Kapporos, 2021, Williamsburg and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York City
I’ve photographed Kapporos in Williamsburg three times, from 2018 until this year, 2021. Williamsburg has a very antiquated ambiance that I love to witness and photograph generally, and Kapporos is a time period that’s extremely provoking, despairing and captivating to photograph. Briefly, Kapporos is a ritual performed by a subset of ultra orthodox Jewish communities just before Yom Kippur. A special prayer is said, and a live chicken is waved over the head, in order to absorb the sins of the past year for the person reciting the prayer. Girls and women use female birds, and boys and men use male birds. The bird is then supposed to be slaughtered immediately, according to strict kosher law, and then processed for consumption and donated to charity.
In practice, many birds wind up in the garbage. The largest sites in Williamsburg do butcher and donate, but unfortunately in Crown Heights some sources claim that the birds are put straight into the garbage afterwards. Sunrise in Crown Heights the morning before Yom Kippur finds rescue crews opening giant green garbage bags behind the staging area where most slaughter took place the night before. They painstakingly search for living birds who are stuffed haphazardly into the plastic bags, birds not used during the ritual but who must be removed before sanitation comes and hauls the garbage away forever.
I had never seen the ritual in Crown Heights, but knew that it was a much bigger event there, and that it attracted visitors from all over the world, especially Israel. I went to Crown Heights late in the afternoon, in anticipation of a wildly active and vibrant neighborhood that was almost completely new to me. I didn’t know if my presence would be well tolerated because the event is extremely controversial and the presence of activists and their specific style of photographing and videoing would make it difficult for me to work independently, working to create natural images of the people and the event without my presence causing ripples of tension or anger. I wandered the neighborhood,eating pizza, talking with people, and feeling like I could understand why the neighborhood is so attractive to so many from around the world.
It reminded me a bit of parts of Jerusalem. It was like a giant block party, including the area near President Street getting ready to accommodate the slaughter of thousands of birds, with all of the accompanying odors and sights and sounds. I want very much to be able to photograph as naturally and honestly as possible. This ritual is highly charged and controversial because of the birds and the immense suffering they endure. The innocence of the children involved as well as fair practices regarding photographing a community with care and justice can become nearly impossible because of the immense distrust that is a direct result of the Hasidic Jewish community being vilified in the media at times, and by the public in the relative privacy of person-to-person negative encounters over the years. Anti Semitism is commonplace and in evidence daily, resulting in physical attacks, verbal harassment and a general sense of exclusion.
For me as a photographer it is still very important—despite accusations that the images may promote Anti Semitic commentary— that I include the images of the birds and the slaughter because it’s part of daily life. Although the slaughter is part of the ritual of Kapporos, the acts that cause death are performed millions of times each day all over the world in the worst, most unimaginable conditions. The birds themselves are engineered for consumption, a breed called the Cornish Cross that reaches slaughter weight at 6 weeks, an astonishingly short period. These birds are what feeds and powers the population of the United States and are universally consumed. Because this event takes place in the street and is public, accessible and highly visible, it is the first time most people have witnessed an animal dying during this process. My personal feelings have become separate from my drive to capture this complex and deeply rooted tradition. Most Jewish people have never heard of Kapporos, and most New Yorkers are unaware of the practice. It is an arcane and particular ritual, confined to a community of ultra orthodox people who must be carefully photographed in order to present the beautiful complexities that are visible on the street.
It would be unfair and totally inaccurate to present anything other than a wider perspective. I found the most beautiful and engaging people engaged in a horrific practice with little regard for the suffering of the birds who withstood intense heat, no food or water for days, and sometimes very haphazard and cruel treatment after slaughter. The families who participated did not have a window into the suffering for many reasons including the one we all have regarding animals we consume or otherwise use: the inability/refusal to perceive the sentience of animals, and the willingness to concede that even the smallest beings have the same rights as humanity expects for itself.
I found an incredibly engaging community and a sense of belonging and vitality that is just as important to photograph as the chaos of Kapporos and everything it entails for for every person who consumes animals or their products, including myself. During the night I spent photographing, I was asked if I wanted to do Kapporos. Young boys, around ten or eleven years old, startlingly mature and well-spoken, offered to help me with the prayer, hold the bird, make circles over my head, absolve me of sin for the coming year. I could feel a pull….and I almost wanted to say yes….if only there was no death involved. Although I have no regard for religious practices of any kind in my own life, I understood in those moments the intense feeling of belonging and warmth that people feel when they are doing something like Kapporos together. I felt tremendously conflicted on a personal level. My self-imposed role as a photographer trying to be as fair as possible in my representations means that I must photograph people in a way that not only represents objective reality, but also tries to capture how people feel about themselves, offering a faceted view as opposed to a monolithic judgement. I don’t feel judgements are my place. I found myself feeling disappointed that the people participating are not recognizing that the suffering and ill treatment of the birds can and should be acknowledged and rectified, and that the process of this particular observation of Kapporos methods represents a human failing. A deep flaw in an otherwise perfect gem that can be overlooked only at times when the light is just right.
