David Vaaknin Answers the Question “Who Was Jesus?” for the Magazine Terra Mater

Jul 8, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

The best photographs act as portals to another world, time machines transporting viewers to a bygone era. These images connect us to the past by revealing what life was like hundreds — or even thousands — of years ago.

A general view of the Church of All Nations

Those kind of images are exactly what Terra Mater Magazine had in mind when preparing the essay "Who Was Jesus?" for publication. The editors asked Israel-based photographer David Vaaknin to shoot significant locations in Jesus Christ’s life and capture what they looked like during Jesus' lifetime. 

I was contacted by the magazine’s Director of Photography, Isabella Russ, with a request to photograph the story for the magazine after she saw the Jesus Trail story that I photographed for the Wall Street Journal at the end of 2017.

"Who Was Jesus?" is quite different from the story David was commissioned to photograph for the WSJ on a similar subject, Israel's Jesus Trail, because Terra Mater asked him to give readers “a glimpse into the past” through his photography.

A Christian pilgrim climbs the stairs leading to the Golgotha

[Terra Mater] wanted a mood that, generally speaking, takes you back in time to how these places once looked. This wasn’t easy as most places, even ones that do give you a feeling of taking you back in time, have modern aspects to them.

The upper level of the Church of The Annunciation

Many of David’s most striking images are the product of a sharp juxtaposition between light and dark. This contrast is purposeful on David’s part, as he believes it helps him tell the story effectively.   

A Christian pilgrim prays at the entrance

In my work, especially my editorial and photojournalism work, I often like to use the contrast between light and dark shadows. In places like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and The Grotto of Gethsemane this is certainly a conscious decision, one meant to convey the mood of the place.

Priests lead a procession in the Grotto

In order to truly achieve this goal, David had to avoid taking pictures of visitors wearing modern clothing and using smartphones. That proved difficult, considering how many people frequent the various holy sites in a given day.

Tourists view the colorful copulas

The biggest challenge was probably the high number of tourists and pilgrims visiting the religious places throughout most of the day, which made it difficult to capture images fitting the story’s intended mood. Finding the right angle or moment was very tricky and involved lots of planning on my part, like arriving at a certain time when a place was less flooded with tourists and, of course, some good old luck. 

The site of Jesus' baptism

Perhaps the most memorable photo to come out of the shoot had less to do with any location and more to do with an individual getting baptized in the Jordan River. The specific site, Qasr el-Yahud, is believed to be the place where Jesus was baptized.

Baptize me plz

I can't really say I had this outcome in mind while making the photo and I'll explain why. Usually when it comes to photos of people being baptized, I think luck plays a big factor — the expression on someone's face and the way the person will react when entering or exiting the water is, for the most part, completely unpredictable. The shape the water takes at that moment is also something that’s extremely hard to predict, perhaps impossible.

The man in the photograph was one of the last in his group to be baptized. David says it took a few adjustments to get this shot.

The planning element for making the photo involved setting myself in a position according to the direction in which the person being baptized hits the water. This takes a bit of experience and [requires] adjustments according to the first people being baptized. If I recall correctly, I was photographing the first couple of pilgrims in the group, then adjusted to get the angle I was after accordingly, then this gentleman was being baptized. I think the whole sequence included me making about 5-6 photos, from which this one obviously stood out instantly.

David is a veteran of these kinds of shoots, making him the perfect person to capture the mood that Terra Mater wanted. His love for his craft is apparent in the host of images he produced.  

Statue of Jesus and Peter

Since most of my work usually revolves around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I always enjoy the opportunity to work around the Sea of Galilee region. The Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee is one of my favorite spots. It is located right on the shore with great access to the beach, which creates a nice contrast in the atmosphere since churches in Israel aren't usually located right on the beach.

A view of the Sea of Galilee

Although this project was done for a 12-page spread, David was left with dozens of extra photos. But David understands the value of keeping those excess images handy and utilizing them once the exclusivity period in his contract is over.

When I photograph a big story like this, I always try to cast a wide net and create a large variety of images — well more than what is needed specifically for the story. Firstly, because I love my work, I love creating images, and I also know this creates a ‘good problem’ for the photo editors.

A general view of the Qarantal Monastery
Christian pilgrims make their way to the Grotto

Secondly, from a business perspective as a freelance photographer, I know that a lot of the photos will be left out of the published story. My aim here is to re-license the photos as part of a similar or even different story, or even as stand-alone images for a short article, which is why I think having a strong story from the outtakes alone is important.

Christian pilgrims touch the Stone of Anointing


Author: Raffael Fritz

Photo Editor: Isabella Russ

Check out more of David's work at dvphotonet.com.

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