Thank you to Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Maya Pindyck for sharing insight into their collaboration OBSERVE.
Here is their Artist Statement about the project:
As two Jewish artists, we are interested in the ways gender is linked with ritual in Judaism. Using black and white photography—pointing to the dichotomous aspects of religion—we invite Jewish subjects to transform into an observant Jew of the opposite sex. Through cross-dressing, makeup, and the option to enact a religious observance, both artists and subjects consider what it means to access a gender-bound tradition and to blur what seems so clearly defined. The process and resulting photographs play with outward appearances, posing a simple question to the viewer: What do you observe?
Rather than retell the same narrative about this project from our own perspectives, we asked three poets that we admire to observe OBSERVE and generate questions about the project, so that we might consider it from unexpected angles. Thank you, Chloe Yelena Miller, Kaveh Bassiri, and Elana Bell for your fresh and thought-provoking questions. Here are our responses.
Why so much sadness behind the eyes?
Whose eyes? Isn’t it strange – I felt that way so often and so immediately during this project. They’re my eyes, all of them, in a way. But I didn’t have too much control. You know, I didn’t ever give them direction or ‘pose’ them, so to speak, in a way to achieve a certain mood. I’m not an admirer of those sorts of images. I wanted integrity. It surfaced on its own and that was amazing. It was there beyond gender, beyond questions, beyond art. It came out of my eyes and met theirs. Silent and sad and strong. There is more ‘strong’ than ‘sad’ for me when I look at the eyes. But also of sincere interest to me – what were each of them thinking about faith, about tradition, about gender, about ‘undressing/dressing’ that presented a mood we consider ‘sad’?
I hadn’t really noticed... is there sadness? Yes, strangely, most of the photographs do read as sad, or at least serious. What is it about becoming a man, or a woman-- a sense of sex or gender that one may not before have performed-- that brings sadness? What it is about performing Hasidic Judaism that connects to a visible sadness? Several participants spoke about ancestral connections, childhood memories, personal challenges with Judaism, and questions about belonging. Maybe the sadness connects to those associations. Also, of all religions, I think Judaism may be the winner when it comes to guilt and neurosis; it seems hard to escape the perpetual oy vey.
Is it our clothes that make us lonely?
This question is so lovely. Like a stanza! I think our ‘clothing’ can trap or ambush us when it renders us silent or unrecognizable to ourselves and/or to others. But mostly, clothing is often something that I find exciting when it complements the body as the body is or the body wants. This sort of desire can have little to do with the actual clothing sometimes. And yet when you think of clothing, of costumes and the politics of the materials that distance us, however thinly, from how vulnerable our skin actually is without language or materials, there is so much to consider! For some the words “clothing” and “lonely” and “us” are such vast and glazed metaphors: to clothe or unclothe oneself can often be connected to interior conditions and mirrors. Who is us or not-us? There as many kinds of lonely as there are eyes and rain shaped like eyes. And that brings me to the suggestion of our work: observe.
What we choose to wear is so much an expression of our beliefs, personalities, eccentricities, desires to conform and/or rebel. It is a public act for anyone to see. Maybe there is something lonely in needing to present the self as belonging to one group of people. I think about the uniformity and tradition of dress in Hasidic communities as a sign of insular belonging that points directly to religion, to a level of being observant, and to a community of people. And, of course, where there is belonging there is also not-belonging. Perhaps the act of wearing clothes that does not belong to you-- that points so clearly to a sense of Judaism that is not yours, even though you are Jewish-- evokes a sense of loneliness.
If all faces are the faces of an other, what do you see? How do you read them? Are they all the same or all different? How do you translate? What is the same? What is the difference? What does it tell you about your face that you can’t see except in a mirror?
As a photographer who is particularly devoted to the nuance of the human face I feel that I am always in a way searching for my own face or that I recognize my own face within and as “Other” to where I exist, interiorly. The bristle of eyebrows, the palette of skin and its narrative, the ways chin look depending on what word is being said or born by the tongue, how eyes change in the dark, the way a nose can move, the multitude of pores, all of it, all of it, always changing, but always human. Always human even in the sight and the power of the most inhuman moments, which is how I remain surprised. And devoted. The more different the faces are, the more they are the same to me. And like a painter’s sensibility, I see a basic wheel of angles, planes, and features and then another wheel that counters those easy symmetries. Besides I have had so many experiences where I am sensitive to ‘reading’ a face in the identical way I would a text. Too easy, too reckless. And other times you must look at whatever eyes are staring back at you, including your own. Sometimes translatable and sometimes not or not easily. Kaveh, you’ve always asked the best and the deepest questions! You know, my face is sort of bewildering and surprises me more than anything. Its lines and shadows reflect my curiosity and my joy and my hope and my despair and my sadness and how I got born and how I will know the opposite of that one day too. It shows me and doesn’t tell me much because I don’t always like mirrors unless they’re slanted or very smoked, I think the word they sometimes use is ‘a distressed mirror’. That’s rich for translating, isn’t it?
Are they the faces of the other? Many female participants spoke about seeing themselves, suddenly, as their own brothers and fathers. But your questions push notions of sameness and difference further. Yes-- how do we tell?
This project asked participants to play a role. At the same time, since all the participants were Jewish, there were, in most cases, personal connections to this role, even for participants who identify as Jewish in a strictly non-religious (rather secular or cultural) way. For most participants, the Hasidic community was an "other" to explore on the project's terms. I am curious about the ways in which each viewer translates this moment and synthesizes a relationship to Hasidic Judaism in conversation with the photographs. Does the viewer see a recognizable face? Make assumptions? Feel tricked?
Maybe we (varied, unpredictable viewers) can read something in the face that the mirror (by virtue of its projecting the same reflection each time) cannot show. Also, the photographs reveal to me ways of holding unfamiliar, unpracticed performances of gender and religious identity. These enactments transgress notions of being "authentic" Hasidic men and women and the gender roles linked to that identity. The moments of sameness that emerged in this realm of perceived otherness shaped the project and, I think, stirred an unforeseen sensitivity.
CHLOE YELENA MILLER
Q: How did the project intersect with and feed your writing?
I’m not absolutely conscious about how the project may have intersected with my writing (not yet anyway). I know that we were both in agreement that our participants include a written experience after their portrait. We thought it was important that each person speak in this way. The conversation is more nuanced and collaborative when that happens and one is asked to use eyes and absorb language and enter or extend a dialogue. While I’ll sometimes become aware that my visual and literature work bleed into one another, it’s usually different when I’m collaborating with another artist and I often actually have more of a sense of boundary while working. And I’m more interested in writing about the actual process of merging ideas and imagination about how a work will be get made and then the final results of that synthesis. In this experience I was much more interested and focused on the writing generated from the participants as a way to more deeply enter the original thoughts and ideas we shared. And, it was a moment, as a photographer, where the face opened up a little differently with words structured beneath whatever I had seen or looked for topically.
So much of my work (written and visual) explores binaries, identities, and issues connected to concepts of culture and gender. I often find myself extracting moments of intensity from my experiences as a Jew and as a woman. So, I think the project intersects with my writing thematically. But more than my own writing, the concept I initially had for the project intersected with Rachel’s own concepts, photography, and sense of Judaism in surprising ways that shifted and moved. I feel like the project ended up being its own act of collaborative writing—between Rachel and myself, us two and the participants, OBSERVE and Judaism, men turned women and women turned men…
OBSERVE is now featured in Storyscape Literary Journal