I love the graphic nature of this image. I dislike categories, and so I’m not sure if this is street photography or documentary or reportage. I don’t think it matters. I just take pictures according to how I feel in the instant. I saw this guy and I was immediately fascinated, as were many other people walking towards Boulevard Barbés early one afternoon. The biggest risk involved with making this portrait was from observers on the street around me—the man in the picture was fortunately oblivious to my presence. I needed to be close, even with a 90mm lens, and so I waited until I felt that the people in the immediate area didn’t pose a significant threat. It took me three attempts before I was able to achieve the exact image I had in mind. I was so pleased to have succeeded…. It was a rush of adrenaline that was dizzying.
This image is one I made for myself, it’s not one for social media….I know that if I post it on Instagram, I will not do myself any favors with the platform. Censorship on social media is a serious problem, one that affects me directly as an artist and photographer. It creates psychological obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of true artistic expression, it encourages copycat behavior from other artists, and rewards sameness. The benefits of sharing images with great people are sometimes not enough to offset the negative impacts of censorship and the tremendous difficulty involved with getting work exposed in a fair manner. Artistic content is being categorized and the platform sanitized and that’s a shame.
The image above was not satisfactory in the immediate moments after making the photograph. I had been chasing this woman down the street for twenty minutes, on a hot late afternoon in the Marais. It was a stunning day, a happy to be alive Saturday in Paris….this picture is a beauty and most would understand why I worked so hard to get it right. But is it more worthwhile and satisfying than the rough, bloody image above? I don’t know….maybe one could argue that I should not have photographed someone cutting on the street. But….that’s Boulevard Magenta near the Gare du Nord….hard, raw and dangerous sometimes. So I think it’s important to shoot pictures of everything, and stop caring about repercussions. Both images represent different parts of me as a person and photographer, and both have equal weight in my mind as an artist.
One picture that I did not make stays in my mind. I was walking along a quiet street in the 10th arrondissement in the early evening. I came to an out of the way bus stop, where three women were seated on a bench. The two women on the left were almost elderly, and characteristically French, conservatively dressed working class white women. Seated on the right was a black African woman, dressed in beautifully bright patterned, waxed traditional fabric from far away, with a matching turban, carefully wrapped around her head. She held a baby, aged approximately six months, an equally beautifully dressed baby girl. She was breast feeding, and the contrast between subjects was so extreme that I could hardly contain my desire to take a picture. The simple pale yellow background of an old French building behind the women was a perfect counterpoint, and the silence of the situation was serene and unforgettable. I knew, however, that this picture had to remain in my mind. Had I photographed the scene, I would have possibly traumatized the breast feeding woman, and she would have forever remembered the moment as a horrible exploitation. And I never want my endeavors as a photographer to be reduced to that kind of memory for someone else.
I’m learning to move past these moments, trying to forgive myself for not working out a way to take these photographs that may have unexpected consequences for the people in them. I’m still struggling at times with the moral questions involved with some of the images I make. Most days I don’t give it any thought at all, and shoot exactly what I please no matter the consequences to myself or those in the pictures. When I do need to devote some thought to the issue, it becomes very difficult to find my best path forward.
Place de la République
Something about Covid and lost days due to excessive rules relating to lockdowns have created a kind of wild abandon. I’ve noticed this in young women especially, in New York City and in Paris. Paris is far more conservative in expression generally but much freer emotionally. More free, more natural, less constructed and far less grandiose and self centered in dress and self expression than what I see in New York City lately. There was a strange lack of diversity in the crowd this year….it was mainly young girls and women, but virtually no women over the age of 25 or 30, and few men of any age save for some young couples. I was surprised….I’m told that the celebration was very curtailed, no music or floats because of Covid fears. Which….is crazy considering that there were only a few masks, and everything and everyone was packed on the metro and outside. Many very young girls, reticent in front of the camera, not there to show off or to alert their parents to their presence at Pride…..
