The Benefits of ‘Kindsight’

For his first gig as photographer in Hollywood in 1990, Robert Zuckerman took pictures on the set of “Sunset Beat,” the pilot of a short-lived TV-series. It featured policemen who went undercover as bikers and Zuckerman still remembers one of the long-haired, leather-clad actors, who was barely known at that time: His name was George Clooney.

Since then Zuckerman, who produced commercials before becoming an independent photographer, has taken pictures at countless movie sets — from “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “The Blair Witch Project” to the “Transformers” movies and “Terminator 3.” He has also made portraits of numerous celebrities, including Leonard Cohen, Goldie Hawn and Will Smith.

In 2002, Zuckerman discovered another passion: Documenting small encounters in everyday life. He started the Kindsight Foundation, and posted photos and stories on his blog, which is also featured on The Huffington Post. In 2005, a photo book titled “Kindsight” was published. Zuckerman, who now lives in Miami, gives speeches about his project and holds workshops for students, in which he challenges them to come up with their own Kindsight pieces and question the violent content of Hollywood movies.

He spoke to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about his work with Holocaust survivors, his favorite Jewish celebrity and why he occasionally puts on tefillin.

Anna Goldenberg: You shoot both celebrities and normal people in your “Kindsight” photo series. How do you approach the projects differently?

Robert Zuckerman: Each one is different. The movie sets have been the way to make money and support my family. And I really like that… After 9/11, everything was very much about terror, darkness and negativity. I wanted to show that life is very rich… So I started telling stories about small encounters, and I would turn them into a photograph with a story. I began emailing stories to all my contacts, and people really liked them. Sometimes I’d email some big movie poster I did, and the response would be: “I like the poster, but the stories are much better.”

In workshops you challenge students to come up with movie storylines that don’t use violence for conflict solution. Why?

When I was younger I fell in love with movies, because I felt they had so much potential to uplift us. When I came into the business, I felt it had too much violence. It was a choice of people. It makes the unthinkable to be more thinkable. I know many people are not influenced by it, but nevertheless it puts that imagery in our culture.

You are currently also taking pictures and collecting stories of Holocaust survivors for the “Kindsight” project. How do you approach them?

I make a visit to their home, and we spend a couple of hours together, maybe having a meal and talking. I make very candid portraits when they are sitting, and then I make more formal portraits. My landlords for 25 years in Los Angeles were Holocaust survivors. When I first moved there, they were reluctant to speak about their experience. Now, I find more openness to speak about what happened. The last person I visited, he’s 93 and he was in Auschwitz and Dachau. Just in the very end, when we said goodbye, he started talking about his experience, when he was separated from his parents. His job in one of the camps was maintaining the ovens of the gas chambers. He began opening up in a very profound way. I just put my iPhone on the video setting and recorded. Twenty-five years ago I didn’t find that much willingness to speak.

Does your Jewish identity influence you?

I definitely feel a connection to it. My parents divorced when I was 1 year old. I spent my early years with my mother. She was ultra-Reform and I didn’t have any religion until the age of 16, when I met my birth father, who was Orthodox. That was probably why my parents weren’t together. I [then] went to an Orthodox all-boys high school for a year, and I decided it wasn’t my particular lifestyle even though I was always connected to it. That was the beginning of my relationship with my father. He accepted me for who I was, and I accepted him for who he was.

How would you describe your religion today?

It’s more spiritual than by the book or rules. I believe in mitzvot, in being a good person, and helping people out. I don’t do the day-to-day things. Every one or two months, I go to Chabad, put on tefillin and say brokhes to honor my father.

Which Jewish celebrity was the most memorable?

I’ve become very good friends with Jeff Goldblum. I met him 20 years ago for the first time, and we became good friends in 2002. One time we were working on a film about the Holocaust, and I introduced him to my landlords, who were survivors from Bergen-Belsen. And he spent the day speaking with them.

Your blog on Huffington Post is personal, featuring your family. Why did you decide to do that?

I’ve always been attracted to the personal element in photography. Back in 1993, I met a painter who was HIV-positive. She said: “The more personal my expression, the more universal its meaning. If it comes from the heart, people will connect to it.” I find that to be true. That way it touches many people.

This interview has been edited for style and length.

