Ofir Barak was born in 1982 in Jerusalem, Israel. In 2011, he completed his B.A. in humanities (Major in arts, and history) and In 2014, After living in the USA and abroad he returned to his hometown – Jerusalem, in order to photograph a multi layered project that would display the city and its people through his eyes. In light of his upcoming book, he shares some of the images and stories behind the project “Mea Shearim – The Streets.”
What is Mea Shearim? What enticed you to shoot and document the streets and its people?
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). Mea Shearim remains ,מאה שערים( today an insular neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem. Life revolves around strict adherence to Jewish law, prayer, and the study of Jewish religious texts. For men, traditions in dress code include black frock coats and black hats. Long, black beards cover their faces, and many grow side curls, called payots. Women and girls are urged to wear what is considered modest dress – knee-length or longer skirts, no plunging necklines or midriff tops, 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. The only use of Hebrew for residents is in prayer and religious study, as they believe that Hebrew is a sacred language to be used only for religious purposes.
A decision is often consists on a collection of experiences that made you arrived to the conclusion you need to do something. If i have to pinpoint an exact moment in time i would say my decision to document the streets and it people would have to do with the death of my grandmother. We had a special bond and we would usually had a weekly routine to discuss the photographs I took. In early 2014 we had fewer opportunities since her health had begun to deteriorate while receiving treatments on a weekly basis, until eventually she had to be under medical supervision and was hospitalized. On one of my visits as we were by her bed, I wanted to ease her mind from the treatments and asked if she would like to see a photograph I took the day before. She immediately said yes and was very enthused when I showed the photograph to her. We ended up taking and analyzing the photo as we used to, freeing our mind from the hospital room we were in, while enjoying the moment and each other company. But neither of us knew that it would be our last time together. After her death, I decided to do a project based on the last photograph she saw. This one photo has led me on a three-year journey photographing the streets of Mea Shearim.
Do the images and their subjects reflect today’s Jerusalem, or just a small portion of it?
The images do reflect today’s Jerusalem as they were taken in the last 3 years. But Jerusalem is a large city and you can be divided to many groups or subjects. One may say that Mea shearim is a small section on the map but i think it has a very big strength to it regardless of the square feet it occupies. I once heard a conversation between a resident of the area to his friend on his phone – one person asked where he is and the other replied he was “at the state of mea shearim” – from that sentence we can see the importance of the place.
Hassidic Jews have maintained their religious and cultural traditions for many years now, was this something you wanted to share through the photographs as well?
I think that a photographer need to be an absorber, and in order to present a full view of the community you must include their costumes. It was important for me to present this aspect as well as others. Holidays are usually the best times to shoot since people are more welcoming and they let their guards down and it is easier to come close to them. But as said, you must include ordinary days as well and that was the hard part. For example it was extremely hard for me at first to shoot at protests that held in the area since I don’t appear as one of the residents and was suspected as a police informant. Only after I explained again and again my pure motives most of them felt at ease and I was welcomed to walk besides them.
There’s a clear definition in your work, with high contrasts, use of light and shadows – can you describe the moment when you choose what to shoot or take a picture?
I learned about myself that I have to limit my time in order to get a good result. I usually shoot up to 200 frames in 2-3 hours and that’s it – I go home. What I choose to shoot is down to basic of what interest me – it is simple as that. Nevertheless, I learned that there is a few things that can assist you. Henri Cartier Bresson often talked about geometry and how it can present a visual and an intellectual pleasure. A photographer have to make sometimes small gestures to accomplish them – change his point of view, arrive in different hours and so but if you achieve them i think they contribute a lot to the composition and the overall look of the photograph.
You mention you shoot in color and then convert to black and white – can you explain the creative process behind this?
As stated, I usually shoot color and really enjoy the color range the Leica M (Typ 240) produces. The colors are very accurate and right. I later convert my files to black and white. I would advise anyone I know to shoot primarily color since color can give you more options later when you edit the photograph. You can use the yellow, red, blue and green to emphasis the subject or simply do the opposite and It’s a great option since you left with both options for future use if you choose so.
Please describe the performance of your Leica M (Typ 240).
The Leica M (Typ 240) is very simple to use and i can always rely on it. Its startup in just less than 3 seconds and then it’s ready to shoot. It’s very important while working and you learn to appreciate it. The camera doesn’t jam and very durable – I had walked with it in the rain, sandy areas and nature and it was there for me every time. Even the battery that at first seemed very bulky, i later learned to appreciate you can easily use for multiple times before recharging.
What’s the story behind these two images?
This photograph was taken during the passover preparation (2015) – Passover is a Jewish holiday where the Jewish people celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation by God from slavery in Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. Passover preparations are very chaotic and there are large centers in different locations where each group of the residents, burned their old bread to make a new place for a type of bread especially for Passover (named “Matza”). I can say that it was the last picture I took that day, i was exhausted from the heat and bonfires and never thought of it as much. Only later while editing the photo i saw the strength of it.
This photograph on the right was taken during the purim holiday (2015). In this jewish holiday, people get to dress up and wear costumes while performing other customs of the holiday. I was fortunate enough to be given entrance to a Hasidic purim festive party that held that year. Purim is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from Haman – the main antagonist in the Book of Esther, who, according to the Hebrew Bible, was a vizier in the Persian empire under King Ahasuerus, traditionally identified as Xerxes I. Haman instigated a plot to kill all of the Jews of ancient Persia. While taking this picture, it stroked me with a resemblance to the famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci – “The last supper”.
Lastly, do you want to add something else for readers to know about, maybe other projects in the pipeline?
I’m currently working on my second project regarding christianity in Jerusalem. My ambition is to make a multi layered project regarding all three major religions in Jerusalem – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Mea shearim project was very dear to my heart. I have recently launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to compile it into a book – if you enjoyed the story and pictures please take a time to visit it and support it.