My name is Ofir Barak, I'm a photographer based here in Jerusalem.
I can honestly say that I have been an artistic person all my life. I started out as a painter and was very passionate about it from a very early age. In 2013 I was lacking the motivation to create I was frustrated and I decided to put it aside and look for a new path to express myself through art.
I needed to travel somewhere and clear my mind and look for answers. 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 a photographer from the wrong side – where people exit. I didn’t know who the photographer was, but I was struck by his images.
At 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 and realized that I just couldn’t consume it all in once. I went back there three more times to learn about the photographer - Garry Winogrand and each time I focused 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. After returning home, i decided to work on a first project of my own.
Between the years 2014 and 2017, I photographed constantly and on a weekly basis the neighborhood of Mea Shearim. I attended protests, holidays and weekdays tring to present a full documentation of a religious society here in Jerusalem. After 3 years and 15k pictures, a self published book was released under the title of “Mea Shearim - The streets”.
The project was well received within the world of photography rewarding me a Magnum Photos prize for the street photograph of the year, and a nomination for a Hasselblad masters in 2018. Parts of the project were exhibited in different locations including the jewish museum in berlin, the Lucie foundation - Month of photography photo book exhibition in the Us and many others.
After completing this project, I have realized it has now become a starting point to a much larger project regarding religion in Jerusalem and a three parts books. The book is sold here at the event and if you liked the talk, feel free to take a look in the open copy and purchase one.
What is the importance of an artist book for a photographer?
I think that the importance of a final project in a form of a book it is like the final personal approval from the artist that the project is finalized, completed and is now submitted to the public.
On a personal level, this form of a book was the closing page and how I found a way to move forward from it. It was a personal closure and the way I dealt with my grandmother death.
Me and my grandmother 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.
Photographing 3 years in mea shearim was easy in comparison to the 20 sentences paragraph I wrote at the end of my book. It took me 3.5 years to overcome her lost and dealing with it. I sobbed while writing it but after completing it, I felt that the weight has been lifted from my shoulders.
Is the a portfolio of your work/ how it compares to a portfolio?
I think that an artist book is a much larger form of a portfolio. When you are presenting a portfolio to a client, a colleague or else, it must be very tight in order to present the idea in a very short time you have with him. It must be in the strongest way possible. When a person opens a book, he will decide on that moment that's best for him. He is making time on his free will and therefore he is in a state of mind that is more open to accept your idea or story you are trying to present. Also book as opposed to portfolio, can include a transitional photographs that are not necessarily your best or strong photographs but will serve a way to wive your story and help the reader understand what you are trying to hand him.
How do you find your influences on what to photograph?
Influance for an artist can come in a form of everything, an essay, a conversation or basicly form of life. For me and regarding this project, I can say the the book of “Robert Frank - The Americans“ was one of the main elements responsible of pushing me forward to my end goal.
When I started photographing the project of mea shearim, I had been doing a lot of reading. I saw an article about Robert Frank and “The Americans”. I decided to buy the book, as the cliché goes, nothing’s been the same since. I started consuming everything I could about it – videos, articles, and obviously more 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 also wasn’t enough for me and I wanted to have a hard copy of them just like the books. 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 the Mea Shearim 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.
Ever since, i keep buying more books and looking for inspirations. I have up until now in our home library an amount of about a 1000 books and i'm fortunate that my wife understand this passion and can live with it.
The medium of photography and how has it changed with the Instagram era?
Our period of time we live in is very complex. On one hand - the privacy online is in some way very open. People are sharing their most intimate pictures with strangers. But on the other hand, everywhere you will go with a camera you will be looked upon differently as if you are trying to breach someone's privacy. In regarding to the community of Mea shearim it is obviously more closed than other liberal societies. And they are also constantly battling and trying to block the digital revolution from the residents as they believe it will distance them from religion.
For me, instagram, facebook and what will come next is simply another way of sharing the work and sharing my ideas.
we can all agree on an aspect that it is creating an overload on the medium we must accept that this is the path that the majority has chosen,and this is a form of evolution. you don’t necessarily have to like it or use it but if you can be intelligent enough, you can try and set boundaries and limitation on what you see and what you share or eventually how to use it. The best way you can use this form is to translate the online connections you achieve in our real world personal connections.