The IDF Film Unit provided exclusive coverage of Gilad Shalit's return to Israel. A year later, its photographers discuss that day's events
The day after Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit returned to Israel from captivity, Iris Lainer entered a store and purchased one copy of each newspaper. The saleswoman at the store thought it strange that Lainer wanted such a collection of newspapers from around the world. What the saleswoman didn't realize was that some of the pictures of Shalit's return featured so prominently in those newspapers were taken by the young woman standing in front of her – a soldier in her regular service. Lainer, who served in the Film Unit of the IDF Spokesperson's Unit, was one of the photographers who got a rare peek at Gilad Shalit's first moments in Israel in over five years.
Roughly a year ago, at a time when most Israelis were glued to their TV screens watching the emotional homecoming of the captive soldier, Eyal Ben Yaish was there. Ben Yaish, who in his civilian life is a photographer for Israeli TV's Channel 2, volunteered for reserve duty in the IDF Film Unit. As a military photographer, he documented Shalit's first moments in Israel. "I have children of my own, so Gilad’s story was touching to me on a personal level. You could say that I felt a sense of purpose in going and capturing Gilad’s first photos.”
Ben Yaish recounted the day of Shalit's return."When I saw him for the first time, I felt relief as an Israeli citizen, who was excited to see Gilad returning home safe and sound," he recalled. "I remember that at the moment when he came out of the car I looked away from the camera's viewfinder to make sure that it really was Gilad, and only afterwards I started photographing."
Ben Yaish recalled that in the first moments, he was so emotional that he couldn't push the record button, but he then managed to wake up and to distinguish between his work and his emotions. "The entire project was beyond standard photography. Theoretically and technically, it is quite simple, but ethically it is far more," he said.
Abir Sultan, another reservist serving as a photographer in the Film Unit, witnessed Gilad Shalit's arrival via helicopter at the Tel Nof airbase, where Gilad was reunited with his family. "Gilad and I are more or less the same age; I photographed the area of his kidnapping in Kerem Shalom as a soldier, and so I feel a connection to his story," he explained. "In the moments when I photographed, I didn't think about that, and I focused on making the picture come out as well and professionally as possible – and that was the only thing in my head."
During the flight from Tel Nof to his hometown of Mitzpe Hila, Gilad Shalit looked out of the window and watched the horizon. Eyal Ben Yaish was there, like a fly on the wall, fulfilling his duty is a photographer and not getting involved in the events. "The most significant moment for me on that day came when the head of the Casualties Department gave a letter and glasses to Gilad; that was an intimate and quiet moment. Only the department head, the military psychologist, and I were there, and we all had tears in our eyes," he recalled emotionally.
For Lainer, the excitement, concerns, and pressure of photographing Gilad Shalit entering his house only hit when she arrived at the steps of the house. "Suddenly, I understood what great responsibility had been placed on my shoulders, and I worried that I wouldn't manage to take one good enough picture."
When the moment of truth arrived, there were only a few seconds to take the picture, as Gilad ran to the steps of his house. Despite her fears, Lainer met the challenge and did not take her eyes off the viewfinder. “I thought about how I was at the last stop of Gilad’s journey home,” said Lainer. “We were among the first people Gilad saw. I felt I was documenting a historic moment.”
When the photos were published, the photographers all felt a great deal of satisfaction and pride. “For five minutes, the photo was published everywhere possible,” recalled Lainer emotionally. “[Israeli TV's] Channel 2 put the picture up full-screen and it was published in all the newspapers. We received a lot of comments; everyone was in shock that my picture made it into so many front pages. You could say this was the highlight of my military service.”