In November 1991, Michael Datikash was driving his daughter to school in Tbilisi, Georgia, when two cars passed him, one on each side, and the drivers started shooting at each other.
He made a U-turn and went home to tell his wife that it was time to leave. These were the early days of civil war, with Russian soldiers fighting Georgians. The Datikashes packed quickly, closed their home and left one car with a neighbor and the other in the airport parking lot. With two children, and all their belongings in four suitcases, they flew to Moscow and then to New York, where he has made his home since.
His lives before and after are strikingly different; his camera is a constant. For 22 years, Datikash worked as a photographer for Tass, the official Soviet news agency, traveling all over the Soviet Union and Europe. He began working there at age 18 while still a university student and was the youngest staff member in the agency’s history. As a feature photographer and photo essayist, he covered President Richard Nixon’s visit to Moscow and several Olympic games. His photos were picked up by newspapers and magazines around the world, and he published books and exhibited his work. Although he was well paid and led a life of privilege, he always felt watched by the KGB, and questioned as a Jew whenever he’d leave the country on assignment. He knew that Tass officials liked his work, but he understood that they neither trusted him nor treated him kindly.
When he arrived in New York, he had contacts at Time magazine and other outlets that had used his work, and while they tried to help him, they told him that he was more useful as a photographer in Georgia than in New York. He began working for a studio photographer in Queens for five dollars an hour. NYANA (the New York Association for New Americans) helped by giving him an exhibition and hiring him to photograph events. Some months later, the editor of The Jewish Week offered him a job as the newspaper’s first staff photographer, a position he has held since 1992.
“When I look at life, I look through my eye as though my camera,” he says. As a photographer in New York, he has become much more involved in Jewish life. When he first arrived, he found it fascinating to shoot pictures in Borough Park. He enjoys photographing people and tries to show his subjects as they are from the inside. “Expression tells you everything,” he says.
“I spent half my life in a terrible country. I want to return something to my people. I want to be a free man and photographing Jewish life,” he says.