Blue pencils and red lights

A recent flurry of articles continues: after 48 Hours in Tel Aviv, something about the deserts of Abu Dhabi and the Traveller’s Guide to the Red Sea (all published in the Independent in the last month or so), my non-travel feature about gay and lesbian issues in Israel appeared in the Independent’s Saturday magazine over the weekend.

I had a great time researching this: everybody I spoke to, without exception, was open and willing to talk to me – a foreign, straight journalist – about their lives and the challenges (or lack of challenges) they face in everyday life. I loved it all. Seeing the Middle East through gay eyes was a revelation. And I’m absolutely thrilled to be off the travel pages and in the Indy’s Saturday mag.

The most difficult task came during the writing process. After roughly 7 days of research I had a mass of material – six or seven hours of interviews recorded on an iPod and an A6 notebook (160 pages) literally full to the last page. In a way, I’d done too much – but, then again, without all those discussions, I could only ever have skated over the surface of the issues. Every meeting and every conversation helped me to understand the situation better, and shape the article.

But, with only 2,500 words to play with, I had to leave several interviewees out of the final edit altogether; several others, despite long talks and – in one case – hours of sightseeing around the city together, ended up reduced to a couple of lines of backstory and a single quote. One interviewee has already emailed to say how disappointed they are in me (and in how ‘negative’ the article is); others have so far been universally positive and supportive.

The problem, I think, is that I went in with an open mind: the conception of the article changed several times – from the pitch, to when I first arrived, to when I left, to when I sat down to write. The final piece has a quite different tone from how I originally imagined it – due entirely to the people I spoke to on the ground. If I had fixed on an angle before arriving and stuck to it, I could have interviewed fewer people, for a shorter time, asked more targeted questions and come up with 2,500 words to suit that agenda.

But I preferred to see this project as a journey of discovery for me, too – I genuinely wanted to find out about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) life in Israel… but perhaps that held me back and made the resulting article a little too quote-heavy. Not sure. It’s all a learning process. Might do things differently next time.

Then there was the Palestinian issue – lots to talk about there, in relation to gay issues, civil rights, the occupation… but, in truth, it’s a whole other article. I thought, early on, to bring in Palestinian perspectives, and I also had gay friends & contacts in neighbouring Arab countries ready to give quotes and insight – but, in the end, I decided that the subject of gay life in Israel merited discussion by itself. Expanding the boundaries of the subject would only have made the article fuzzier and less focused than it is. Tough decisions, these.

One thing that did jar was the images chosen by the picture editor to accompany the article. The Independent commissioned a Jerusalem-based freelance photographer, Ahikam Seri, to shoot the story – and he did an outstanding job, in interview situations, portraits and reportage. But the story ended up being illustrated with voyeuristic nightlife images on every page – men kissing, women kissing. I barely mention clubbing or Tel Aviv’s reputation for hedonism, but Ahikam’s portraits of the people I did write about, and his brilliant visual insights into ordinary gay life in the city, don’t get a look-in.

Instead, the newspaper thought: it’s a story about gays and lesbians – therefore, we must pack it with images of same-sex snogging, preferably in red-lit nightclub basements. Such a pity. Reinforces tired stereotypes, when there was an opportunity to undermine them. Opportunity lost.