When the international photographic agency Magnum Photos asked its members to select one of their works which they felt “changed everything,” the hope, according to Magnum’s website, was for the photographers to “reflect on their careers and identify a single picture that represents a turning point in their lives as image makers.”
Among the 51 works — signed prints of which Magnum offered for sale between June 8 and 12 — are photographs depicting Robert Kennedy’s funeral, the then lesser-known Nelson Mandela practicing law, and an “accidental” photograph from Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington. And then there are more mundane, less monumental images: a clown sitting at a diner counter in 1963, a nude, a pair of feet semi-submerged in a Japanese hot spring.
For his submission, Berlin-born and Israel-based photographer Micha Bar Am selected an image he took in 1967 titled “A demonstration by ultra-orthodox Jews against autopsies, Jerusalem.” (Bar Am is hardly the collective’s only Jewish member, and he told the Forward in 2013 that “There were a number of Jewish photographers that were part of the founding members of Magnum, but I think it was on the basis of their photography, and not necessarily anything to do with their Jewishness.”)
Bar Am’s image, a double-exposure, captures an effort to block his photograph, perhaps motivated by the belief that some ultra-Orthodox Jews espouse that photographs of people can lead to Second Commandment violations. “A young man pushed his hamsa (spread hand) into my camera, which is seen by some as ‘the evil eye,’” Bar Am writes in a text accompanying the image on Magnum’s website.
The multi-layered image is difficult to parse out, but around and through the hamsa-hand, one can make out a variety of figures, some children and some wearing black hats, and protest signs. One legible sign quotes Isaiah 8:10, “Consult [to do evil] and it will fail, speak the word [of impropriety] and it won’t stand, for God is with us.” The implication, it seems, is to connect the evils of contemporary autopsies and the divinely thwarted efforts in Isaiah.
So why did this particular photo of a demonstration against autopsies — which the protesters believe to violate biblical and rabbinic laws prohibiting the desecration of corpses — so inspire Bar Am that it changed everything?
“As it happened, it was the tail end of my roll of film and the image is actually a double exposure,” he writes. “This taught me that in spite of your careful framing, chance occurrences create the most interesting images.”
That chance occurrences often create the greatest art is surely something very few would protest.
Menachem Wecker is co-author of “Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education.” (Cascade, 2014)