Israeli Photographer Ofir Barak Discusses His Work On Mea Shearim
Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but there is something about the Haredi community of Mea Shearim — an ultra orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem known for its insularity and religious zeal — that makes it an absolutely fascinating artistic subject. Of course, one might think, quite rightly, that an insular community that enforces (sometimes violently) norms of modesty, patriarchy, and privacy would resist being the subject of an artistic venture. But part of the artistic allure lies in this seclusion. In a world in which we mediate life through images, in which events and places sometimes seem to exist solely for the camera (if an event has not been photographed, is it really, meaningfully, an event at all?), in which the power and ubiquity of the camera has made the world smaller, so to speak, it is the photographs of the heretofore unknown places (or, that is, unknown to us), the off-limits places, that engender the most excitement. Mea Shearim, as it is lived, is one of those unknown and off-limits places (like the first photographs of Palmyra to reach Europe, or any photographs from Kim Jong Un’s North Korea [though there the excitement is obviously tempered with fear, disgust, and uneasy concern]) for many of us.
But it is not just the attitude and isolation of Mea Shearim that makes it ripe for artistic exploration but also the aesthetic of it. The black silhouettes, the uniformity of dress, the density of the population, the contrast between the darkness of the figures and the brightness of the architecture and the sun. It offers opportunities both for extreme anonymity (group images in which the black hats almost form a hive of sorts) and extreme individuality (any deviation becomes immediately apparent). It also offers, perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to wrest the individual from the mass – which is also to say, to force yourself to recognize the individuality and subjectivity of each silhouetted hat, regardless of how anonymous it appears (for a more abstract visual analogue, see Gerhard Richter’s wonderful and under-appreciated cartoons).
The artistic presentation of this community is also rife with political problems. All art is political – either by its remove from society or its direct engagement – but here, in a country known primarily to the world for its political situation, in a specific community that is often at odds with its own government, the Palestinian population, and the world at large, the political aspect of photography comes almost unavoidably to the forefront.
It is these problems and opportunities that I was able to discuss with Israeli photographer Ofir Barak, who has just completed “Mea Shearim: The Streets,” a photo-book composed of pictures he took of Mea Shearim between 2014 and 2016. Barak’s photographs, which first caught my eye on his fantastic instagram feed (@ofirbarak), follow in the Magnum, black and white, photo-documentary tradition of such artistic giants as Josef Koudelka and Sergio Lerrain (it is no coincidence that Barak won a 2016 Magnum Photo Award for a single image). The photographs play upon the aforementioned tension between anonymity and individuality at play in Mea Shearim – both through a keen sense of composition and an obvious sense of commitment and rigor – and fully utilize the black and white medium (if ever there were a situation which called for black and white, surely this is it).
While making the final preparations for the first run of his book (which can be purchased on his website here), Barak discussed how he was able to gain access to Mea Shearim, the challenges of shooting, the genesis of the idea, his influences, and more:
[This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity]
Forward: How did you come up with the idea for this project in the first place?
Barak: A personal decision often comes from a collection of experiences. The idea for this project was the result of a long period of soul searching and the loss of a loved one.
You see, at my core, I’m a painter. This is what I was passionate about; this is what I loved to do. But for a few months I was lacking the motivation to create and it frustrated me. I decided to put painting aside and look for a new path for self expression.
I thought that traveling somewhere might help me clear my head and find some answers. It was clear to me that in order to move beyond my struggle, I needed to surround myself with every form of art I could find – literature, poetry, paintings, architecture – anything goes. I remembered that the museums in D.C have free admission, so I decided to go there. Each day I wandered into a different museum and enjoyed the art galleries. One day, accidentally, I entered an exhibition of Garry Winogrand’s photographs from the wrong side – where people exit. Consequently, I didn’t know who the photographer was, but I was struck by his images.
In that moment, I had an epiphany – this is what I want to do. This is what I can do. I spent two hours at the gallery, but realized that I just couldn’t consume it all in once. I went back there three more times to learn about Winogrand, each time focusing on different photographs. In the exhibition there was also a small screening room showing his famous talk at Rice University. I took a notebook with me each visit and sat at the corner of the room – writing down what I want to achieve and how.
The second event that influenced me was the loss of my grandmother. We had a special bond and we had a weekly routine to discuss the photographs I took. Starting in early 2014, we began to have fewer opportunities to do that due to her deteriorating health, until eventually she required full time medical supervision and was hospitalized. On one of my visits, I wanted to distract her from the treatments and ease her mind so I asked if she would like to see a photograph I took the day before. She immediately said yes and was very enthused when I showed the photograph to her. We ended up talking and analyzing the photo as we used to, freeing our minds from the hospital room while enjoying the moment and each other’s company. Neither of us knew that it would be our last time together. After her death, I decided to do a project based on the last photograph she saw.
Forward: The community in Mea Shearim is extremely insular – how were you able to gain access and take these pictures? I imagine that your outsider status must have been compounded and exacerbated by the presence of a camera.
Barak: Our time is very complex. On one hand, the internet, though private in a physical sense, is in some way very open. People are sharing their most intimate pictures with strangers. But on the other hand, everywhere you go with a camera people will look at you differently – as if you are trying to breach their privacy. The community of Mea Shearim is obviously more closed than many other societies. They are also constantly battling the digital revolution as they believe it will distance the residents from religion.
