David Vaaknin

The Boxer

We now go live to the boxing ring - here’s the match announcement:

Fighting out of the blue corner, wearing yellow trunks with orange-purple trim, standing approximately 430 meters below sea level, and weighing in at approximately 147 Cubic km, is the former ultra-heavyweight champion of the world for millions of years, the “Sea of Death.”

Fighting out of the red corner, wearing green trunks with black trim, standing on average 160-180 cm tall, and weighing in at an average of 60-80 kg, is the reigning middleweight champion of the world for the past few decades, he goes by the name of “Human.”

While it might be amusing to think of it as a boxing match, the reality is that the conflict between humans and nature is in full-force around the Dead Sea, and with everything dialed-up to extremes in the area - the boxing match seems more like a wild mixed martial arts match.

Children enjoy a hot summer day in a pool at Ein Feshkha, also known as Enot Tzukim Nature Reserve, the lowest nature reserve in the world, located in the Judean Desert alongside the shores of the Dead Sea

A man riding a donkey passes between camels in Kfar HaNokdim near the city of Arad, in the Judean desert, Israel

Children play at the beach during sunset near Ein Bokek in the Dead Sea, Israel

A general view of the Dead Sea from Route 90

People swim at Ein Bokek beach in the Dead Sea

I remember a time, not very long ago, in which the fight between mankind and nature around the Dead Sea seemed mellower. The sea water used to reach the main road, and some of the beaches that are now closed and off-limits due to sinkholes, were a great place to spend a day. However, it’s not all doom and gloom; The Dead Sea is still a sight to behold, the tourism infrastructure is much improved (some claim this is part of the problem), the roads safer, and there is a lot to see around, especially if history and/or archaeology are your thing (don’t miss Masada and Qumran National Parks).

Surely, this old boxer still has some fancy tricks up its sleeve, its grace is only slightly faded, and to use a famous boxing phrase which seems appropriate here, given the buoyant force in play - it can still “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Just make sure you take it easy on him, show some respect and remember he was boxing well before you even existed.

A sunrise view of the Dead Sea from the ancient hilltop fortress of Masada in the Judean desert

Hikers climb up the ‘Snake Trail’ to the ancient hilltop fortress of Masada in the Judean desert

Visitors at the ancient hilltop fortress of Masada in the Judean desert

A view of the Herods Dead Sea Hotel  in Ein Bokek, during sunrise in the Dead Sea

A tourist covered in mud enjoys a hot summer day at Kalia Beach in the Dead Sea

People enjoy a hot summer afternoon at Ein Bokek Beach in the Dead Sea

A view of the Dead Sea hotel complex in Ein Bokek

Nahal Og Canyon in the Dead Sea region

Hikers in Nahal Og Canyon in the Dead Sea region

A view of the Judean Desert during a Tomcar tour in the Dead Sea region

Mountains reflect in a pool at Ein Feshkha, also known as Enot Tzukim Nature Reserve, the lowest nature reserve in the world, located in the Judean Desert alongside the shores of the Dead Sea

Pools at Ein Feshkha, also known as Enot Tzukim Nature Reserve, the lowest nature reserve in the world, located in the Judean Desert alongside the shores of the Dead Sea

Tour buses and camels are seen at Kfar HaNokdim near the city of Arad, in the Judean desert

People take part in a camel riding tour at Kfar HaNokdim near the city of Arad, in the Judean desert

A waterfall in Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, in the Judaean Desert

A hiker pauses near the David Waterfall in Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, in the Judaean Desert

Tourists take photographs of the Dead Sea from a viewpoint along Route 90

People swim at Biankini Beach in the Dead Sea

The photos in this post are part of a commission for Fattal Hotels chain. To see more photos, please head over to the commissions page.


The Holy Land’s Official Father Christmas

Surely, not many people will disagree if I say that the holiday season, and especially Christmas, is a fun time. Even for people that winter (definitely not me), or god-forbid, for non-religious/atheists/seculars (me included) - the atmosphere, spirit, or general coziness feeling must mean something. In addition, in the last couple of years, Christmastime meant some fun and interesting work coming my way.

Last year, around this time, I got to go on assignment and photograph Israel’s Jesus Trail in the Galilee region for The Wall Street Journal. This year, I got to meet Jerusalem Santa for The Washington Post.

