November 16, 2018

Profiling the Profiler

Erez Kaganovitz.

Erez Kaganovitz has the sort of face that immediately puts you at ease. His smile is arresting. It reaches his dusty green eyes, crinkling them at the corners. He’s the type of person who wouldn’t seem threatening if he stopped you in a dark alley.

Which is probably a good thing, because Kaganovitz would stop you in a dark alley if he found you interesting enough.

Kaganovitz profiles people as a hobby. He snaps their portraits and talks with them, trying to capture who they are in a single paragraph for his project, Humans of Tel Aviv.

So the man behind Humans of Tel Aviv emerged from behind his lens for an interview with Humans of Israel.

For Kaganovitz, the project means telling the story of a city through its people. He said that when he first moved to Tel Aviv, he was struck by the range of curious characters who peopled its streets.

“Everyone looked like actors on a break from a set,” he said.

The project, he said, transformed him. It made him realize the extent to which people create stories about other people without bothering to find out the truth. Humans of Tel Aviv began as an attempt to change that paradigm about people, and about Israelis in particular.

Because of his impeccable, barely accented English — the result of “endless episodes of ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends,’ ” he said — people he met during his many travels never assumed Kaganovitz was an Israeli. When he told them where he was from, their expressions changed, often for the worse.

“Every person has a story. You just have to know how to unlock it.” — Erez Kaganovitz

“I thought, if only I had the option to bring these people to Israel, to show them its multiculturalism, its diverse, vibrant society, maybe I could change their minds,” he said.

Instead, he brought Israel to people from around the world. His Humans of Tel Aviv Facebook page has more than 46,000 “likes,” including thousands from Muslims and Arabs.

“We live in a generation where people want to tell their story,” he said. “And every person has a story. You just have to know how to unlock it.”

Luckily for him, people in Tel Aviv are generally very outgoing. Still, Kaganovitz said, after six years and more than 1,000 profiles, he still gets butterflies when approaching a stranger.

“You have to know how to create an immediate intimacy with people. It helps if you approach in a humble way and are genuine,” he said.

Kaganovitz honed his interviewing skills during a stint several years ago as a researcher for a morning program on one of Israel’s main TV channels. His dexterity with a camera goes back to his days in the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesperson unit.

When asked which comes first, Kaganovitz the photographer or Kaganovitz the storyteller, he initially was stumped.

Ultimately, he said, the baseline is storytelling. “You need to have the story to know what goes in the frame,” he said. “There needs to be a synergy between the story and the picture.”

One of Kaganovitz’s most enduring images is of a young man with a tattoo on his forearm of the Holocaust number belonging to his grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor. The photo went viral, reaching more than 1 million people. He received many messages about it, he said, from Arab Muslims who said they had no idea about the Holocaust until they saw that picture and it made them understand the necessity of the State of Israel.

“If you have a story and a good picture, you can engage with people and better inform them,” Kaganovitz said. “I didn’t hammer people over the head with information about the Holocaust. I just put out a picture and people connected to it.”