Pride week is also observed quietly and for personal reasons….out of the spotlight. Intense and appreciative of freedom of expression, never to be taken for granted.
I have never really given much thought as to how my images may be perceived by others, as I generally work completely from instinct and hope that I’m somehow reflecting the time accurately. I feel immense pleasure when I manage to get a few that do justice, but I have a lot of failures. What do I photograph and what do I leave out? All of it is important to depict scenes and complex, intricate lives with total transparency and urgency. But when telling stories sometimes you have to leave a lot out that matters. Why? And what to leave out? Is it ok to eliminate information or images that are just too hard to look at, too personal? Is the subject matter too polarizing? Will someone get upset, will the work be categorized as too difficult, thereby increasing the likelihood that fewer people will be exposed to the images and story? I find that there’s tremendous urgency in these images, because more people are finding themselves lost on the street, and many of them seem to be there because of an inability to be diagnosed or treated for mental illness and developmental disabilities.
How do I say that Little Bit gave up smoking K2 for nearly two joyous months only to completely relapse, that she now has a room in a managed living situation and doesn’t have to sleep on the street, but that her intense addiction is jeopardizing her placement? That her mental illness is intensifying and preventing family from even the most basic knowledge of her status and location? That the abscess on her leg may end her life and result in another amputation because she is terrified of the hospital? That when she does go to the hospital she is often left feeling degraded by condescending attitudes and dismissive, callous commentary by hospital staff about her lifestyle, staff that should understand the mental health complexities and resulting disabilities that incapacitate so many people living on the street? Do people really want to know about the episodes of copious, uncontrollable vomiting in public places that K2 ingestion causes? The horrible weight loss? The head lice, chronic and entrenched, whose activity on her scalp elicit horrifying hallucinations brought on by the combination of heroin, meth and K2? I’m debating even now as I write this….should I clean this up?
Should I say that we are all responsible for the mental health crisis in the United States and the travesty on our streets is because we don’t really want to know? We have completely discarded a segment of the population that is unable to exhibit basic self care, grappling blindly with disability that cripples insight and the execution of the most simple life plan.
Little Bit has a family that cares about her deeply, loves her and misses her. She does not have to be outdoors, or in a shelter. She is the victim of a society that does not truly understand the depth of despair that she suffers each day as a result of mental illness, or the desperation of families unable to secure basic services to help children and adolescents at risk. Early interventions that should be easily accessible to all people regardless of income are in fact nonexistent, or very nearly so.
I believe more people want to feel and understand these multi-layered stories and that the number of people who want more are vastly underestimated. That’s a problem, a really huge one, because we desperately need our media to reflect the reality of our times. It’s hard for photographers to be simultaneously politically correct, honest, unbiased and fearless if we have to worry about keeping things palatable and suited to a general audience, a vast miscalculation that undermines the viewer’s ability to gain a more complex, layered appreciation of life in the United States and elsewhere. A general audience that has a genuine desire for knowledge and wants very much to be allowed to make up their own minds about what they see and how to feel about what is presented.
I’m often completely immersed in the visual juxtapositions, elements of physicality in the images that bring meaningful clarity and irony or humor or dissonance together in some way. Whatever I’m thinking or seeing at the time. What’s right in front of me, immediate and compelling. I never think about how to sell or market my images, and that’s a problem. I don’t consider anything other than the mechanics involved with creating the images. Lately I find that I’m saving pictures, waiting longer periods before showing them, hanging on and retaining privacy in order to better understand what it is that I’m trying to say.
Images from Little Bit’s world.
I think that I’m able to photograph people because, for whatever reason, they are a version of themselves in the moment that is accepted gratefully, carefully and completely noted and preserved in a picture. Whether it’s a beautiful image or a rough one….it works for us both similarly I think. Particular people seem to bring about my best work because of the way they make me feel about myself as I’m working. Some of my worst pictures happened because I felt bad about myself in the circumstances I was in while attempting to make photographs. Huge fails that stay with me for absurdly long periods.
Who I am when I’m with the people I photograph stays with me and is hugely beneficial on days when I don’t like myself or I’m burdened with something I can’t change….or I don’t make a picture that’s everything it could have been.
What version of someone do I find when immersed in a long term essay or series? I don’t like describing my work in this somewhat detached manner, it’s so much more than a photo “project” and I never think in these terms, but I do find the unfortunate necessity to speak at times using these terms. It’s not really possible for me to identify my work or images in this manner, and describing my pictures as a project is not really satisfying or accurate.
Versions of Little Bit…..who she is and how she is being summarized when she is photographed is never the same twice.