Santa Claus, played by Issa Kassissieh, greets visitors, at Santa’s House in the Old City of Jerusalem

“I am the only official Santa of the Holy Land,” says Issa Kassissieh, 40, an Arab-Christian and former professional basketball player. For over a decade, Kassissieh has been donning out his father’s old Santa suit, becoming an annual fixture around Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. After years of doing his Santa duties unofficially, Kassissieh eventually decided to become a formally certified Santa, attending professional Santa Claus schools in Colorado and Michigan, as well as a World Santa Congress in Denmark.

At this point, you have got to be wondering – the answer is yes - there are Santa schools. Just keep Calm and Drink Eggnog.

On a rainy Jerusalem evening, visitors patiently wait at the entrance to “Santa’s House” – a centuries-old stone structure on Santa Claus Lane. Aside from the usual suspects - a Christmas tree, a grand Santa chair and other holiday ornaments, all situated under a beautiful arched ceiling; Santa’s House includes also Santa’s workshop, equipped with Kassissieh’s father’s and grandfather’s tools, a desk where he writes letters to children, and the “North Pole”, which features a Santa sleigh and artificial snow blowing from above, all handcrafted by Kassissieh himself.

People wait outside Santa’s House in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel, before it opens for visitors.

Santa’s workshop

Santa Claus entertains children

Santa’s House sticks out in Jerusalem. It’s not something I’ve ever seen growing up in the city, or even in recent years. The Old City doesn’t seem to morph into the holiday spirit - there are fewer decorations and the spirit of the season isn’t really felt as it’s felt in other cities around the world, or even in Israel. In the city of Nazareth, for example, Christmas is seen and felt everywhere you go, although Christians only make up about a third of the population there. Jerusalem has the third largest Christian population in Israel, after Nazareth and Haifa, and while Christians are only about 2-3% of the population of the city, I would have expected Christmas to be more prominent in Jerusalem come December.

Judging by the constant stream of visitors, of various ages, religions, and nationalities, Jerusalem could use more Santas, official or unofficial. In the meantime, Kassissieh insists on delivering the best experience to each visitor - forming immediate connections in every language, be it Russian, French, Hebrew, or Arabic. Special care and affection are given by him to all little children, even those that seem startled at first sight, or initially crying when sitting on his lap. Generously handing out delicious Santa shaped chocolates and minty candy canes certainly tend to alleviate any distress a child might feel and doesn’t hurt his chances of being popular with every age group.

Santa Claus hugs a child after offering her some candies

I left with pockets full of sweet treats and the feeling that Jerusalem Santa is actually a “gentle giant”.

See more photos from this commission here


Frozen Heat in a Bubble

It has been exactly a decade since the previous time I’ve been to Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, and so much has changed, but nothing really did; which is a case I can make for most Israeli cities, even Tel Aviv. However, the city of Eilat seems as if it encapsulates this phenomenon. The changes made in the city, especially in the city center or the tourist center, were mainly cosmetic and seem to have been applied heavy-handedly, or in a rush. Save for some minor differences, Eilat feels to have been left unchanged, frozen, which is quite amusing if you take into account the heat there.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing - on the contrary – I can certainly see the city’s appeal to foreigners and Israelis alike. What’s not to like? Year-round summer weather, great scuba-diving, snorkeling, and water-sports activities, gorgeous scenery with a lot of hiking, trekking and biking options nearby. Also, because of Israel’s small size, you’re never really far away from the rest of the country, yet due to its stuck-in-time, laid-back atmosphere, Eilat feels like a bubble, an upgraded 1980-90s resort town. Perhaps that’s its magic.

Sunrise at the Village Beach in Eilat

Herods Vitalis Spa in Eilat

The Dolphin Reef in Eilat

Mosh’s Beach in Eilat

Less than a handful of times (to the best of my recollection) - that’s the number of times I’ve visited Eilat. A total of fewer than two weeks combined, spent in a popular resort town which is about three to four-hour drive from my home. It makes me feel strange when comparing it to the number of times I’ve visited other faraway cities and places, or to the total time I’ve spent in many other places around the world. Perhaps that’s just me.

Anyway, most of the times I’ve visited Eilat were while on a job or on duty, only once have I been there on vacation, which is how most people get to Eilat in the first place. Not to make it sound as if I’m complaining - after all, my job takes me to many different places which I wouldn’t necessarily visit in the first place if it wasn’t for my professional capacity. I guess Eilat is one of those places – it’s always there, kind of close-by, but I usually end up getting there only when I need to. There’s also a frequent bonus perk in these commissions – which is when my wife, Natalie gets to join – after all, I do need an assistant/model sometimes, although she likes to see herself more as the director.

