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Irony in the Soul: on Being a Jewish Photographer

Judah PassowFilmed at Jewish Book Week 2013

What’s the connection between being Jewish and being a photographer?  Why do I take the kind of photographs that I do?  In my talk, I explore the Jewish values that drive my work and show how I try to use my camera as an agent of social action.  The philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel famously once said that “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought”. The values that I was brought up with demand that my photographs  challenge people  to see the flaws in the world we live in and to take responsibility for repairing them

Judah Passow is a photographer who has been working on assignments for American and European magazines and newspapers since 1978.  Based in London, his work has been published extensively by all of the leading British newspapers and their associated magazines.  A winner of four World Press Photo awards for his coverage of conflict in the Middle East, his photographs have been exhibited around the world. His book Shattered Dreams, looking back at twenty five years of his coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, was published in 2008 and was nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.

Good Evening. These are names that many of you will be familiar with. What do all of these people have in common? One thing is they are all fascinated by the human condition. A second thing is they are all photographers. A third thing is they are all Jewish. The company is distinguished and their impact on our visual culture and literacy is profound. So what’s the connection between being Jewish hand being a photographer, why do we photograph the things we do? Is there a particularly Jewish narrative that runs through our work? What art critic Richard Woodward called the ‘nervy, ironic and disruptive work of proud outsiders’? I think there is. We are witnesses not outsiders anymore as Woodward suggests, because we are no longer a generation of immigrants and refugees, but witnesses – photographers who feel a responsibility to bear witness with our camera to both failures and triumphs of society. Our photography comes from a desire to document and to preserve memory. We share an aspiration to make people aware of political and social injustice. Photo journalism, the photography of concern and compassion is how we give expression not these desires and aspirations. For me, photo journalism is a kind of belief system. I think it provides the photographer with a moral and ethical compass because it is rooted in several fundamental Jewish values. I’d like to explore these values with you, using some photographs I’ve taken over the last few years, Photo journalism at its heart is a core Jewish concept, Tikun Olam, the personal commitment to repairing the world. We live in a terribly flawed world of our own making and photo journalism’s role is a way to hold up a mirror in which we can see a true and accurate reflection of ourselves and our flaws, in the hope that we will understand what it is that needs repairing. This photograph was taken in the West Bank village of Fahme near Jenin in 1992, a village in which all the men have collaborated with Israeli security services to inform on fellow Palestinians. These are the children of one of the collaborators in their living room, playing intifada, a game based on what they see going on in the streets of Jenin all the time, Israeli soldiers arresting Palestinians. They are taking turns being the Israeli soldier and the arrested Palestinian. The girl sitting on the sofa is the younger sister waiting her turn to play the game. This photograph addresses one of the core issues that I have explored in my photography, the idea that war robs children of their childhood. In the final analysis the biggest tragedy of robbing a child of his or her childhood is that it inevitably creates an entire desensitized generation of adults for whom violence is simply a way of life. There are several other core Jewish values that drive my photography and they all in fact flow right into this desire to repair the flaws in our society. We all know the original quote from the story of Cain and Abel, it’s framed as a question – ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’. I have turned this idea around because I don’t think there is any question about it, ‘I am my brother’s keeper’. We are all our brother’s keeper. We are all responsible for each other’s wellbeing and for each other’s actions. Take a minute to look at this image. Can you work out what is going on? Who is the man on the ground? What has happened to him? Who are the men surrounding him? It’s not at all clear is it? The ability to inject a degree of ambiguity into a photograph is for me one of photo-journalism’s greatest strengths because this kind of image challenges the viewer to confront their preconceived notions about a given issue. This photograph was taken outside the tomb of the patriarchs outside Hebron in 1997. The Tomb of the Patriarchs has two entrances, one side is a Synagogue and the other side is a Mosque. This elderly Palestinian was coming out the Mosque side of the tomb when he slipped and cracked his head open, you can see the blood splatters from his wound in front of him, on the stone slabs. Coincidentally, moments after he fell, a group of Israeli army doctors who were on a field trip to Hebron came out the Synagogue side of the tomb and immediately went over to help him. For me this photograph is the quintessential expression of the idea of assuming responsibility for my brother’s welfare. You’ve got very graphic symbols of both sides of the conflict in this frame and for a moment the conflict is suspended as a small act of human kindness unfolds. Conflict photography records the collapse of society’s ethical and moral principles. Sometimes though, it delivers some amazing surprises. The idea of honour they father and thy mother not just in the literal sense but metaphoric sense as well is about acknowledging our obligations of both respect and care for an older generation whose wisdom, experience and sacrifice provided the foundation on which we’ve built our own lives. This photograph was taken in a day centre in Stepney in the East End of London a few years ago. The East End, as we all know, was an immigration magnet for an entire generation of European Jews. It speaks to me vividly about one of the great difficulties of growing old, the loneliness, the isolation and the loss of dignity that begins to envelop your life, once you reach and then pass a certain age. A recurring theme in my work are those images which reveal a remarkable degree of indifference and sometimes even outright callousness towards both the physical and emotional frailty of the elderly and the ageing. Not just in our own society, I have seen it while working on assignments in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Ironically, those very cultures where their tradition of veneration of elders was once a powerful force for social cohesion. Not anymore. One of the central ideas that drives Jewish life both in the family and in the community is the premium we place on educating our children. The idea that education is a tree of life for those who choose to grasp it is a core Jewish concept. With roots that anchor and nurture our cultures and traditions and branches that grow and extend with both knowledge and family, the fruit of the tree of life sustains us as a people. This photograph was taken in a Palestinian primary school in Jericho in the West Bank in 1997. The importance of this photo for me is the way it illustrates how education is a universal value and needs to be appreciated as the bridge it represents between our culture and the culture of others. One of the hallmarks of an educated people, is its capacity for respect and conversation with other cultures. All of these values, the unequivocal assertion that I am my brother’s keeper, the moral imperative instructing us to honour thy father and thy mother and the of embracing the idea that education is the tree of life, all actually drive Tikkun Olam, the ethical impulse to make our world a better place. Photo journalism has always attracted Jewish photographers because it has deeply rooted in it as a creative practise a very Jewish ethical idea. Photo-journalism is the art of using the camera as an agent of social action. Abraham Heschel one of the great theological minds of the 20th century, observed that a Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. My father was one of Heschel’s students and this idea that our tradition calls for individual accountability, shaped both his own conception of Judaism as a Rabbi and the values we were brought up with in our home. Photo journalism by itself can’t prepare the world, but it can serve as that mirror that we hold up to ourselves to see an accurate reflection of the state of our society and to challenge us to take personal responsibility for repairing the faults in this flawed world in which we live. Thank you very much.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License