A peek into private worlds

‘Do Not Photograph’ provides a tantalizing glimpse into hassidic communities in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

hassidic communities (photo credit: JOSHUA HARUNI)
hassidic communities
(photo credit: JOSHUA HARUNI)
Mach Nisht Kein Builder.
Those words are Yiddish for Do Not Photograph, the title of the British photographer Joshua Haruni’s more than 300-page collection of photographs of Israel’s often sealed-off hassidic communities.
Haruni provides the reader with an intimate and almost surreal look into the insulated world of hassidism in Israel’s heavily ultra-Orthodox communities of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.
In addition, he includes a collection of images taken from the often overlooked world of Kabbala, or Jewish mysticism, and the individuals who partake in these practices.
In his detailed introduction to the book, Haruni explains, “I have chosen Do Not Photograph as the title of this book because it was the single, most-repeated remark made to me while photographing this project.”
But it’s hard to imagine this is true, considering that Haruni succeeds in penetrating these notably camera-shy communities and comes away with an exemplary model of classical documentary photography.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part, which takes up the majority of the book, tackles hassidic life in Israel. The latter pages of the book, titled “Detour,” contain a smaller collection of images that Haruni documented of kabbalists and how they use their knowledge of Jewish mysticism as healers within their communities.
Haruni proves through his images that he was not just a tourist passing through these communities. He manages to strike that nearly impossible balance of having a presence as a photographer, but blending in enough that his heavily guarded subjects allowed themselves to be unaffected by an outsider and his camera.
A typical pitfall of photographing hassidic communities is coming away with images of masses of men clad in all black with their backs facing the camera. While the book has its fair share of these shots, Haruni is also able to provide the viewer with a decent number of images where he is able to lock into his subjects and reveal their humanity. His work enables the viewer to connect with a community that would most likely not want to connect with them – an important and laudable goal for a documentary photographer.
The photographer provided detailed descriptions of all of the images at the end of the book, giving plenty of context for many of the confusing and exotic images, but I wish that Haruni had provided dates as well as camera and development details to further illuminate the mysterious puzzle he pieces together throughout the book.
The photos were shot in black-and-white to signal to the viewer the black-and-white world Haruni is portraying, but he takes his process one step further and either digitally (or manually, again, the medium was not included in any of the descriptions) colorizes some of the images to build on the black-and-white images, almost to prove to the viewer that he was able to see beyond the black-and-white world he was photographing.
As easy as it is to portray this community as a wave of black hats and coats, Haruni was able to provide splashes of artificial color and even managed to include female members of the community – which, for a male photographer, often proves challenging.
In the pages dedicated to kabbalists, Haruni visually exposes the viewer to the often bizarre customs and practices tucked away in the back alleys and cramped buildings of Jerusalem or Bnei Brak.
Overall, this book is an enjoyable peek into a world that is shrouded in mystery for mainstream audiences.