So this time I was required to visit Eilat (again, not complaining…). I was commissioned to photograph a visual guide of different cities and regions by Fattal Hotels, Israel’s largest hospitality organization. The company owns and manages 40 hotels throughout Israel, and close to 150 hotels in Europe and signature brands such as U, Leonardo, Herods, Rothschild 22 and NYX.

Below are some more photos from this cross-Israel commission in Eilat and the surrounding area, with more still to come, including the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Tiberias. If you simply can’t wait, please head over to the commissions page to see more.

Coral Beach Nature Reserve in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

Snorkeling at Coral Beach Nature Reserve in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

People are seen swimming and snorkeling at Coral Beach Nature Reserve in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

Boreg Hill (Corkscrew Hill) in Timna National Park, north of the city of Eilat, in southern Israel

A man watches the view from the Arches rock formation in Timna National Park, north of the city of Eilat, in southern Israel

Scuba-divers in the Dolphin Reef in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

People watch as sharks swim in the shark tank at the underwater observatory in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

The Botanical Garden in Eilat,Israel’s southernmost city

A woman enjoys massage treatment at Herods Vitalis Spa in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

Kitesurfers and windsurfers in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

Kitesurfers and windsurfers in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

People enjoy a hot summer afternoon at the sea in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

Ostriches and a Somali wild ass at the Hai-Bar Yotvata Nature Reserve, north of the city of Eilat, in southern Israel

Scimitar oryx, also known as the Sahara oryx at the Hai-Bar Yotvata Nature Reserve, north of the city of Eilat, in southern Israel

Otriches at the Hai-Bar Yotvata Nature Reserve, north of the city of Eilat, in southern Israel

Arabian oryx, or white oryx at the Hai-Bar Yotvata Nature Reserve, north of the city of Eilat, in southern Israel

A Bouzouki player plays and sings at Mykonos Beach in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city

People engage in water sports in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

A woman rests on a floating mattress in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

People take part in a camel riding tour at Nahal Shlomo Camel Ranch in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

People are seen fishing in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba


New Website on a New Platform

Welcome to my new blog, which has a new home - the Format portfolio platform.

My first blog post is dedicated to the reasons for which I chose to move from the older platform, Squarespace, to Format.

I know, most of you out there are probably wondering why you should care if this guy moves from one website builder to another. You’re right - and unless you are photographers or designers, you probably shouldn’t care too much. However, I do believe there is something to be learned from this blog post even if you have nothing to do with photography or design. This post ultimately deals with many issues we all encounter in our daily lives: Hi-tech, the World Wide Web, multinational corporations/small businesses, the gig economy, privacy issues and more.

Here’s a TL;DR version for those of you that wish to stop reading now and are in a rush to check out the rest of my new website ;-)

I chose to switch to Format following a recently announced partnership/integration between Squarespace and Unsplash. The latter is a website dedicated to sharing stock photography under the Unsplash license, which is almost similar to a Creative Commons Zero license. The former is a website builder, a very big company, one of the leaders in its field of expertise, catering and promoting to creatives and small businesses. Can you guess which creative profession is at the top of its list of customers (on their website)? Yes, it’s photographers.

To put it mildly, I consider this a blatant disregard for professional photographers’ business models on behalf of Squarespace. That’s why, as a photographer, I chose to stop being its customer. On the bright side, I’ve discovered Format, and I have to say that it seems like a much better option for creatives - more on that later.

For those of you that are still here and want to learn a bit more - here are my main issues:

For the past 5 years, I’ve been a loyal Squarespace customer, and I’ve also recommended its service to many colleagues, friends, or other people that needed a website, since I found the platform relatively easy to use and operate, its templates appealing and flexible, and the overall set of tools the platform gives for building a website was good and reliable. Small business owners like myself know that in today’s world, a website is your storefront - It should be clean, neat, fast, reliable and to the point. The light needs to constantly be on in your virtual storefront, it should look great at all times, as you get clients from all over the world coming in to check your services. That’s why, for a lack of a better word, this feels to me like a betrayal of trust.

