The first image of this striking black-and-white series was selected as a Single Image Winner in the Magnum Photography Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all 44 of the winners, finalists, jurors’ picks and student spotlights.
Mea Shearim was established in 1874 as the fifth settlement outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Its name is derived from a verse in the weekly Torah portion that was read the week the settlement was founded: “Isaac sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold (Mea Shearim); God had blessed him” (Genesis 26:12).
Today, Mea Shearim remains an insular neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem. Life revolves around strict adherence to Jewish law, prayer, and the study of Jewish religious texts.
Traditions in dress code for men include black frock coats and black hats. Long, black beards cover their faces. Women and girls are urged to wear what is considered modest dress—long skirts, no plunging necklines, and no sleeveless blouses or bare shoulders. Some women wear thick, black stockings all year long, even in summer and married women wear a variety of hair coverings, from wigs to head scarves.
The residents speak Yiddish in their daily lives, as opposed to the Hebrew language spoken by the majority of Israel’s population since they believe that Hebrew is a sacred language to be used only for religious purposes. The only use of Hebrew for residents is in prayer and religious study.
I began to document Mea Shearim in 2014. As I frequented the streets of the settlement, I realized that I would have to appear less like an outsider in order to properly capture the lives of this dynamic community—I would have to blend in. I began altering my appearance and dress accordingly: I wore only black and grew a long beard, I even began to eat there on a regular basis.
Today, after having been a frequent visitor to the settlement for over a year, I am witnessing the accomplishments of my photographic research. I am beginning to see the uniqueness and appeal of this place.
Photography as an art form helps me document and chronicle the ongoing pursuit of the old versus the new, the past versus the present, the everyday life of a city within a city.
LC: Contemporary street photography is often defined by dramatic colors, rich shapes and evocative settings. You chose to photograph a community known for its conservative and inward nature. How did you face/overcome this aesthetic challenge?
OB: I would have to disagree and approach a definition of street photography from a more personal aspect. I’m a self-taught photographer and I never went to photography school. My entire learning experience is based on books and the legendary street photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and the members of Magnum. Since black-and-white came before color, it was a much cheaper way to work for a long time, and thus a large body of classic works were done this way.
This is what shaped me and my way of seeing. Now, in our times, the definition of photography for the masses has changed and color has become the “default.” Thanks to smartphones and widely available digital cameras, we see so much color imagery every day. But for my photographic references, this is not the case at all.
As for the project, I think that my monochromatic approach combined well with the area and its residents. Mea Sharim, as a place and a community of people, continues to try hard not to change. For example, one can hardly feel the influence of the digital revolution when you are there. The series’ black-and-white tones help us keep this in mind as we look through the photographs.
LC: You’ve written that you decided to shoot this project after coming back from a long stay in the US. Do you feel like your time away from Israel was essential to giving you the distance to make this work?
OB: I think my inspiration grew out of a place in life—a state of mind—not a geographical location. While I was staying in the US, I tried to look for something unique to do and meanwhile did lots of research. By research, I mean I used to go and sit at libraries for long stretches of time and look at the work of major photographers.
When I got back from the States, I had an idea that I wanted to do a street project with a twist. So I started my “Blurred” project, which also took place in Mea Sharim. To make those photographs, I shot exclusively in the dark, during the winter, using only a low shutter speed. This had a dramatic effect.
When summer came, the photographs didn’t look similar to the ones I had taken in the winter. They were lacking the same effect. So I started walking to the neighborhood by day, while altering my approach and taking different pictures with a high shutter speed. Summer was long and these pictures began to take over and swallow up the blurred ones. But winter is coming again, so we’ll see what happens…
LC: You describe your efforts to not appear as an outsider. Do you think these really worked? Was it advantageous at times to be an outsider? Was it a barrier at other moments?
OB: I would have to say that it helped a bit, but not entirely. I could tell that I was successful at fooling the adults, but when I encountered children, they could always spot me as an outsider. After all, children are more aware of their surrounding.
As all things, my situation of being an “outsider” had its up-sides and down-sides. For example, a positive aspect was that it was easier for a person in the community to come and talk to me freely. When people take extreme routes in life—especially with respect to religion—they might have some seconds thoughts about all the things they been missing. With an outsider, that person might find it easier to speak his/her mind, since the outsider (me, in this case) won’t judge in the same way that someone from within the community would.
On the other hand, the downside is that I missed frames sometimes because I was holding a camera. You might think that’s absurd—the camera is supposed to help me make photographs—but in Mea Sharim, the camera is viewed with particular suspicion. These people do not feel like the camera is a way to make art but it is largely an intrusion that threatens to corrupt their daily routine. It was during those moments when I acutely felt my outsider status.
LC: Much of street photography’s history is defined by iconic single images. How did you confront the idea of a street photographic series? What did you look towards for inspiration? Did you have any models?
OB: A single picture is much more easier to take, since it only requires being in the right place, at the right time at just one single moment. But when you have to produce a series of photos on a single subject, that becomes a much more challenging endeavor.
If you compare this idea to a book, a single picture is like the first chapter (or even the first sentence!). You need to get people’s interest so that they will keep on reading—but it takes much more than one picture to tell a complete story.
For inspiration, I would advise going to the world’s largest library: the internet. Search for any and all things that interest you and you’ll come across inspiration. Once you’ve found some photographers that you like, you should immediately search for more of his/her work. Gather your sources and then you can start thinking through series and how they might inform the work you want to undertake.
LC: Street photography is filled with giants—any particular heroes that inspire you?
OB: Two of the biggest influences on my approach are the Magnum Foundation and the late Garry Winogrand. In particular, Winogrand’s photos helped me very much in shaping my perspective on the world.
I hadn’t actually heard of Winogrand until 2014, when I visited Washington D.C. and went to one of the museums there. As I strolled through the galleries, I made a mistake and entered an exhibition from the wrong end, where the people were exiting. I was confused and didn’t know who this photographer was but I could see he took many, many great pictures. It was there that I had an epiphany about what I wanted to do.
I spent two hours at the gallery that day, but by the end, I realized I just couldn’t consume it all at once. Eventually, I went back there three more times. There was a small screening room with his famous talk at Rice University. I took a notebook with me and sat in the corner of the room. While he talked, I wrote to myself small anecdotes of what I wanted to achieve and how.
George Bernard Shaw purportedly said, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” I think I found and created myself in that small corner of the gallery screening room…with Garry Winogrand by my side.
—Ofir Barak, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Ofir was also one of the 31 winners and finalists of the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2015.