Recently, Israeli photographer David Vaaknin shot a story in Jerusalem that answers a question that, I’ll admit, I’ve wondered about from time-to-time: what happens when we run out of room to bury the dead?
In Israel’s capital city, burial plots are in high-demand. According to The Washington Post, there are only a handful of Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem accepting new arrivals—and plots can cost upwards of $20,000. As a solution, an Israeli burial organization and a construction firm have teamed up to create an underground cemetery, which will house 22,000 crypts and cost $50 million.
To photograph the construction of catacombs for the Washington Post article, David traveled deep underground with the reporters and shot in very low light. The resulting images that accompanied the editorial piece are moody, alluring photos that convey, as David puts it, “the feeling of excavating and building an underground city of the dead in its first stages.”
I think the main challenges for me shooting this story were the low light in the tunnels, the relatively short time we had to visit the site (about 30 minutes in the tunnels) and the fact this project is just in its beginning. That being said, I see most challenges of this type as an opportunity to get creative. The tunnel system and graves are supposed to be well-lit and organized, which will probably set a different tone and mood when it will be photographed in the future, so this was an opportunity to show something less organized, more raw and natural.
People in Israel have asked David why a story like this is so interesting to Americans, and why WaPo picked it up for their cover and as a main story on their website’s world section. His answer?
Running out of space for the living and the dead seems to be a global problem, and when you connect it to Jerusalem, which is never boring, you get a story that can interest audiences all over the world.
Check out more of David’s work on his website, dvphoto.net.