Transcript of an interview with Frederic Brenner
Conducted 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, major projects.

Frederic Brenner: 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.

JHOM: How 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 them?

Frederic Brenner: More than a thought, it was a feeling. You know, it was a very emotional moment.

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.

JHOM: Could you expand on that last point a little bit, could you explain to us how you tried to translate these emotions and this experience?

Frederic Brenner:I 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.

JHOM: Perhaps 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.

Frederic Brenner: 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.

JHOM: Could you tell me a little bit about how the collaboration with Yehuda Amichai came into being?

Frederic Brenner: The 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 photograph.

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.

JHOM: 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.

 
Webcast and transcript copyright 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"

 

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