of an interview with Frederic Brenner
by JHOM Publisher, Aron Trauring / Spring 1998
JHOM: Welcome to Jewish Heritage Online Magazine. If you could, Mr. Brenner,
please give our audience a brief background about yourself, some highlights,
A major project that I've been working on for the last twenty years is
an attempt to portray the Jewish people in about 40 different countries,
to put together a typology of acculturation and break the emblematic representation
of the Jews, to get inside this incredible ethnic and cultural diversity.
I tried to show the many ways of being a man, a woman, among the nations.
In general, that's what the project is about.
After travelling around
the world for almost twenty years, I thought it would be meaningful for
Israel's 50th anniversary, to trace some of the very families that I had
photographed in these forty different countries to Israel and to try to
portray them again. This was never anticipated when I photographed in
Yemen fifteen years ago or when I photographed in Tunisia eighteen years
ago, or even when I photographed in America four years ago. I never thought
that one day I would trace back this or that very family and find them
again in Israel.
did you feel when you met these people again after so many years? What
thoughts went through your head? What was your first feeling upon meeting
More than a thought, it was a feeling. You know, it was a very emotional
When I photographed
these people for the first the time I never thought that I would see these
people again. For example, when I went to the former Soviet Union in 1986,
there was still the "iron curtain" and I never thought that
these people who were not able to leave the country would one day be in
Israel, so soon. More than that, when I met some people in 1983 on the
high plateau in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, I certainly never thought
that I would see them again. Or when I was in Yemen, these people were
really hostages like they were in Syria. The peace process was not even
started and it was inconceivable to think of these people as being in
Israel one day. So you can imagine that arriving in Israel and meeting
with these people was extremely emotional.
However, the entire
story was beyond the emotional: how to get inside, how to show these families
then and now. After
the first emotional moment, it was very long process of spending as much
time as possible with each family, to listen to them. I was trying to
listen to what they had to say about their lives, about their image of
their former lives in their native land and what Israel was about today,
what they thought it would be. It is no secret that the more time you
spend with people, the closer you get to them and the more depth you can
get in the photographs.
you expand on that last point a little bit, could you explain to us how
you tried to translate these emotions and this experience?
don't know if I tried to translate these emotions. More and more I believe
that a photograph, a good photograph, is about a question. The photograph
doesn't give any answers. Each photograph is really the sum of all the
questions I addressed myself and which, in turn, I addressed to the people
who look at these photographs.
I believe that good
photographs are multi-layered and everyone sees himself in an image; a
photograph is a mirror. The photograph doesn't pretend, and I don't pretend
to give an answer, but rather to address questions. I would say that those
questions are contained in the very title "Exile at Home." What
is Exile? What is Home? What have we done with the promise? The photographs
are very multi-layered and very ambiguous. Where is Exile and where is
Home? I think that the tension between Exile and Home almost plays itself
as a mirror; you almost could interchange the terms.
The question that
I addressed during the year that I stayed in Israel, listening to people,
is really: "What have we done with the promise, what could we have
done with the promise and what can we do today with this promise?"
Because I believe that there is a promise attached to this Land, for both
secular and religious people. But at the same time can we say that Israel
is home? I think that Yehuda Amichai's poems say exactly the same thing
that my photographs say or question the same things that my photographs
question. Ultimately, I really would like the viewer to unfold my journey,
to start his or her own journey. The photograph is a journey.
you could share with us a few anecdotes about these people's feelings
about promise and reality, home and exile
how they resolved it or whether they remain in a position of question.
Nobody spoke with those very terms, "exile" and "home,"
but it is exactly what it meant for them. Each of my photographs was nurtured
by my dialogue with them and the small stories that they told me.
I will give you one
example. One of the last photographs in the book where you see the dancers
Oleg, Maya and Galia Barsky. I was talking with them because they were
the family I had chosen to be in this essay. I choose fourteen families
out of many more I had photographed (about fifty), so that the fourteen
families would truly represent the largest ethnic and cultural diversity,
from America to Yemen, from India to Birobidjan. I spent an evening with
the family, having dinner. I asked them to tell me about their day. They
were complaining that they danced in a theater in Moscow and that it was
really cultural, very creative.
When they arrived
in Israel they had to give up their art in order to make a living. Now
they were dancing as entertainment for people who had enough money to
invite a "Russian ensemble" for their wedding or bar mitzvah.
What they said (and this is where the idea for the photograph came from)
was, "Why don't people want me to be myself, why do the want me to
be Marilyn Monroe and my husband, Fred Astaire?" They
showed me their video and I saw them as Marilyn Monroe and Fred Astaire.
Again, it was the
question that is always there, the tension between the other and the self.
What is identity about? What have Jews been fighting for, for thousands
of years? The dilemma is: "How far we can become the other and remain
ourselves?" This is within a dialectical culture. People thought
that they could become themselves by coming to Israel and what they express
is that they feel the opposite, that they have become the other. The tension
between the other and the self is at the very core.
you tell me a little bit about how the collaboration with Yehuda Amichai
came into being?
collaboration with Yehuda Amichai came at a later stage, when I thought
about making a book of these photographs. I thought that the only type
of text that could exist with them would be poetic, a text that does not
freeze anything. A text which would not depict, that would not be a sociological
or historical. We all know these texts, there are hundreds of these texts.
I think that the poetry
should be like a counterpoint, it should say something like what the photographs
say but not describe the photographs, like the captions. The captions
are question marks at the same time. At each step of the book the viewer
is solicited, is questioned, is asked to make an effort, to go from the
very short caption on each photograph to the back of the book where there
is all the data for each portrait. At the end you can find who came and
who did not. For example there are three barbers who are not in the second
Yehuda Amichai and
I spent some time discussing whether he would write a poem. He, not I,
thought of using two poems, which of course is the same diptych pattern.
I want to thank you
very much for a very fascinating insight into this book and some of the
issues that were raised in it. Before I say goodbye, tell us a little
bit about some of your upcoming projects. I understand that you are about
to go off again on a new project.
Yes, actually I am
working on one of the last chapters of this twenty-year journey, Europe.
I am a European and I have never worked on Europe. Nobody can be a prophet
in his own country and so it took me these twenty years to be a foreigner
in my own country and give me the proper distance to portray it. After
Exile at Home, I understand that there is something like home.
After having traveled
for twenty years, I am working on a book that will be the first visual
anthology of the Jewish people at the end of the 20th century. It will
gather twenty years of work and be published by the end of 2000 or in
early 2001, with retrospective exhibitions in New York, Paris, Lucerne,
and Tel Aviv, with touring on the American continent and in Europe. We
are working on CD-Rom based on this collection of some 80,000 images photographed
over twenty years in forty countries. It will be released at the same
time so everything will come out together. Being involved in this journey
is like a marathon. I have never had time to publish the largest body
of this work, the hidden part of the iceberg. I have published two or
three books but the goal for 2000-2001 is to release the material in entirety.
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1999 Jewish Heritage Online Magazine. Please accompany all quotes
from this interview with the following: "used permission of
Jewish Heritage Online Magazine, www.jhom.com"