A Book, A Talk, An Exhibition by John Offenbach.
A unique book, a new look. The purpose of this enterprise was a journey of discovery, to meet Jewish people of all colours, shapes, sizes and from all walks of life.
*Trigger Warning – this article includes a mention of sexual abuse. Reader discretion advised*
The author, a naïve young Londoner, a Jewish boy, had thought his people slotted into boxes like so many.
In 2016, an idea formed. For it to develop, he set out for 12 countries to explore and research for this masterpiece. These countries include: Tel Aviv, Azerbaijan, Argentina, UK, India, China, Ethiopia, the USA and Ukraine. John asked of himself “how do I normalise the identity of my fellow Jews?” By the end of his journey, he concluded that positively they had done it themselves.
I loved hearing about his Mum who was ever so slightly shocked at the title of the book ‘Jew’. But like him, I agree that “stark reality” is the perfect term to summarise the book – so only this title will do.
What is plain to see without forethought, is both the incredible and wonderful fact of mixed-heritage Jews. On the cover is a truly enigmatic face of a young patisserie chef from Israel: beautiful, proud and most certainly – Jewish.
First step was to gain access to Jewish people in these different countries. The book describes how he did this through wonderful recollections of Lubavitch (orthodox) rabbis guiding him on where to go and who to ask.
To convince people to sit and give incite into their lives, he set-up in the street likening it to a “Glastonbury atmosphere” with locals singing and dancing. As he snapped away in one Tel Aviv street, a homeless man wandered by and sat for John who asked him the question of his acceptance at his circumstances. His answer being he was happy to do so.
Sometimes John hired a studio (depending on where he was), always with the end result printed in black & white. He chose to shoot against plain backgrounds only, emphasising the fact his muses are one and the same – no hierarchy. The Ethiopian Jews were very keen to be photographed, representing their grace, pride and love for their race.
John not only photographs a man on death row for killing his parents, but also a rape survivor – a victim of her own father. She’s currently living in a women’s shelter in Israel, and has become a sex worker. Her poses far from satisfied her, so she asked to take her top off. Her life story is on her body, a record of her abuse.
Featured within this project you can note: an ambassador from Turkey, a Kaifeng woman from China, a Rabbi from Baku, a schoolgirl studying in Baku, and many more including a proud Jewess photographed shrouded in a veil. No one is named in the photos’ titles. Subjects are captioned only by descriptors or occupation: Socialite, Victim, Weaver, Dancer, Scholar, Comedian – this particular one happens to be Matt Lucas, who we all know.
How did they all feel about their mixed heritage? Well they said “not an issue nor unusual, nothing special just… wonderfully normal” – John tells us.
I asked him if he had wanted to change or modify anything in the book. He said no, not at all. He is supremely confident and empowered by the way sitters made him feel.
My afternoon was engaging and enlightening, with an unassuming charismatic man telling of his great adventures to us – the audience. Just normal people, listening to him engrossed.
Thank you Ragged CULT for giving me this sublime opportunity to see how John’s inspirational portraits challenge others who have rather different views of us.
This exhibition is on until April 19th at The Jewish Museum London.
John Offenbach is considered one of the world’s top 200 photographers as compiled by Lurzers Magazine.
Words By Marilyn Virginia
Disclaimer – all images within this article are the intellectual property of John Offenbach. Ragged Culture Publishing Ltd does not own the copyright to these images. All rights reserved.