Facing the truth

After Yeshiva University deemed his exhibit too ‘hard to censor,’ photographer Steve Rosenfield still forged ahead with the powerful ‘New York Jews’ chapter of his 'What I Be' project.

DASHA SOMINSKI: ‘I am not my molestation.’ (photo credit: STEVE ROSENFIELD)
DASHA SOMINSKI: ‘I am not my molestation.’
(photo credit: STEVE ROSENFIELD)
Do you wear your insecurities on your face? While many people go to great lengths to hide their greatest fears, secrets and longings from the general public, photographer Steve Rosenfield has made it his mission to bring them front and center.
As part of his What I Be project, ongoing since 2010, Rosenfield travels around the United States photographing subjects with their biggest vulnerability literally written on their faces: “fat,” “scarred,” “timid,” “failure” or “weak,” accompanied by captions: “I am not my body image;” “I am not my stretch marks;” “I am not my ambivalence;” “I am not my appearance;” or “I am not my panic attacks.”
But last week Rosenfield took part in a special chapter of the What I Be project, photographing the “Jews of NYC” for an exhibit that was originally supposed to take place at Yeshiva University in Manhattan.
The resulting images – and several in particular – have struck a strong chord within the Orthodox communities of New York as the photos have gone viral on several websites.
One in particular that received a lot of attention was the image of Ben Faulding, a mixed-race hassidic man living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Faulding appeared in the photo with the word “schvartze” – a Yiddish slur for black people – written on his forehead, alongside the caption “I am not my race.” Faulding later wrote a blog post about the experience, titled “I hate this word and so I let a man write it on my face.”
“Being a Jew with a black father, living in Crown Heights is a strange experience,” he wrote. “There is always a strong undercurrent of racism. Jews and Blacks (the shvartzes to use the unfortunate local parlance) have always had tension between them.”
Faulding wrote that “since moving to Crown Heights, I’ve heard the word flow like blessings. It drips out of the mouths of young and old alike.”
Mati Engel and Dasha Sominski, then-co-presidents of the Art Club at the Stern College for Women – a division of YU – approached Rosenfield in October of last year about bringing him to the university.
When he expressed interest, they turned to the college’s administration to secure the approval and funding necessary. What followed was four months of back and forth negotiations, before ultimately the university decided not to sponsor the project due to “their inability to censor it,” Sominski told The Jerusalem Post.
By then, the women had already bought a ticket for Rosenfield to fly to New York – they’d snapped up a cheap flight when “we still believed he was going to come through the school,” said Sominski – and Rosenfield agreed to waive his fee and fly out anyway.
Instead of being put up at a hotel and given a studio to work in as he is accustomed to, Rosenfield crashed on couches in students’ homes and worked in several different apartments during his weeklong stay. The Sacramento, California-based photographer said the experience was “two different worlds” compared to the other campuses he’s worked at, including Princeton University, Columbia University and others.
“People were really generous with their spaces,” said Sominski. “They felt like they were part of something big... it was kind of a communal effort.”
While Rosenfield, who works as a photographer for weddings, concerts, sporting events and almost anything else, had never heard of Yeshiva University before the women contacted him, he was eager to take part in the project despite the “scattered” nature, he told the Post. By the time he realized the school wasn’t coming through, “it was the kind of the principle of the matter... but I’m glad that we didn’t go through the school ultimately in the end.”
In response to an emailed inquiry from the Post about the project, YU issued a statement from Dean of Students Dr. Chaim Nissel.
“As a university based on Torah ideals, Yeshiva University supports and encourages the artistic exploration of diverse ideas by its students and offers robust programming in dramatics and the arts – all while keeping in line with our values. After close review and much discussion of this event with the student organizers, and taking the sensitivities of all of our students into consideration, we determined that a YU venue would not be able to showcase the project in its entirety.”
Administration officials had even contacted Rosenfield to work out details of his contract before they backed out, the photographer said.
