Celebrating Israeli Icons: Amos Nachoum

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"I don’t have a death wish”

This is Amos Nachoum’s refrain whenever he’s asked about his work. The answer to the immediate question that is posed in every interview, every meeting, and every casual chat with a new acquaintance. To be fair, it’s an honest question. After all, there are plenty of nature photographers out there, but how many make it their life’s work to document the largest and most aggressive of "dangerous animals”? Many photographers have taken photographs of polar bears, but how many have made it their mission to take a photo of one while swimming beside it? In this, Amos Nachoum stands alone, a man driven by a singular passion.

Nachoum himself would object to being called a photographer of "dangerous animals.” He much prefers to think of himself as a "big animal ambassador.” He has dedicated his more than 35-year career as a photographer to filming large predators in an effort to dispel myths about these animals and find the beauty behind the claws and fangs. He is driven by a belief that man can live in balance with nature, even the most savage of wildlife. 

It’s a belief he has staked his life on again and again. From close calls with the crocodiles of the Nile river, to the jaws of Greenland’s sharks, Nachoum has traveled the globe several times over in his quest to bring nature into the homes and imaginations of people all over the world. He has worked on commission for National Geographic, leading teams into the depths of the Red Sea.  He’s photo-logged the great whites of the Mediterranean, and even swam with killer whales. Nachoum has been nose-to-nose with some of the most impressive creatures to ever live beneath the waves.

What propels this Jaffa born photographer to such lengths is a mystery. A man of careful and considered speech, Nachoum prefers to let his work speak for itself. But for as aloof as he likes to appear, there must be something that drives him, some fascination that keeps him coming back to the ocean. Dangerous waters have been a theme for Nachoum his entire life. When he was five he drowned off the coast of Jaffa, an event he has no memory of. He remembers running along the beach with three of his friends, getting into the water, and then being resuscitated by a lifeguard. Maybe that early brush with death never quite let go.
 

Of maybe it was his service in the military. Nachoum’s first career choice wasn’t photography. After high school, he served in the IDF’s Sayeret Shaked unit, a special forces group, during the Yom Kippur war. It’s a time in his life he rarely will discuss. All these years later, he still carries around a piece of shrapnel in his head from a wound sustained during his time with the unit, and the memories of friends who were not so lucky to walk away. But Nachoum doesn’t dwell on such matters, at least not publicly. Instead he prefers to talk about the other thing he carried out of his service – a passion for photography.

Nachoum stumbled into becoming a war photographer, first treating it as a hobby. An extension on his boyhood obsession with his father’s old camera equipment and something to do during his downtime during service. But soon the images he captured spoke to something else. He quickly found he had an eye for capturing the confusion and chaos of a conflict, the emotional core of those caught in a battle. It was a gift.

After leaving the military, Nachoum worked professionally as a war photographer for the Associated Press. While he excelled at the work, it soon burned him out. He had enough of fire and blood and wanted something more in life. Feeling like he had nothing in particular to lose, he traveled to the US hoping to take film studies in New York. As an immigrant who barely spoke English, Nachoum picked up a night job as a cabbie.

This was 1980, perhaps the peak of the NYU’s film studies program. That year the course had three teachers - Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Francis Coppola. It was an incredibly competitive program where students had to apply, show a portfolio of their work, and be interviewed for acceptance. Nachoum was one of only 35 accepted students of the hundreds who applied that year.

But unfortunately, it was not meant to be. There was no way for a new immigrant who spent the past few years photographing war zones on a freelance basis to make the tuition prices. Instead, he embarked on another journey, the one that would define his professional career. 

Nachoum went home to Israel and began dive tours of the Red Sea, promoted with his photography. It was here where he got the attention of National Geographic, and where he developed his taste for getting up close and personal with large animals. Every year would bring a new tour, a new destination, a new brush with death. Anacondas, orcas, sharks, he had done it all.

But there was always one photograph he longed to take. One he had nearly been killed trying to take before. One of a polar bear swimming underwater. But not one taken with a telephoto lens, or a remote camera. One taken right next to the bear, in its natural habitat and glory.
It is this obsession that is the focus of a new film documentary about Nachoum, Picture of His Life, a bio-pic detailing a five-day expedition in the Canadian arctic seeking that particular, death defying shot. 
 


Throughout the movie, you see different facets of Nachoum’s personality, from the fierce technician capable of getting shots no other photographer on the planet is able to get, to the philosopher bursting with love for his homeland and the planet at large. It is a movie that is as much about getting a new perspective on large predatory animals as it is trying to understand a complicated and nuanced individual. 

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