Perhaps it is a bit naive on my part – Squarespace is a very big business with many different kinds of clients, and its main purpose is, of course, to make a profit. Surely a lot of its non-photographer clients will find (or have already found) the recent partnership beneficial, which in turn, will most probably increase its profit. However, I find it hypocritical that the company actively promotes to photographers, whether it’s directly on their website, or through other channels and platforms dedicated to photography - while undermining the entire professional photography industry by partnering with Unsplash.

Now, as for Unsplash. Where do I start? Let’s skip past the obvious.

Many small businesses, or even larger companies, don’t fully understand the risks they are putting themselves in, simply by using Unsplash photos for commercial purposes. Unsplash photos are not model and/or property released - this means those businesses that opt to use Unsplash photos are in danger of being sued (I’m not even talking about the photographer that chose to expose himself to this risk by giving away his photos for free).

If you’d like to know more about why Unsplash is so bad for photographers, certainly not just for stock photographers, check out this great video by Zack Arias on his blog DEDPXL (despite its length, it is worth seeing or listening to the whole video). There are also a couple of useful articles about the problems with this Squarespace/Unsplash partnership is, on Fstoppers and on Photoshelter Blog. While I have many issues with Unsplash, similar to the ones raised by Zack Arias and specified in the articles linked in this post, my main problem here is with Squarespace, as I am its paying client, not Unsplash’s, and I expected something in return. Wait, let me rephrase - I was its paying client, and as a paying client, I did not expect to have my livelihood and passion become eroded and debilitated by its actions.

In case you’re wondering than no, Squarespace’s actions did not hurt my business directly. Not that I know of. But in my opinion, its move seriously hurts the professional photography industry and I can’t be a part of it. No matter how small my part is.

This brings me to the alternatives. In the past few weeks, I’ve explored a few worthy alternatives to Squarespace and eventually chose Format. The website was quite easy to set up (I’m trying to take the perspective of a person with basic knowledge and know-how regarding website design here). The entire design process was fast, easy and intuitive - switching themes or templates is a breeze and you can preview how your website will look with a new theme before changing. Uploading photos and organizing the galleries is a much simpler process than in Squarespace, thanks to the Lightroom plugin which makes life easier. The same goes for SEO features. There are also store and client proofing features which I’ve yet to try but hope to do so soon.

I’m not sponsored by Format, but I think the Format platform is superior to Squarespace’s, especially for creatives. Actually, I’m still paying for my Squarespace account until September of next year, since the payment plan I chose there is not refundable once canceled, which goes to show you that I did not plan to change anytime soon and was happy with the platform. But despite the extra cost, I still chose to end my business with Squarespace as a matter of principle. Squarespace hasn’t replied or commented on this issue on social media, although many comments and messages were sent by me, as well as by other photographers. I think the company is ignoring the whole issue altogether, hoping it will blow over.

I can only hope that many other photographers will stand up for what’s right and switch to another platform, one that actually supports professional photographers, or at the very least doesn’t hurt them, despite the hassle and cost involved in this change. If you’re interested in learning more about Format, please use this link (note: link is via the Format affiliate program) 

To start fresh, and with some optimism, let me conclude by including selected images I can finally share - a visual travel guide through Israel from a commission for Fattal Hotels. More images on the commissions page of my website.

People enjoy a hot summer afternoon at Ein Bokek Beach in the Dead Sea, Israel

Tourists take photographs of the Dead Sea from a viewpoint along Route 90, Israel

A dolphin is seen swimming in the Dolphin Reef in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

A man riding a donkey passes between camels in Kfar HaNokdim near the city of Arad, in the Judean desert, Israel

A woman relaxes by the pool at Herods Vitalis Spa in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aqaba

The Tower of David, an ancient citadel in the Old City of Jerusalem, seen from the Ramparts Walk

A visitor looks at ‘Turning the World Upside Down’, a sculpture by Indian British Anish Kapoor displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

People enjoy a hot summer afternoon at HaTzuk Beach (The Cliff Beach) in Tel Aviv, Israel

A night-time view of the Baha’i Shrine of the Bab and the surrounding Baha’i Gardens, a United Nations-designated World Heritage site on Mount Carmel in Haifa, northern Israel

People swim in a spring at Emek HaMaayanot (Valley of Springs), in northern Israel

Girls watch a view of the Sea of Galilee, at the lakeside promenade in the city of Tiberias, northern Israel

Al Omari mosque in The Old City of Tiberias, northern Israel

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Using Format