Your Stories

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  • "This holiday we take for ourselves,
 no longer silent servers behind the curtain, 
but singers of the seder,
 with voices of gladness,
 creating our own convocation,
 and leaving ‘The Narrow Place’ together."E.M. Broner

  • "The idea of opening the door is that we hope Elijah might actually be there this year – that we might actually have done enough to change the world to have had him arrive. And, if we don’t have even the tiniest bit in us that thinks he might be there, that thinks we have tried our hardest to bring around a messianic time, with no hunger, no war, no conflict, no pain – if we don’t believe that we have tried to end those broken parts in the world – well, then I tell my students – don’t do any of it."Rabbi Leora Kaye

  • "The whole seder, for me, is the tension between two statements: We say, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and now we’re free,' but before that, we pick up the matzoh, we invite the hungry in and we say, 'This year we are slaves, next year may we be free.' We are the most fortunate, liberated Jews in history. But on the other hand, there are lots of things that enslave us."Rabbi Arthur Green

  • "To tune of "Mack the Knife": "Enter Haman ben Hamdasa, /And he’s claimin’, he’s an Agagite. /Better look out, oh Hadassah/For that Haman—he’s an Amalekite./And though Haman, he’s in power now, That old Mordy, will not bow down. /Haman’s ego, it takes a powder now. And just like that—Amalek’s in town!""By Rabbi Jan Uhrbach

  • "Do you know that every shepherd/ has his own tune? / Do you know that every blade/ of grass has its own poem?/ And from the poem/ of the grasses,/ a tune of the shepherd/ is made./ How beautiful and/ pleasant to hear/ this poem!"Reb Nachman of Breslov's Likutei Moharan

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  • "Donniel Hartman said the miracle of Hanukkah is not just that the oil lasted 8 days; it’s actually that it lasted more than one. Would we have said, 'Dayenu,' (to mix metaphors,) if it had lasted two days? Would we have had a holiday? Probably, yes. The idea that we as a Jewish community, even in our darkest moments, hold out the hope that a candle is going to keep burning, I find very powerful."Rabbi Rachel Ain

  • "“We would all argue vehemently and work tireless against assimilation. But the Hellenists and we Reform Jews didn’t assimilate. We acculturate, and by doing so, provide a portal for continuity unavailable to those who continue a quasi-ghettoized existence with all the ramifications thereof, good and bad. The irony, rarely mentioned by those who use the Hanukah story to justify Orthodoxy, is that the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) lasted a century and a half before they disappeared, having taken on Greek names as High Priests and Kings. And Rabbinic Judaism, the first ‘reform’ movement, birthed all of us.”"Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein

  • "I find it refreshing to go from carrying the decomposing lulav and etrog in our hands in procession for 7 days (save for Shabbat), to carry absolutely nothing on Shemini Atzeret, to then carry a Torah on Simchat Torah. It’s like Judaism’s way of saying… ‘What you are carrying with you on this journey — Torah, lessons, stories, values, covenant, a connection with a higher power and history — all of the intangibles, you carry them with you on the tangible, tentative, twisting path of life."Rabbi Paul Jacobson

  • "Shemini Atzeret is conceptually an attempt to maintain the holiday relationship with God without any specific rituals. In modern times it has been become eclipsed by the joy and dancing of Simchat Torah. This speaks to the difficulty in a pure relationship without concrete modes of expression. It could be a reminder that our close relationships exist even when we don't exchange presents or cards."Rabbi Yosef Blau

  • "Sukkot is the reminder that it doesn't take two days or even two years to go from darkness to light. It might take an entire lifetime to get there and you have to constantly walk with the belief that it's possible."Rabbi Sharon Brous

  • "Yom Kippur: God is our judge. Sukkot: God is our shelter. Yom Kippur: you sit cooped up for endless hours. Sukkot is about space and breath. Yom Kippur, it’s all about, ‘What have I done?’ And Sukkot is, ‘What can I do in the world?’"Rabbi Naomi Levy

  • "The Rabbis in the Talmud spoke of the necessity of both sinai and oker harim, that is both those who collected traditions that were handed down and also those who literally “overturned mountains.” Essentially, the one group would not survive without the other. It is in the radical interpretations of the given traditions, and in the broad and fluent knowledge of the traditions that one is able to create radical new interpretations."Dr. Aryeh Cohen

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  • "Teshuvah does invite us to begin again, but not from the beginning. Part of what it means to be human is to learn how to begin again and again – from right where we are, right in the messy middle of things. The Torah, according to an ancient midrash, reminds us of this truth by opening the story of creation itself with the letter Bet…Even when we have rolled the parchment scroll as far back as it will go, the letter Bet meets us there -- insisting that this story cannot be told from the very beginning. No story can. Beginnings elude us."Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld

  • "This year our theme at Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills is “If not Now, When?” and we asked congregants to tweet their responses to #innwtebh or to fill out cards filling in the blanks :“If not now, when will I….” We will prepare these ‘intentions for the year” in a similar way, as a power point presentation scrolling quietly on the screen facing the congregation as individuals come forward silently in front of the open ark before neilah."Rabbi Laura Geller

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