intimate portraits of an orthodox jewish family
Photography student Kovi Konowiecki tells us about traveling the world to reconnect with his Jewish identity by photographing a community many of us know so little about.
In 2012, a study found that New York City's Jewish population was back on the rise; over 1.1 million New Yorkers — that's roughly one in eight of us — are members of the Jewish faith. This increase was due to the explosive growth of the city's Orthodox community, predominantly in South Williamsburg, home to one of New York's most historic and densely populated Hasidic enclaves. Though we exist in such close proximity to the Orthodox — we sit next to them on the subway, some bodegas shelve Yiddish newspapers next to Elle — many of us know so little about these New Yorkers and the radically different lives they lead. Photographer Kovi Konowiecki undertook an ambitious project in order to better understand Orthodox people and the mystical intricacies that guide their enduring faith.
For his series Bei Mir Bistu Shein, 24-year-old Konowiecki created intimate portraits of one Orthodox family. He began in his hometown — Long Beach, California — before traveling to London (where he's presently earning his Masters in Fashion Photography at University of the Arts) and several villages in the hills surrounding Jerusalem. The series blends Kovi's studies in fashion portraiture with his longtime fascination for documentary storytelling; it's also earned him a nomination for this year's Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. Ahead of the awards ceremony at London's National Portrait Gallery on Thursday, we spoke with Kovi to find out more about fashion, family, and faith in the Orthodox world.
I did a little digging into your background and found out you played soccer competitively for most of your life.
Yeah, soccer was my life from age 13 or 14 until a few years ago when I started seriously pursuing photography. I moved to Germany when I was 13 to play with the youth team for a professional club called 1860 Munich. I ended up playing at college here in the States, then played in Israel. It's been a pretty dramatic shift!
Were soccer and photography mutually exclusive throughout your life, or did you have feet in both worlds?
I was always into art in general; I was fortunate that my parents took me to a lot of exhibitions growing up. But it was more something that I enjoyed and was infatuated by, never something that I considered taking upon myself. It wasn't until I was in college — I went to school in Wake Forest University in North Carolina — that I really picked up a camera for the first time with a sense of authorship. I started photographing people from North Carolina, from school and the surrounding area, that stood out as being different from the homogenous community that existed at Wake. I fell in love with it, with portraiture and taking photos. Soccer was still at the forefront — I was still playing for the top school in the state — but photography, in the back of my mind, was emerging as my true passion; it was all I was thinking about. When I was at school at Wake, it wasn't that easy to find people who stood out. I was sort of searching for people who looked or acted different, or had different ideologies. Then it developed into other things that I think related to me in more artistic ways. I became really infatuated by people and their stories.
How did you first begin shooting Orthodox communities, and why did you feel inspired to do so?
I grew up in a Jewish family and I went to a Jewish day school when I was really young, so I was in this liminal place where I understood Judaism and kind of felt connected to it. But at the same time, I went to public school, I've been all over the world, and my Judaism wasn't something prominent in my life. I would see Orthodox Jews in London and in Israel, and they felt familiar, but at the same time so foreign. I wanted to connect with them on a deeper level. I wanted to get to know these people and show them to the world. On one hand, they can be very welcoming; it's considered a good deed to open your doors. But at the same time, they're not accessible to a lot of contemporary society. They live very private, archaic lives and unless you're in that inner circle, they're rather closed off. Visually, with some of their hair and hats, they look so alienated. I wanted to provide this intimate lens where you can look at them in a physical and personal sense.
How did you get in contact with the people you shot?
I reached out to a rabbi here in Long Beach and explained the project to him — that I was trying to get in touch with my Jewish identity and wanted to take portraits. I set up my first shoot with the rabbi, his wife, children, grandchildren, and extended family. It started off simply. I didn't have an idea of the scale of the project, or this idea of family, which I realized is a big aspect of the community and became a big aspect within the project. With two exceptions, all of the pictures are of one family; I became obsessed with taking a portrait of every member of the family. I took the first picture in Long Beach, then continued taking them in London, in Jerusalem, and in another village in Israel, just to follow this family. With Orthodox Jews, it's not really something that they're supposed to do or that's accepted, but this family was really infatuated with the idea and really cool with having their portraits taken. I gave them prints so they had something physical to hold onto. The little ones haven't even met some of the people I photographed, and it was cool for them to see photos of their family that they hadn't been in touch with.
Did you see any differences, culturally, in the Orthodox communities that you visited within these different cities?
For sure, they all have style intricacies. I'm getting my master's in fashion photography, so I see these portraits as fashion photographs, in a sense, because of the garments they wear and how the clothing is being worn.
That's insane you say that. Having been basically neighbors with the Hasidem in South Williamsburg for years, I've always kind of felt similarly, especially about the children's playclothes.
Absolutely. That wasn't my mindset going into it, but the Orthodox do have their style intricacies — for example, in Israel, one member of the family I photographed had these crazy socks that I hadn't noticed elsewhere. In Long Beach, it was a little more subtle, more traditional Orthodox garb. Also the hair, the payot, the side curls, they vary from country to country.
In the text that accompanies the series, you write "the subjects of these portraits exist in the liminal space between history and modernity…" I feel like that's something people in cities with large Orthodox communities understand. There are places and experiences we share, but we are so removed from each other's lives.
It's true. There are so many things about their private life that seem so ancient and archaic to us — not being able to use electricity on the Sabbath or give a woman a hug — but at the same time, they're part of modern society and they interact with us. Like you said, they ride the subway, they have cell phones. It's liminal space.
Do you plan to expand the series in the future?
I'm not an established photographer; I'm still in school, I still have so many different ideas. I want to take a break and move onto other projects, but I do want to expand it, for sure. I have a deep connection to the project, and I feel like I've grown up so much from the start of it. The family I photographed have additional family members in Canada and South Africa that they want me to photograph, and they're really encouraging about it. I feel like I'm part of their family now. They wish me "shabbat shalom" every Friday; I get the text from numerous family members which is really cool and special. One of the older men I photographed actually passed away a few months ago, so this was probably the last photo, and one of the only photos, ever taken of him. I had got to know him and had dinners with his family. So it's been more than a photo project.
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize is on view at the National Portrait Gallery in London from November 17, 2016 through February 27, 2017. More information here.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Kovi Konowiecki