Snap non-judgment

With 30 years of experience, Jewish French-born Frederick Brenner has turned his attention to a new project in Israel involving 12 seasoned photographers from different countries and cultural backgrounds.

Frederic Brenner 311 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Frederic Brenner 311
(photo credit: Courtesy )
This country has been filmed and photographed so much over the years that you wouldn’t think there was any more that could possibly be captured through any kind of lens, regardless of who was behind the camera. Then again, if you are going to try and offer us, and the world, a new angle on life in this part of the world, it would be advisable to get someone on board who has both an intimate knowledge of the subject matter and plenty of global street cred too. Frederic Brenner satisfies both those prerequisites with aplomb.
52-year-old Jewish French-born Brenner has been snapping memorable photographs all over the world for over 30 years. One of his better known projects culminated in the publishing of a book called Diaspora: Homelands in Exile which contains pictures of Jews in 45 countries, taken over a period of 25 years. An exhibition of the book’s contents opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2003, before hit a globetrotting route to major cities across five continents. Now Brenner has turned his attention to the Israel: Portrait of a Work in Progress project in which he is orchestrating the efforts of 12 seasoned photographers from different countries and cultural backgrounds.
This evening (8 p.m.) he will discuss the project, together with philosopher and Hebrew University lecturer Prof. Moshe Halbertal, in the first session of an intriguing series entitled Field of Vision – Photographers in Conversation, hosted by Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem.
On Wednesday another of the Israel: Portrait of a Work in Progress photographers, Rosalind Solomon with talk about her contribution to the collective effort with philosopher, musician, artist Aviv Livnat, while photographer Wendy Ewald will discuss her work with Miki Kratsman, head of the photography department at Bezalel Academy of Art, at 8 p.m. on May 29.
In fact, Israel: Portrait of a Work in Progress is something of a homecoming for Brenner.
“You know, Diaspora really started from here,” says Brenner when we meet at Jerusalem’s bustling Mahanei Yehuda Market, a fittingly pan-sensory multicolored and multicultural location for our chat.
“I took pictures in Mea Shearim which I saw as a recreation of an eastern European shtetl, the Diaspora, in the heart of the Middle East. So I set out to record shtetls in other places in the world. I spent 25 years of my life questioning the notion of Diaspora and portable identity - how, as a people, we have lived with different parameters compared with other nations.”
THE CROSS-CULTURAL element was uppermost in Brenner’s mind when he approached the project in hand, although he didn’t have to look too far from home.
“My mother’s family moved to France from Algiers at the beginning of the 19th century and my father’s side came from the Ukraine and Romania, so we are woven from these many threads which I tried to reclaim. This journey is really an attempt to reclaim all the many voices which have been used by the Jewish people.”
That’s presumably, will come out in Israel: Portrait of a Work in Progress although Brenner stresses that all the photographers are approaching the job with no defined agenda. That includes politics, although Brenner is acutely aware of the fact that it’s hard to cross the road here without it being construed or misconstrued as some kind of political statement.
He is also under no illusion about the possibility of the project producing a definitive portrayal or who we are and what we are about.
“Diaspora was a journey which enabled me to be born to the notion of paradox, ambivalence, dissonance and cracks. I believe that Judaism is about cracks, it’s not about shlemut (wholeness). I believe that Diaspora was a good rehearsal for what I’m doing
But, surely, we now have our own country. Haven’t we left the Diaspora behind? “The residual Diaspora is evident everywhere here.
We carry our Diaspora on our back. We just had Pesach when we had a great opportunity to exit Egypt for a week. But, of course, Egypt is within. It has very little to do with any given country.”
That said, Brenner has opted for an international approach to the current project. His snapping dozen include Martin Kollar from Slovakia, Korean photographer Jungjin Lee, Gilles Peress from France, US-born Fazal Sheikh who comes from a Muslim family with Indian roots and Thomas Struth from Germany. The Brenner team also incorporates a wide spectrum of approaches to the genre, from Wendy Ewald’s childand family-orientated ethos to Stephen Shore’s less interpretative mindset.
“I realized a long time ago that Israel is far too complex for one person [to portray]. One day I saw a book of photographs, undertaken in France in the 1980s, like a kind of X-ray of French territory – both architectural and human, but more architectural. I thought what would happen if I invited 10, 12 maybe 15 photographers who used photography as a tool to ask question, here in Israel. I wanted to give them tools and the time – some are spending up to 8 months here – to look at Israel as a place and a metaphor.”
More than anything, however, Brenner says his work is about emotion.
“I am a very emotional person. I can’t help that. It is about feeling compassion and whether we allow ourselves to feel sadness, and about meeting the otherness of other people in this incubator of a society.”
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