NEW YORK – It was about six in the morning in July, 2007, when Alina Bliumis, 41, and her husband Jeff, both immigrants from the former Soviet Union, headed out to Brighton Beach to set up their photography experiment. With a few blank white sheets of paper, a camera and three signs that read “Russian,” “American” and “Jewish,” the two intended to find a creative way to tackle the ongoing conversation about what it means to be an immigrant, Russian and Jewish in America.
“Within five minutes of setting up, an older man walked by, maybe 75 years old,” Alina Bliumis told The Jerusalem Post. The man, a Russian Jewish immigrant who told the couple he had fought for the Russian Army in WWII, chose the “American” sign and let them take his picture.
About five minutes later, Bliumis said, two more older people, also Russian Jewish immigrants, walked by, and chose the “Russian” and “Jewish” signs. The three senior citizens proceeded to start arguing about the meaning of their respective identity choices.
“So within the first 10 minutes of the project we had to ask them to please stop arguing,” Bliumis said with a laugh.
In total, the Bliumises got 46 original pictures of people and their chosen identities that morning on Brighton Beach. They titled it “Casual Conversations.”
Six years later, they repeated the project in Philadelphia, and got around 600 images.
Now on temporary installation in the Laurie Tisch Gallery at the Upper West Side JCC in Manhattan, the Bliumises erected a small one-shot digital camera facing a false background of Brighton Beach with three large signs on which participants can write descriptive words about their identity. So far the Flickr account attached to the camera has received 1,700 images. They’re hoping next to repeat the experiment in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Texas.
“We’re on a quest to understand what the identity of the Russian-Jewish community in America is. This is a complicated conversation,” Bliumis said. “We just wanted to give our little five cents, visually.”
The Bliumises put together their art project as part of the Six Points Fellowship for emerging Jewish artists, in collaboration with the Genesis Philanthropy Group and Generation R at the JCC, a group for young Russian-speaking Jews.
“This is part of a bigger initiative to explore the narratives of Russian-speaking Jewish Americans,” said Ilia Salita, the executive director of Genesis Philanthropy Group of North America. “The project is one of the best examples of a grassroots movement to ascertain how the American identity doesn’t replace, but rather fuses with the identities of being Russian-Jewish. It’s much more effective when the conversation comes from the ground up.”
“Casual Conversations” will run at the Laurie Tisch Gallery at the Upper West Side JCC until February 26.