A Black man is grabbed and manhandled by a white man, who takes a selfie of them both, grinning, while the Black man cringes. The photos that caught this moment shocked social media when they were posted online. We spoke with the photographer, who said it was an instance of deliberate humiliation and psychological violence, and regrets the way that his photos have been discussed and taken out of context online.
The scene took place in Tel Aviv, Israel and began to circulate online two days later, causing outrage. In the photos, a bare-chested Black man has his hair grabbed and pulled by a white man who takes a photo of them both.
Our team were able to get in contact with the person who took the photo, Jonathan Small, who is an American photographer based in Tel Aviv. He explained what happened before and after the moment that he captured with his camera.
“I often stroll along the beach in Tel Aviv. This evening, it was around 6pm. I saw a group of three people, acting a bit boorishly, who went up to two Black men who were using the shower on the beach. I have no idea who the Black men were, but I thought they might be migrants in Israel. There are around 35,000 asylum-seekers in Israel, primarily Eritrean and Sudanese.”
One man with a red T-shirt came over to joke around with them. There was something weird about the whole situations: He was mocking and teasing the migrants, who were smiling, but it was more like he was deliberately intimidating them. I was about six or seven metres away and I couldn’t hear what they were saying. But just by looking at how the Black men were behaving, I knew that something wasn’t right. So I took out my camera to take a few photos, zooming in.
“No one really did anything”
“It was just then that the man grabbed the migrant’s hair in his fist, like an animal. His attitude was strange: He was both friendly and violent at the same time, with a patronising air, as if he was saying to the man, “You are inferior to me, so entertain me”. While this was happening, the two Black men were smiling, even laughing.”
There were other witnesses. The whole thing only lasted a few minutes. No one, including me, did anything, other than take photos. I didn’t even go to speak to the Black men, because they didn’t seem entirely sound, maybe they were high or drunk and didn’t even realise what had happened. I had a feeling that talking with them wouldn’t lead anywhere. So then I went home, and I didn’t feel alright. I decided to publish the photos. No one, homeless or not, Black or white, in Israel or anywhere else, deserves to be treated like that.”
On social media, and particularly on Reddit, lots of people thought it was staged. Others thought it showed how “Israelis treat people of colour”. The photos were shared over 3,400 times on Facebook and retweeted more than 6,000 times. The outrage comes at a time when the Israeli government has cracked down on African refugees, and migrants are often victim to acts of racism and aggression.
Jonathan Small noticed that his photos were being used to illustrate a made-up narrative.
“My photos have been used to make up a false narrative”
“I saw a lot of people conflate what happened on the beach in Tel Aviv with the fact that the white men were probably Jewish. There are even photomontages where they’ve put my photos alongside pictures of concentration camps suggesting alongside that “Jews have forgotten history”.
What I saw could have happened anywhere and I’ve no idea if the white man in the red T-shirt is Israeli, Jewish or even a tourist. And it doesn’t matter, anyway: My goal was to show a situation that isn’t normal, wherever it is, and to say to those who witness something similar to do something so that we stop seeing this sort of thing.”