interviews

interview for "LENSCULTURE"- december 2015

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

INTERVIEW for "f-stop magazine" - october 2015

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