Tel Aviv — His face half enshrouded in darkness, the Nigerian foreign worker stares out at the Dizengoff Street thoroughfare from a photograph in the window of the Rosenfeld Gallery as if to tempt passers-by into an obscured world for Israelis.
Beneath the photo, a few words of text explain the melancholy stare. To avoid deportation and free himself from an Israeli jail, “Kaster” became a police informant on smuggling operations on the border with Egypt.
“They can’t send me back to Nigeria,” he said. “People will find me and kill me.”
The image is one of nearly 80 portraits in “Below 7,” an exhibition of pictures taken by a young Israeli photojournalist that sheds an intimate and disturbing light on the lives of Israel’s foreign workers in the shadow of expulsion.
Ilan Spira, 29, has enmeshed himself in the community of Filipino and African workers like no other Israeli. In less than four years he progressed from birthday photographer to funeral photographer to a one-person caseworker helping the migrants navigate a hostile environment of immigration police and government bureaucrats.
The images and stories brought together in “Below 7” is part journalism, part historical document and part art. But most of all Spira has brought the lifestyle of a largely ignored community out of the dilapidated back streets of south Tel Aviv into the open.
“I wanted to show their life in a way that no one in Israel knows,” said Spira, a photographer for the Yediot Achronot newspaper. “I chose to do that by showing their children and their weddings. I wanted to show that they have culture and that they are human beings like everyone else.
“On the other hand I wanted to show what they’re going through — like the funerals, and especially the violence and the deportation.”
Spira first struck up a relationship with the migrant worker community in Tel Aviv nearly four years ago, photographing their children at that city’s Bialik Elementary school.
Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers had flooded the country over the previous decade to perform cleaning and hard-labor jobs shunned by Israelis and vacated by Palestinians barred from entry.
As communities of African and Filipino workers burgeoned in south Tel Aviv, Spira was hired to shoot children’s birthday parties and then weddings, giving him access and familiarity enjoyed by few Israelis.
When the Israeli government decided to crack down on illegal workers, Spira found himself witness to numerous instances of alleged police brutality and harassment. In addition to weddings, he began photographing broken limbs and scenes of sobbing at farewell parties for expelled migrants.
In doing so, Spira learned the language and even the codes of a distressed community. “Below 7” refers to a pregnant women who stays out of public for fear of expulsion. Once the seventh month is completed, however, they are immune from the immigration police even if they are illegal.
Diana Dallal, who manages the Rosenfeld Gallery and helped curate the exhibition, said the exhibition is unique for its scope, depth and emotional exploration of the lives of foreign workers.
“At the beginning it was a closed community,” Dallal said. “Slowly, slowly they gave him entree that no one else had.
“What we hear on the news is part of statistics, it’s news that is remote,” she said, referring to the stories of the expulsions. “We’re not comfortable living with this. The exhibition challenges them. It raises all sorts of ethical questions that don’t have geographic limitations. There’s a fine line between wanting to expel someone and treating them like a criminal.”
The show, which has garnered much media attention, captures the bitter ironies of the foreign workers’ existence in Israel.
One photo shows the jubilation of a girl, her grin almost too wide for her face, at an end-of-the year ceremony at a Tel Aviv public school. Elsewhere, another child not much older wears a frilly dress but her youth is belied by expression of trauma beyond her years: “Twenty-three days imprisoned.”
Another image shows a pudgy African boy modeling his Purim costume of Israeli police officer. A migrant worker beaten by police is treated by a doctor in a government hospital.
Israel’s immigration police countered in a written statement that its officers come into contact with 190,000 foreign workers, but have only received a few complaints.
“The instances described [in the exhibition] don’t reflect the real treatment,” said the statement. “The presentation of policemen as violent is a huge injustice to the police community, which is executing a difficult mission.”
Angie Robless, a 51-year old Filipino cleaner whose 74-year-old mother, Claudia, dubbed the “oldest foreign worker,” was expelled in August, said the immigration police still make pre-dawn raids on her apartment. Robless said she hoped the exhibition would open the eyes of Israeli politicians.
“If those who are in charge, I wish they could see that so they can understand what they are doing,” she said. “If they put themselves in our shoes, how would they feel?
“I’m sure if they see this and they feel what we feel, maybe they will feel softhearted instead of stonehearted. Maybe they will see it and say, ‘What [are] we doing?’ ”But if that doesn’t happen, and the government continues its campaign to expel foreign workers, Spira says his pictures will remain a testimony.
“The police cannot deny that they didn’t break legs. The photos are here. I have the proof,” he said. “You should expect that after what happened to us [as Jews], we should appreciate what is happening to the foreign workers. You would expect that we know how to treat other people in a different way.