leica camera - interview by ofir barak

Q: What is Mea Shearim? What enticed you to shoot and document the streets and its people?

A: Mea Shearim was established in 1874 as the fifth settlement outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Its name is derived from a verse in the weekly Torah portion that was read the week the settlement was founded: “Isaac sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold Mea Shearim); God had blessed him” (Genesis 26:12). Mea Shearim remains today an insular neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem. Life revolves around strict adherence to Jewish law, prayer, and the study of Jewish religious texts. For men, traditions in dress code include black frock coats and black hats. Long, black beards cover their faces, and many grow side curls, called payots. Women and girls are urged to wear what is considered modest dress – knee-length or longer skirts, no plunging necklines or midriff tops, no sleeveless blouses or bare shoulders. Some women wear thick black stockings all year long, even in summer, and married women wear a variety of hair coverings, from wigs to head scarves. The residents speak Yiddish in their daily lives, as opposed to the Hebrew language spoken by the majority of Israel’s population. The only use of Hebrew for residents is in prayer and religious study, as they believe that Hebrew is a sacred language to be used only for religious purposes.

A decision is often consists on a collection of experiences that made you arrived to the conclusion you need to do something. If i have to pinpoint an exact moment in time i would say my decision to document the streets and it people would have to do with the death of my grandmother. We had a special bond and we would usually had a weekly routine to discuss the photographs I took. In early 2014 we had fewer opportunities since her health had begun to deteriorate while receiving treatments on a weekly basis, until eventually she had to be under medical supervision and was hospitalized. On one of my visits as we were by her bed, I wanted to ease her mind from the treatments and 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 taking and analyzing the photo as we used to, freeing our mind from the hospital room we were in, while enjoying the moment and each other company. But 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. This one photo has led me on a three-year journey photographing the streets of Mea Shearim.

Q: Do the images and their subjects reflect today’s Jerusalem, or just a small portion of it?

A: The images do reflect today’s Jerusalem as they were taken in the last 3 years. But Jerusalem is a large city and you can be divided to many groups or subjects. One may say that Mea shearim is a small section on the map but i think it has a very big strength to it regardless of the square feet it occupies. I once heard a conversation between a resident of the area to his friend on his phone – one person asked where he is and the other replied he was “at the state of mea shearim” – from that sentence we can see the importance of the place.

Q: Hassidic Jews have maintained their religious and cultural traditions for many years now, was this something you wanted to share through the photographs as well?

A: I think that a photographer need to be an absorber, and in order to present a full view of the community you must include their costumes. It was important for me to present this aspect as well as others. Holidays are usually the best times to shoot since people are more welcoming and they let their guards down and it is easier to come close to them. But as said, you must include ordinary days as well and that was the hard part. For example it was extremely hard for me at first to shoot at protests that held in the area since I don’t appear as one of the residents and was suspected as a police informant. Only after I explained again and again my pure motives most of them felt at ease and I was welcomed to walk besides them.

Q: There’s a clear definition in your work, with high contrasts, use of light and shadows – can you describe the moment when you choose what to shoot or take a picture?

A: I learned about myself that I have to limit my time in order to get a good result. I usually shoot up to 200 frames in 2-3 hours and that’s it – I go home. What I choose to shoot is down to basic of what interest me – it is simple as that. Nevertheless, I learned that there is a few things that can assist you. Henri Cartier Bresson often talked about geometry and how it can present a visual and an intellectual pleasure. A photographer have to make sometimes small gestures to accomplish them – change his point of view, arrive in different hours and so but if you achieve them i think they contribute a lot to the composition and the overall look of the photograph.

Q: You mention you shoot in color and then convert to black and white – can you explain the creative process behind this?

A: As stated, I usually shoot color and really enjoy the color range the Leica M ( Typ 240) produces. The colors are very accurate and right. I later convert my files to black and white. I would advise anyone I know to shoot primarily color since color can give you more options later when you edit the photograph. You can use the yellow, red, blue and green to emphasis the subject or simply do the opposite and It’s a great option since you left with both options for future use if you choose so.

Q: Please describe the performance of your Leica M ( Typ 240).

A: The Leica M ( Typ 240) is very simple to use and i can always rely on it. Its startup in just less than 3 seconds and then it’s ready to shoot. It’s very important while working and you learn to appreciate it. The camera doesn’t jam and very durable – I had walked with it in the rain, sandy areas and nature and it was there for me every time. Even the battery that at first seemed very bulky, i later learned to appreciate you can easily use for multiple times before recharging.

Q: What’s the story behind these two images? 

A: This photograph was taken during the passover preparation (2015) – Passover is a Jewish holiday where the Jewish people celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation by God from slavery in Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. Passover preparations are very chaotic and there are large centers in different locations where each group of the residents, burned their old bread to make a new place for a type of bread especially for Passover (named “Matza”). I can say that it was the last picture I took that day, i was exhausted from the heat and bonfires and never thought of it as much. Only later while editing the photo i saw the strength of it.