When I started the project in 2014, I would walk around the area with my camera and the looks I would get from the residents whenever I lifted my camera to my eyes was very unpleasant – they would basically kill my enthusiasm. Most of the time, I would go home after taking only 2-3 photos. I realized that I would have to appear less as an outsider in order to properly capture the lives of this dynamic community – I needed to blend in. I began altering my appearance and dress accordingly. While visiting Mea Shearim, day or night, I wore only black and also grew a long beard. I even began to eat in the settlement on a regular basis. I slowly adapted to the place and freed myself from my shyness and fear. In some ways, the place also adapted to me – people would start approaching me and asking about my presence. I had all kinds of encounters – some threatened me, wanted to break my camera or worse. But most were curious about the book and just let me go about my business. There were some that even wanted to help explain Mea Shearim to me – they showed me unique things or even introduced me to other people that wanted to help.
Forward: On the one hand, this seems like a perfect subject for street photography. On the other hand, the landscape and political and ideological tension in the area makes it fraught with problems of representation. Did you have any specific agenda going into this project beyond documentation? If not, were there any unique challenges in trying to keep an impartial eye or to create an apolitical (to the extent possible) body of work?
Barak: My initial goal is to always take neutral photos that can represent the situation as it is lived. At its core, it is a difficult task since the picture you take is always your point of view. You have to separate what you know from what you see. Because I’ve lived in Jerusalem for most of my life, my perception of the Hasidic population started to be shaped a long time ago. For this project, I wanted to transcend my perception and try to just see the place and its people. The biggest challenge I had was with the editing of the book. Editing is always the hardest part as you must be very precise and harsh on yourself. On top of that, I had created 10k-13k pictures, making it even more difficult. When I began editing, I saw that the final product was very political – it contained protests against the government, the oppression of women, and male chauvinism. I was disappointed and didn’t want to accept that this was all I saw in Mea Shearim. I didn’t want to accept that I was influenced by the common narrative that you stated earlier – I needed to forget myself. I decided to scrap this draft and go back to look for new images. From that period forward, I created 2000 more images depicting the more positive aspects of society – positive feelings, expressions of joy; basically the humane things that I never tried to find the first time. The book in its present form represents a balance between this duality of daily life in Mea Shearim – a duality common to all people.
Forward: Just looking at your images, you seem to be really influenced by the Magnum photographers –Koudelka, Cartier-Bresson, Sergio Lerrain… Are there any photographers or photographic projects in particular that you count as influences?
Barak: My list of influences is very wide, but obviously Magnum has had a great role in shaping my perception and workflow. I look up to every photographer there – especially to Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Larry Towell, Abbas, Micha Bar-am, and the list goes on and on. They serve today as my daily source of inspiration and I wish one day to become a part of their honorable establishment. Garry Winogrand, as I mentioned earlier, is also on a pedestal. But, if I have to choose one person that influenced this book project, it would be Robert Frank, particularly his book “.” When I started to photograph this project, I had been doing a lot of reading. I saw an article about Frank that glorified “The Americans” so I decided to look at it and, as the cliché goes, nothing’s been the same since. I started consuming everything “The Americans” – videos, articles, books. Suddenly, his words regarding the project became just as important as his photographs. In some ways I became obsessed. When I finished everything I could find I went to the contact sheets – scans of which are available at the National Gallery of Art. I spent days looking at them. But that wasn’t enough for me – I wanted to have a hard copy. I was fortunate enough to buy a limited edition by Yugensha that contained 88 of them. I looked at them again and again every day before I went to shoot this project. Learning about Frank and “The Americans” has been very educational – not only in a technical aspect but also in terms of forming ideas, forming a photo essay, and executing a harsh edit.
Forward: On the Magnum photography award – It’s an incredibly strong image. Was there anything in particular about that picture, other than its obvious visual merit, that spoke to you? Anything essential that it seemed to capture about the community?
Barak: Behind some images, you can sometimes see a whole world. There are those photographs – you don’t just flip through them, you stay on them and observe. You can look at them over and over again and still be amazed. The difference between a good picture and a bad picture is often measured in millimeters and small fractions of a second. Henri Cartier-Bresson often talked about the decisive moments in pictures; he said that “there is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera and this moment, once you miss it, it is gone forever.” This image of the Passover preparation (2015) in Mea Shearim, is to me a decisive moment. It is a visual pleasure as all the elements are in order and lay in front of the viewer – the people are in line in every direction, they fill the edges of the frames and you can view all the small details until you realize that there is a strong dissonance between the top and the bottom of the frame – the peaceful skies as opposed to the chaotic ground. It is that visual merit that made me capture it.
Forward: Aside from the Magnum award photograph, do you have any favorites from the series?
Barak: The best pictures are the ones that elicit an emotional response. They let you see things that others can’t and allow you to relive individual experiences that you’ve had. I have a lot of favorites in terms of composition or subject, but the one picture that is closest to my heart is the one and only picture from the project that my late grandmother saw before she passed away. This was the first ever picture I took in the area of Mea Shearim; in it is a street bum reaching his hand for charity. This picture holds my last memories of my late grandmother and symbolizes the new beginning I chose to take. For me it is a picture that holds both an ending and a beginning.
Again, both prints and “Mea Shearim: The Streets” are on sale at Barak’s website: ofirbarak