Photographer Mayan Toledano was born and raised in Haifa, Israel. As a young girl, she threw herself into dance and art, relishing the freedom such creativity afforded her. She had hopes of making art into adulthood, maybe even traveling the world. But, even as a kid, she knew that when she turned 18, she'd put her plans on hold, and join the army.
Israel is one of only a few countries that conscripts women into the army, placing them in various roles in the Israel Defense Forces for a duration of two years. Israeli women are allowed in combat roles, though many, as Toledano explained in an interview with The Huffington Post, take on non-combat roles across various divisions.
But, it's not the combat-related issues that sparked Toledano's interest in covering female conscription years after her service. The photographer, who lived in Tel Aviv while she was in the army and moved to New York City six years ago, wanted to capture the young women grappling with identity in a milieu of conformity. "Part of the reason it was important for me to go back to this subject and find a way to vocalize what’s behind the uniforms is because when I served I felt unseen," she said.
Toledano explains the motivations behind her series, and why she feels mainstream media skewers public perception of war, below:
Can you tell me a little bit about your life in Israel before you entered into service and moved to NYC?
I grew up dancing and was always expressing myself through art. My parents have supported my creative pursuits from a young age, so freedom was almost obvious before I had to join the army for two years.
How did you feel about mandatory service before you joined the army? Were you nervous, afraid, resentful, excited?
I wasn't excited at all. More resentful [of] the time I had to voluntarily give while I wanted to be in school, make art, travel, be free like most 18 year olds. I remember the fear of the uniform as identity loss, suddenly stripped of all cultural "feminine" symbols. Part of the reason it was important for me to go back to this subject and find a way to vocalize what’s behind the uniforms is because when I served I felt unseen.
How would you describe your experience in the army?
I mostly remember the frustration and my personal refusal to adapt. Having two years of my life dedicated to an institute I never wished to support felt invasive. Looking back, it just seems surreal. I was placed in an educational program, part of the Academy of Flight in the Air force. I struggled a lot with the system and was never really able to fit in. The one comfort was the sense of community with all the other girls.
What made you want to capture the experience of women soldiers in photographs?
Photographing female soldiers was a way to mend my personal experience by creating a more hopeful image. It wasn't about taking sides or supporting the army in any way. I think the reality of teenagers going into mandatory service, regardless of their views and opinions, is worth documenting even without the political context.
On a political note, I oppose the occupation of Palestine but, through my service, I haven't dealt with Palestinians at all -- there's a very small percentage of female soldiers that do. The professional jobs for girls in the army vary but the girls I shot all have creative jobs: one journalist working in the culture department at the main Israeli radio station, one is a teacher doing community work with youth, and two are filmmakers.
The individual experience is what I find really intriguing and that's what I chose to focus on. It was a way for me to tell their stories, as who they are and not by what the uniforms are meant to represent.
You mention, in statements made to Ignant, that mainstream media treats soldiers as "faceless" and that there is a prevailing perception of the military as violent or attached to war. How would you describe the women you met and worked alongside in the army?
Similar to my subjects, the girls I served with were all super creative and motivated. The army was this break we had to take, like your life is put on hold for two years, so we kind of helped each other get through.
If there is one thing I remember being positive in my service was the ability to relate to girls of very different backgrounds, from all across the country. There is something really special about the way females in the army find personal space and support each other in a male-dominated structure.
Though the poses and faces vary in your photos, they seem to share a lot of distinct qualities: a soft or even hazy appearance, colorful accents, a sense of intimacy between you and your subjects. For you, what was the most important behavior or characteristic you were trying to capture with your camera?
I wanted it to be as relaxed as possible, similar to how I treat other subjects. My hope was to capture the girls in a way that will somehow resist the violent idea of the military, looking at their glowing singularity and disrupted youth as a refusal to the system.
My decision was to document it, not to glorify or suggest morals to the military. It was an opportunity to shine a light on their reality, in my own gaze -- personal and intimate, hopeful and glowing. Separate from the way it is viewed in the media, solely through the lens of war.