The nature of the person I encounter has changed over the few years I’ve been photographing Little Bit. She is her best version sometimes and on the days when she is far from her best she is increasingly unknown, unseen and impossible to reach.
I think more and more about the people I’ve seen around 34th Street who were once solidly fixed to a spot, but who have since disappeared. Something will remind me of a face and I’ll have the memory briefly and then I move on, forgetting completely as I move down 34th Street looking for a picture.
Morning brings bright light, a signal that it’s time to begin the arduous process of getting out of bed, and time to weigh the prospects of perhaps making her way down two steep flights of stairs to break into the daily stream of the neighborhood below her window.
Ginette slowly makes her way down 12th street to a medical appointment a few blocks from her apartment. She has insisted on complete independence, refusing offers of help from passerby who are startled by the sight of her cane and bare feet on a frigid morning. She removed her shoes because she was having heart palpitations, and she thought that the rough shock of the frozen pavement beneath her feet would distract her from the discomfort of the palpitations.
Ginette is a prolific writer and storyteller, and loves to read aloud her exploits as an adult and her feelings regarding her past life and childhood with an abusive parent. Her writing is characterized by her penchant for relating traumatic events with an irreverent and humorous irony, without euphemism or apology.
November 2020….Refusing help, precariously and stubbornly navigating the stairwell alone, and seeking the air of the city, alive with the smells of New York and any interactive experiences she can provoke outside.
December 2020….Every day is a miracle.
Life indoors, forgotten.
Ginette, East Village, New York City January 2020
In Ginette’s apartment I think about the air. It’s on my mind in every moment, as each second passes, sentimental and weighted with her tenacity. When I’m photographing her it’s there, when I’m maneuvering along the narrow path that cuts through the debris that lovingly intersects every attempt at movement, and as I evaluate my breathing status as it relates to my asthma . How long do I have before I need to launch myself with difficulty into the little hallway for a mask break outside her apartment, the door partially disabled by the blockade formed by bags of cat food and memories? It’s always there, this consideration and awareness, calculated ruminations, the air that surrounds me impartial but deadly in its potential to wreak havoc on my airways. These days I don’t get any mask breaks, however.
I stand outside the door for a few minutes, desperately wiping my nose under my respirator, a mask worn before masks had to be worn to protect me from the air in her apartment. I talk to Ginette through the door, and listen to her recount a memory of her mother and Switzerland that I know by heart, one that she relives with the same intensity as the first telling. When I’m ready, I step through the door, and feel the carpet beneath my feet, decades old and stiffened with time and a density of grime that would defy logic under a microscope.
Portrait of Ginette in November 2019 in her apartment, 199 Avenue A, East Village NYC
I think about the air. Close, stifling, heavy with mold and a moisture that can be felt as a luster on the skin, lilting wisps of cat hair and cobwebs floating somehow without current to guide in the absence of ventilation, dense pockets of potent decay that startle even through my respirator. Markers of long dead things in the layers of detritus that test the limits of my curiosity and force me to consider every footstep. Innumerable exhalations that lend weight and credence to lifelong laments, an unwavering and unrelenting recount of childhood and adolescent misery as I race to record each precious sight.
After spending time with Ginette, photographing her in the marshes of misery and memory, I had to wade through my own mixed emotions about the intricacy involved with such a clear intrusion. Sometimes I found myself treading as softly as possible, speaking at times and at others remaining silent….a balancing act intended to preserve my right to persist, lingering at times beyond welcome so that I could catch that one image that will accurately reflect and portray everything that I was witness to in her world.
Every minute that I spent photographing, composing, moving through challenging lighting and deep emotion, I was also calculating and measuring and evaluating my own breathing status. My respirator never really fit correctly, the bandaids I used to tape it securely to my chin were never adequately fastened to my skin. For every minute I took joy in the photographic work, I was risking hours of intense discomfort caused by allergic asthma resulting from everything that had taken up residence in Ginette’s world. I would exit at the end of these sessions, tearing my mask off, wiping my face, racing down the cramped, moldy stairwell to the street. I held my breath till I reached the door to the outside world, respirator-free, bursting through my worry about my breathing, relief to be outside. Out on the street. Joyous inhalation. Freedom from my mask.