This photograph on the right was taken during the purim holiday (2015). In this jewish holiday, people get to dress up and wear costumes while performing other customs of the holiday. I was fortunate enough to be given entrance to a Hasidic purim festive party that held that year. Purim is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from Haman – the main antagonist in the Book of Esther, who, according to the Hebrew Bible, was a vizier in the Persian empire under King Ahasuerus, traditionally identified as Xerxes I. Haman instigated a plot to kill all of the Jews of ancient Persia. While taking this picture, it stroked me with a resemblance to the famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci – “The last supper”.

Q: Lastly, do you want to add something else for readers to know about, maybe other projects in the pipeline?

A: I’m currently working on my second project regarding christianity in Jerusalem. My ambition is to make a multi layered project regarding all three major religions in Jerusalem – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Mea shearim project was very dear to my heart. I have recently launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to compile it into a book – if you enjoyed the story and pictures please take a time to visit it and support it.


You can view the full interview here - http://blog.leica-camera.com/2017/05/27/mea-shearim-streets/

lensculture interview - december 2015 by ofir barak

LC: Contemporary street photography is often defined by dramatic colors, rich shapes and evocative settings. You chose to photograph a community known for its conservative and inward nature. How did you face/overcome this aesthetic challenge?

OB: I would have to disagree and approach a definition of street photography from a more personal aspect. I'm a self-taught photographer and I never went to photography school. My entire learning experience is based on books and the legendary street photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and the members of Magnum. Since black-and-white came before color, it was a much cheaper way to work for a long time, and thus a large body of classic works were done this way.

This is what shaped me and my way of seeing. Now, in our times, the definition of photography for the masses has changed and color has become the "default." Thanks to smartphones and widely available digital cameras, we see so much color imagery every day. But for my photographic references, this is not the case at all.

As for the project, I think that my monochromatic approach combined well with the area and its residents. Mea Sharim, as a place and a community of people, continues to try hard not to change. For example, one can hardly feel the influence of the digital revolution when you are there. The series' black-and-white tones help us keep this in mind as we look through the photographs.

LC: You've written that you decided to shoot this project after coming back from a long stay in the US. Do you feel like your time away from Israel was essential to giving you the distance to make this work?

OB: I think my inspiration grew out of a place in life—a state of mind—not a geographical location. While I was staying in the US, I tried to look for something unique to do and meanwhile did lots of research. By research, I mean I used to go and sit at libraries for long stretches of time and look at the work of major photographers.

When I got back from the States, I had an idea that I wanted to do a street project with a twist. So I started my "Blurred" project, which also took place in Mea Sharim. To make those photographs, I shot exclusively in the dark, during the winter, using only a low shutter speed. This had a dramatic effect.

When summer came, the photographs didn't look similar to the ones I had taken in the winter. They were lacking the same effect. So I started walking to the neighborhood by day, while altering my approach and taking different pictures with a high shutter speed. Summer was long and these pictures began to take over and swallow up the blurred ones. But winter is coming again, so we'll see what happens...

LC: You describe your efforts to not appear as an outsider. Do you think these really worked? Was it advantageous at times to be an outsider? Was it a barrier at other moments?

OB: I would have to say that it helped a bit, but not entirely. I could tell that I was successful at fooling the adults, but when I encountered children, they could always spot me as an outsider. After all, children are more aware of their surrounding.

As all things, my situation of being an "outsider" had its up-sides and down-sides. For example, a positive aspect was that it was easier for a person in the community to come and talk to me freely. When people take extreme routes in life—especially with aspects of religion—they might have some seconds thoughts about all the things they been missing. With an outsider, that person might find it easier to speak his/her mind, since the outsider (me, in this case) won't judge in the same way that someone from within the community would.

On the other hand, the downside is that I missed frames sometimes because I was holding a camera. You might think that's absurd—the camera is supposed to help me make photographs—but in Mea Sharim, the camera is viewed with particular suspicion. These people do not feel like the camera is a way to make art but it is largely an intrusion that threatens to corrupt their daily routine. It was during those moments when I acutely felt my outsider status.

LC: Much of street photography’s history is defined by iconic single images. How did you confront the idea of a street photographic series? What did you look towards for inspiration? Did you have any models?

OB: A single picture is much more easier to take, since it only requires being in the right place, at the right time at just one single moment. But when you have to produce a series of photos on a single subject, that becomes a much more challenging endeavor.

If you compare this idea to a book, a single picture is like the first chapter (or even the first sentence!). You need to get people's interest so that they will keep on reading—but it takes much more than one picture to tell a complete story.