“I was under the impression that we were at that stage that it was going to happen,” he said, “but I was obviously mistaken.”
Though he was working with a population he hadn’t encountered much in the past, Rosenfield said the students and other young Jews who took part were mostly like all the other participants he’s photographed over the years.
“For the most part everybody’s insecurities are the same,” he said. “The only thing Yeshiva added was the religious side of it... I witnessed a little bit more insecurities about that, but other that that we all have the same stuff.”
Rosenfield said while he was born Jewish, today he identifies as “spiritual,” and it has “been cool to find out a little more” about the religion.
Sominski’s image has also generated a fair amount of controversy, as she appeared with the words “I was NOT sleeping,” written on her face, alongside the caption: “I am not my molestation.”
Rosenfield’s process involves talking to his subjects for a while before the shoot to draw out what should be written on their face – sometimes surprising even the the participants themselves.
“There were a number of things I thought were going to be the things that were going to be depicted on my face,” said Sominski, a 20-year-old native of St. Petersburg, Russia, who grew up in the Chabad Lubavitch movement. “I didn’t know that [the molestation] was an insecurity until I talked to him and I didn’t realize that I had only shared it with two people – surprising considering that I’m generally an oversharer.”
Despite the intense nature of her photograph, Sominski said the reaction has been “resoundingly affirming.” Though there have been some critical comments on a few religious websites, “the people whose opinion really matters” have had only positive things to say, she said.
Though Engel also took part in the project, her photo has yet to be released on Rosenfield’s website and Facebook page.
“I decided to wait off on mine until I am ready to share what I have to say,” she told the Post via email.
“After all the media coverage we have been getting it has become apparent to me that many people will be looking and my image. I want to make sure that when I do speak I am speaking deliberately. Words are powerful, vulnerabilities are powerful... I want to make sure my words are genuine and intentional.”
Esther Freeman, a 29-year-old Chabad Lubavitch singer who performs only for female audiences – but uploads clips and videos to her site and YouTube, also took part in the project, posing with the words “you just want attention” written on her face, accompanied by the caption “I am not my emotions.”
Joshua Tranen, a YU student, appeared in the photo with the words “Moms 2 Dads 0” written on his forehead, with the caption “I am not my household.”
Tali Adler, a graduate of Stern College, had the words “you learn like a guy” written on her face, alongside the caption “I am not my Gemara” – a component of the Talmud that women did not traditionally study.
Despite the ordeal, Engel and Sominski aren’t angry – or even surprised – at YU’s decision.
“I actually thought they would turn down the project proposal right away,” said Engel. “In fact I was shocked that they even considered it for as a long as they did.”
Sominski said the fact they went back and forth on the details for so many months, “infused us with more hope” before the ultimate rejection.
“I think the fact that they tried for so many months kind of indicated there were people within the administration that felt it was a good idea,” said Sominski, “but I do think the answer they came up with in the end... we could have received that answer in October. Instead we were put through a number of unnecessary bureaucratic things that wasted our time.”
She said the school’s reason for rejecting the project “is not a very bad reason considering we knew what their sensibilities were and we both had been in the school for a while. It wasn’t surprising.”
Engel echoed those sentiments, saying “I understand YU’s decision – though I am frustrated by the process we had to go through in order to hear a proper decline... YU’s decision ultimately was based on not knowing how to accurately guide a project of this intensity... and I hear that. There is no way to censor a project of this nature.”
Without a final exhibit at the university, the students and Rosenfield are working on holding a show at an art space in Brooklyn at the end of the month, to hopefully benefit a mental health charity and help Rosenfield recoup some of his expenses.
“As the word become spreading out it became apparent we had an enormous waiting list... not only among the student body but in the young Jewish community as a whole,” said Sominski.
“We felt the project was really relevant” to the New York Jewish community, she added, “especially since the community as a whole wasn’t prepared to be accepting of the people who were represented.”
See the full details of the project and photos from its beginning at whatibeproject.com