JLife explores the creative side of northern Jewish personality Jonathan Straight on the updated release of his book of photography, documenting a day in the life of the Israeli ambulance service, Magen David Adom.
Many in the community will know the moustachioed maverick Jonathan Straight as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. Founding a pioneering recycling venture in the 1990s, he ran the business for 21 years, successfully floating it on the London Stock Exchange before leaving to take up trusteeship of a number of local charities including The Tetley gallery, creativity enterprise IVE and waste management charity, WasteAid.
But as well as his business and charitable interests, Jonathan has long harboured a creative side, which his new-found financial freedom has allowed him to explore: “I first picked up a camera aged seven and have been taking pictures ever since. With a little more time to devote to photography since I left the business in 2014, my output has increase prolifically. My starting point was 0street photography, a genre that I discovered quite by accident. This involves taking shots of people out and about, doing whatever they may be doing. Often the shots are candid, sometimes the subject notices and other times they are not quite sure if I’m taking their picture or not.”
He soon garnered a loyal following on Instagram, his subscribers swiftly racking up into the thousands. It wasn’t long before he was exhibiting his work, holding his first show at the now closed city centre White Cloth Gallery, and another of photographs taken at Leeds Pride in a retail unit in Victoria Gate. Both were well received, and his audience has continued to grow.
It was after taking his skills to the Israeli streets, the opportunity arose for the emerging north Leeds photographer to embark on a project close to his heart: “I had visited Israel several times and had done a lot of street photography over there. Gradually, I was building up quite a body of work and I was in discussions with a charity about producing a book for them to use as a fundraiser.
“Magen David Adom (MDA) has an office in London, and I was helping them with a project to arrange a fundraising dinner in Leeds. During one of our conversations, we got chatting about the images I had taken in Israel and they looked at some of my work. They must have liked it as there was an immediate offer to be the volunteer for an ambulance shift and take some shots.”
That initial shift led to some striking images and a discussion about a bigger project followed along with two further trips to Israel and many more shifts in ambulances around the country: “When this was first suggested, I was very apprehensive – when you agree to join a shift, you have absolutely no idea what you might be presented with. My first shift was in Lod, not far from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I was given an MDA shirt to wear, so immediately I felt part of the team.
Wherever they went, Jonathan went – the only difference was they were treating patients and he was documenting what they did: “For the first hour or so, nothing happened – we were in the office waiting to be called. It felt quite strange because on the one hand I wanted the call so that I could take some photographs, but on the other hand, someone’s life might change forever at that moment in order that we would need to be called out. Eventually, when the call comes, there is a rush of adrenalin, and on come the lights and sirens.
“At each destination with surgical gloves on we are confronted with many different situations from someone with chest pains but otherwise fine, to someone dying of a drug overdose. We encountered patients who did not want to be taken to hospital even though they were sick (possibly due to drug abuse), to road traffic accidents, where thankfully the cars came off a lot worse than the drivers. I worked with many different crews: religious Jews, secular Jews, Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs, Bedouin and mixed crews. They all were very welcoming and did their job without judgement or comment as to the background of the patients, which was equally as diverse.”
While many of Jonathan’s images convey the intensity of the high-pressure situations crews navigate day to day on the streets, a significant portion of the anthology pays equal focus to the important work that goes on behind the scenes: “I was simply concerned with documenting what I saw. Many of the calls I went on were routine and the number where there was a life-or-death situation were thankfully few. Visually, there is little difference – as I was not allowed to show the face of any patients, the emotion is conveyed purely by the paramedics.
“Ambulance journeys are only one part of what MDA does and so I was keen to show the blood unit, for example, and the helicopter facilities as well. I was also keen to show the side of MDA that the public does not see: filling tanks up with oxygen; cleaning the ambulance before and after use; hundreds of shirts returned from the laundry.”
The acclaimed 2018 book was made up of 70 photographs for Israel’s 70th anniversary of independence, while the newly released edition (available in a limited run of 500 print copies, and available for free on the MDA website) marks the 90th anniversary of the organisation. It has 20 additional photographs as well as background information about MDA and its activities, with a focus on diversity and the COVID-19 response. It also includes a preface by His Excellency Dr Mohammed Al-Hadid, President of the Jordanian National Red Crescent Society, who Jonathan maintains: “was instrumental in getting MDA admitted to the Red Cross movement, and his involvement outlines the little-known friendly and ongoing co-operation between the ambulance services of the two countries.”
As a close supporter of MDA, Jonathan has witnessed first-hand the impact the Israeli emergency service has had in response to COVID-19, providing a world-beating testing and vaccination programme: “MDA was a natural port of call for those needing help if they were ill or needed advice about the pandemic. Consequently, call centre traffic rocketed and capacity was trebled to cope with this. MDA blood services were pioneers in the collection of plasma from patients who had recovered and using it to treat sick patients. Most importantly, it led Israel’s world-leading vaccine rollout, ensuring the country could open up ahead of other parts of the world. “The new and expanded edition demonstrates the diversity within MDA and the way in which they treat all patients in the same manner regardless of religion or ethnicity. At a time when Israel is sometimes accused of being an apartheid state, the MDA story is a visible antidote to these accusations, and I hope is a story that I am able to convey.”
To read Blood, Sweat, Tears & COVID-19 visit Mdauk.org/straightbook
and to check out more of Jonathan’s work, head to his Instagram page