For inspiration, I would advise going to the world's largest library: the internet. Search for any and all things that interest you and you'll come across inspiration. Once you've found some photographers that you like, you should immediately search for more of his/her work. Gather your sources and then you can start thinking through series and how they might inform the work you want to undertake.

LC: Street photography is filled with giants—any particular heroes that inspire you?

OB: Two of the biggest influences on my approach are the Magnum Foundation and the late Garry Winogrand. In particular, Winogrand's photos helped me very much in shaping my perspective on the world.

I hadn't actually heard of Winogrand until 2014, when I visited Washington D.C. and went to one of the museums there. As I strolled through the galleries, I made a mistake and entered an exhibition from the wrong end, where the people were exiting. I was confused and didn't know who this photographer was but I could see he took many, many great pictures. It was there that I had an epiphany about what I wanted to do.

I spent two hours at the gallery that day, but by the end, I realized I just couldn't consume it all at once. Eventually, I went back there three more times. There was a small screening room with his famous talk at Rice University. I took a notebook with me and sat in the corner of the room. While he talked, I wrote to myself small anecdotes of what I wanted to achieve and how.

George Bernard Shaw purportedly said, "Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself." I think I found and created myself in that small corner of the gallery screening room...with Garry Winogrand by my side.

—Ofir Barak, interviewed by Alexander Strecker

f-stop magazine interview - october 2015 by ofir barak

F-Stop: How do you prepare for a project, can you elaborate on your creative process ?

OB: I think the most important thing I have learned is to think in a series of frames and not in a single frame when doing a project. It is very easy to take one picture of a theme but when you have to take a few pictures of the same theme its quite different and challenging.

I advise also to set a time frame for a project. A time frame helps you put a starting point and a finishing point for the theme. A finishing point is very important because sometimes you can just get caught up and don’t want to let go.After that you have set those, you have to keep in mind your commitment to the project and push yourself  to go out there and shoot, no matter the weather – summer or winter.  It would be important to show different situations of the same subject / idea. After that, I assume the rest will present itself as the photographer will move forward.

F-Stop: How do you choose what to photograph and when, what are you looking to capture?

OB: I usually try to capture what interests me and to capture the everyday goings on of their life without disturbing them. We are living in a digital age when every camera is intrusive and people are fearing for their privacy. I found that in the holidays people are more relaxed and less care about the camera so a large part of my work there is being made around those days.

F-Stop: What do you hope people see or perhaps learn when they look at your photographs?

OB: I hope people can see, feel and even smell the area I’m shooting. I hope it triggers in them something and makes them think. There are times when I show my friends or family a photo and they immediately start sharing a story with me, they may have seen or recognized something familiar there and it triggers them. That is what I love about photography that in each person it may result in a different emotional response.

F-Stop: Do you have a favorite image in this series? If so, which one and why is it the image that speaks to you most?

OB: A lot of the times, a photographer connects the images he took to the experiences he had during the shoot – how was he feeling that day, how was the weather and so on. I have a lot of pictures that I consider favorites but only one that I hold dearest – It was the first picture I took of this series. The picture is of a jewish beggar asking for charity at night – He had a white beard that indicated his age and his had was reached for the people walking by. I hold this one so strongly because this is the last picture I showed to my late grandmother. I was by her bed in the ER of “hadassa” hospital, and I told her I went to Mea Sharim to start a project. After she saw it she told me she really liked it and said it was very different from everything I have done at that time. Sadly, she was ill and passed away the next day.
I can honestly say its not a great picture – I didn’t focus well on him when I was passing him by and the picture came a bit blurred, but every time I look at it, I can remember that moment I shared with her and it brings me joy.

F-Stop: Are you working on any other projects currently?

OB: I still have a year or so for “Mea Shearim” and while I’m working on a project I try to concentrate only on it. Even though, sometimes halfway through I start to wonder what can I do next or how else can I reinvent myself. I have a few ideas about that and one of them is to follow the Christen religion and document it, I have a few monasteries and churches around my area and I think that could be a different angle on religion. Maybe I would turn it into a multiple project that includes all major three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

F-Stop: What photographers or other artists inspire you?

OB: I would have to say that the late Garry Winogrand was the most influential photographer in shaping my perspective. I hadn’t heard of him until 2014, when I visited Washington D.C. and went to one of the museums there. I just strolled through the galleries and by mistake I entered the exhibition from the wrong side – from where the people exit. I didn’t know who the photographer was that took all these great pictures. I had an epiphany there that this is what I want to do. I spent two hours at the gallery but realized after a while I just couldn’t consume it all at once and eventually I went back there three more times. There was a small screening room with his famous talk at the Rice University, I took a notebook with me and sat at the corner of the room and write myself small anecdotes of what I want to achieve and how to while he talked. George Bernard Shaw once said that Life isn’t about finding yourself its about creating yourself, and I think I found and created myself in that small corner of the gallery room… with Garry Winorgrand by my side.

The full interview can be found here