David Vaaknin Met St. Nick in Jerusalem for the Washington Post

Jan 7, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

This December, Jerusalem-based photographer David Vaaknin received a most Christmassy commission: to photograph Issa Kassissieh - also known as Jerusalem's only official Santa Claus - for a feature in the Washington Post. Kassissieh, a former professional basketball player who was certified by the World Santa Claus Congress in July, is an Arab Christian with hopes to bring the "peace and security" of Santa Claus to Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. The Holy Land's Saint Nicholas rides a camel and greets children in a cozy 700-year-old stone structure bedecked with fake snow. David's photos of "Santa's House" are saturated with incandescent yellows and resonant reds that speak to the warmth of Kassissieh's holiday mission.

The story, accompanied by David's photos, was picked up by the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and Orlando Sentinel, among others. Scroll down for David's photos and commentary and read the full Washington Post story — including details of Kassissieh's education at Santa school — here.

portrait of Santa Issa Kassissieh in Jerusalem by photographer David Vaaknin for the Washington Post

What was involved in planning to photograph Jerusalem's only Santa?

This assignment wasn't one of those that are planned well in advance, I received the request to photograph Santa about a day in advance, gave Santa a call - he got back to me after a couple of hours, as he was a bit busy - and we exchanged some ideas about what the shoot would be like. Santa made it clear to me that the visitors' experience shouldn't be affected by my presence as Santa's House in Jerusalem is a very tight space, so I gave him my word that I would try to keep out of the way and not interrupt.

portrait of Santa Issa Kassissieh in Jerusalem by photographer David Vaaknin for the Washington Post

What was the shoot like?

As I've mentioned, Santa's House is small and he actually has a photographer working for him, taking photos of all the visitors, as well as a guy printing the photos on-location, plus another helper who assists with getting the kids comfortable, filling up chocolates and candy canes and keeping everything in order. This all meant that I had very little room to work in, as I didn't want to interrupt or ruin the experience for the visitors. Jerusalem Santa is quite the attraction and there was a queue outside the door throughout the cold and rainy Jerusalem evening; nevertheless, Santa made everyone feel welcome, greeted people and made small talk with them in their native language - Arabic, Hebrew, English, Russian and French, to name a few. The whole atmosphere, perhaps due to the small and intimate space, was very festive and fun.

portrait of Santa Issa Kassissieh in Jerusalem by photographer David Vaaknin for the Washington Post

What was your impression of Kassissieh's mission?

This particular Santa is all about peace and freedom in the Holy Land. Everyone is welcome at his house and it seems like he makes a genuine effort to bring joy to everyone. His connection with the small children and his patience and calm spirit were particularly admirable in my opinion

portrait of Santa Issa Kassissieh in Jerusalem by photographer David Vaaknin for the Washington Post

What was your favorite part of the shoot?

I left with pockets full of delicious Santa-shaped chocolates and lots of candy canes, so it was a sweet ending to a marvelous evening.

tear sheet of Santa Issa Kassissieh in Jerusalem by photographer David Vaaknin for the Washington Post

See more of David at dvphotonet.com!

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