Keeping haredim in the picture

New photo exhibit shows another side of ultra-Orthodox life.

haredim dead sea 88 248 (photo credit: Menahem Kahana)
haredim dead sea 88 248
(photo credit: Menahem Kahana)
'Religious Jews are often photographed, which is easy to understand," says tall and friendly photographer Menahem Kahana as he sits in a Tel Aviv beachfront cafe. "They are exotic and emotional. So when a photographer manages to capture a weird man in strange black garments, he more often than not believes that the job is done. But for me, this wasn't enough." Kahana, who is presenting his exhibition of photos of the haredi community at the Eretz Israel Museum starting Sunday, would not approach the theme before he felt that he could say something new about it. Not that Judaism was strange to Kahana. Born 50 years ago in Ashkelon to a family of observant Romanian Jews, he attended a religious school and later a yeshiva. After serving in the Golani Brigade, he was discharged from the IDF and settled in Jerusalem. At that time, he abandoned religion and became a secular man. "I just did not feel much connection to religion," he admits simply. Kahana was about 13 when his uncle gave him his first camera, and he was "immediately captivated by the magic of an image emerging in the darkroom from a sheet of paper, so the choice of future profession was obvious." In Jerusalem, he entered Hadassah College, where he studied for only a year and without finishing the course. He then started working as a reporter for the daily Hadashot and local periodicals. Two years later, he became a staff photographer for one of the world's largest news agencies, Agence France Press. "I shoot everything that AFP commissions from me," he says, "not only news, but also features: politics, rallies, sports, terror attacks, natural disasters - including that in New Orleans [Hurricane Katrina]. I shoot a lot in the territories and I spent half a year covering the disengagement from Gaza more than three years ago." Kahana recollected that in Kfar Darom, young supporters from other settlements barricaded themselves on the synagogue rooftop. "I had to make my choice: to climb on the roof, where the real action would obviously transpire, or to stay on the ground. As expected, most of the awards went to those who covered the storm of the roof, but I do not care for prizes, they mean nothing for me. I decided to photograph the families being taken from their houses, because the real drama was there; unlike the youth on the roof, these people belonged to the settlement." He described the feelings involved in such an assignment. "It was hard; sometimes I stepped aside to hide my tears. Maybe the entire decision to evacuate the settlements was right, but for those who lived there it was difficult to accept. They hoped that something would happen and they would stay. But again, photography is that kind of thing - it takes you out of any situation. Also, a photographer is always outside, not inside." IT IS clear that Kahana's approach to photographing the Orthodox community was not merely ethnographic, either. "I was just shooting their lives - their everyday life and feasts," says Kahana plainly. His first photos of haredim were taken in 1995. At the beginning, he just took photos of the ultra-Orthodox in an unusual milieu. "There was a new movement in those days, a sort of return to nature. Some of the Bratslav Hassidim performed a ritual immersion not in a special bath, or mikve, but in springs." Traveling with hassidic pilgrims as far as Uman in Ukraine, he photographed them immersing in the ice cold water on the eve of Rosh Hashana as well as visiting burial sites of the righteous people - tzadikim. A busy press photographer, Kahana slated a day in every week dedicated to the theme, which he "chose for the soul." But he says his former religiosity did not help him find his way into the ultra-Orthodox community. "I used to come as a secular person, without pretending to be what I am not. Also, the gap between the religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox is as wide as that between the secular and the religious. Every movement there has traditions and ceremonies of its own, and not many have ever heard of them." Producing an average of 10 photos a year, Kahana shot the haredim only on film - and not digitally - until 2008. "First, until recently, the quality of digital images was relatively low. Secondly, I wanted to draw a clear line between shooting for press and shooting for myself. In a way, shooting for newspapers is kind of technical photography, but here my visual language is far more sophisticated, compositions are complicated, with many inner connections and with rich light and color, which are extremely important for me. I also used different equipment: For newspapers, I shoot with industrial cameras, heavy and very expensive; here, I used smaller and lighter cameras with wide-angle lenses." Aside from the eventual switch in camera types, Kahana says his project cannot really be described as a developmental process. "I do not think we can speak about development in photography. One of the series' best photos I took back in 1998. It has been widely published and depicts a demonstration of the ultra-Orthodox on an archeological site where human bones were found. They protested the excavations, seeing it as a desecration of remnants of the Jews. A mounted policeman is flying at us, one haredi has just fallen on the dirt road, his hat is rolling in the sand, the others are shouting. The renowned photographer Helmut Newton chose it as a Photo of the Century for the special Millennium issue of Time magazine. What could be better than that? "Still, there was a development in quantity of the photos and of the themes." Kahana explains that while working on his series, he had to make quite a few decisions, such as choosing themes and figuring out when to stop shooting a certain theme, which photos to include in the exhibition, etc. "For example, I decided not to include photos of the kaparot ceremony [an atonement ritual that often involves a chicken and takes place on the eve of Yom Kippur]. Granted, as a press photographer, I have a lot of them, but this is not what I was after. Yet I included a photo of a huge religious man chasing a tiny chicken, which has obviously escaped from him, because there is a touch of humor, which gives it a different aspect." REWARDING AS it is, photographing the life of the haredi community can get most tiresome, to put it mildly. "Sometimes, you have to ride for several hours at night in a crowded protected bus, full of screaming teenagers, just to reach an Arab village over the Green Line where a grave of a tzadik is, and you do it over and over again. I traveled to the tomb of Patriarch Joseph in Nablus seven or even eight times until I was satisfied with the result of the shooting. It was a sheer nightmare. Other times you find yourself scolding a 13-year-old boy in order to get a place at the "tisch" [feast] at the admor's court. And again, the photographer accentuates that his work is not an ethnographic one. "One can shoot an ethnographic series within a year - you just follow the calendar. I tried to dig deeper. Take the exhibition, and its catalogue, for that matter. For example, a photo of a bride who is about to meet her groom with her face covered, and a photo of a three-year-old boy, his face covered, too, because he is to meet the Hebrew alphabet for the first time. These two photos go together; and thus, by creating new connections, I am telling another story, a story of my own." After a brief hesitation, Kahana sums up his work by saying "that we are all humans." "It does not matter what we look like or what kind of clothes we wear. Inside, we are all the same, this is my message. I enjoy photographing the haredim just as I enjoy photographing Beduins or Palestinians. "The visual richness is what makes it special." Haredim - photos by Menahem Kahana runs at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv from February 15 through June 30. Curated by Alex Libak.