembered?
He said he worried his answer might be cliche, but he said it anyway: Steve McCurry. “I know Steve McCurry is the hero of millions of other photojournalists and culture photographers. But I think the way he has managed to tell universal stories with only one pair of eyes and a face is marvelous. I had the privilege of interviewing him and he is a modest and nice person. He manages to get into the story and take me inside the story, as if I were with him.”
We returned to the question on how he wanted to be remembered and he sighed. It seemed to be a difficult question for him to answer.
“I think for me as a photographer,” he said, “I would like to be remembered as someone who gave you an interesting ride, or point of view. Someone who made you feel something. Right now, in today’s world, we are bombarded with visuals, images. If I inspire someone to take a second — take a break in the crazy race of life — and look into someone’s eyes and feel something, that is the thing I want to do. As an educator — which is more important to me than being a photographer — I want to help people overcome their fears the way I did. I am not teaching anything — anything — that I didn’t do myself, or believe myself, or try myself. So I think I want to be remembered as a storyteller, an emotion maker, and an educator who helped people overcome their fears, as I do right now. In thinking about my voice, or my legacy, I’m not there yet.”
And I thought, Oded, it would be a joy to watch you accomplish it.
Oded Wagenstein is a culture photographer, and a contributing photographer and author for National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, Time Out (Israeli editions) and Getty Images. He is an author of three photography books and when he is not eating weird food in an Uzbek wedding or a Cuban Santeria ceremony, he shares his knowledge with his students in international photography workshops.