Avenue A And 12th Street, East Village, New York City
I left my camera at home and went to the gym after midnight for a workout. My gym is 24 hours and I love going late at night because there are few people in the place and I don’t have to be polite. I generally don’t carry my camera when I go for three reasons: I just don’t feel like it after having carried the thing all day, I’m in desperate need of a break from everyone and everything and, of course, I don’t want it to get stolen. Walking back sometimes by myself at 2 a.m. is pushing the safety limit as it’s on this route that I was physically assaulted last year. Since there’s usually zero photographic interest in anything I see I don’t usually miss the weight of bag and camera on this trip.
But this night was different. I left the gym and made my way home along the relatively quiet streets, a few late night bars along the way so that I didn’t feel isolated. I stopped at a red light at 12th street and Avenue A. As I waited I turned my head and saw a young woman seated on one of two benches placed outside the NY Deli on the corner. She was under a bit of light, and at her feet was a small collection of garbage. The deli is open 24 hours, selling sandwiches and smoothies, snacks, cigarettes….the usual fare. People are in and out under the bright lights near the entrance but this woman was just around the corner on the furthest bench from the doorway. I saw that she was in a stupor–the familiar opioid-induced state of completely suspended animation that I unfortunately observe every day on the street.
It was a strikingly sad image and I immediately knew that it was important for me and that I wasn’t going to have an easy time walking away. I castigated myself endlessly in those moments for having left my camera at home. Because, no matter what the risk or how tired and in need of a break I am I know this: never, ever leave the camera at home. It’s just not worth the agony of endless, obsessive recrimination that comes with having no camera and an image in front of me. I guess it’s not healthy to be this obsessed with taking pictures but the truth is that I am.
And so I stood, observing the scene, trying to tell myself that it was not that important and that absolution was granted, and that I could just return home and forget about this visual tragedy…but as I did, I was creating the image I wanted to make in my mind. I decided on shallow depth of field, focus on her feet and the trash, wide angle lens, fade up to her face, indistinct features that would be somewhat privacy-protective in the final image. I could make my point about the scene and not have a sharp focus on her face.
Two blocks home and I was back with my camera….and I saw that the scene had changed. She was not alone and now had a man next to her, equally vaporized by whatever they had bought in good faith. I was disappointed by the loss of the previous narrative…and then I realized that the image before me was more important than I had at first understood. I felt that this couple, who were clearly not homeless or otherwise a stereotypical depiction of addiction were more powerful because of their ordinary appearance. People who are going to work, on the subway, in the supermarket, in a restaurant….people that are neighbors and friends and sisters and sons. Regular everyday people who went out to buy drugs at night, got sandwiches, and then were overcome by the unexpected power of whatever it was that they ingested as they sat with their late meal. Her hands were beautifully manicured and his accessories were carefully chosen. For me, this is street photography…pictures of life. Pictures of exactly what I see and how what I see is translated by my feelings into an image.
It wasn’t easy to do this one, as the shutter speed had to be very slow and I needed to focus very specifically as the aperture would be bigger. I had a few ideas but needed to be careful as I didn’t want to get harassed as I worked by someone who wouldn’t or couldn’t understand what I was doing. As I worked I observed. As the few people who passed observed the couple, I was interested to see that most had a bemused or sneering expression. The woman was slumped and completely out. The man never moved. A trash truck pulled up at the intersection, stopping at the red light. They hit their powerful horn, yelling and shouting coarse, teasing commands to wake up. This angered me and I walked after the truck, saw that they stopped at a 7/11 for snacks and decided that I had something to say to these guys. I know that I should let these things go and that I need to use better judgment at times, say less, shut my mouth. I ignored common sense and allowed my anger to guide me as I walked the block ahead, and waited by the truck. When they emerged I asked the man I knew had shouted why…why be so cruel? Do you understand that this is a disease? Why bother being mean at 3 a.m.? After an initial denial he expressed his distaste, incredulity and dismay at the sight, especially at the male who was passed out and vulnerable. He said that they should wake up! He told me that he could see vomit and that it was ridiculous. I hadn’t noticed the fact that she had been sick as I was hyper-focused on my task. His vantage point allowed for a more subjective view. And he apologized for his behavior. And then…I understood. They didn’t have the ability as working men to tolerate the sight of another man in a vulnerable state, a state of complete inertia, and they reacted viscerally.
As I walked back towards the couple I realized that there was another woman very close by. She was extremely thin, a little on the tall side, mid thirties. I had seen her earlier as I worked, another woman on the street who was obviously an addict looking for bits and pieces to collect to sell. She was touching door handles, trying to gain access to locked apartment buildings, silently looking to exploit any openings found on her ramble through the neighborhood. I realized she was headed back to the couple and it hit me that she was going to rob them, and that my presence earlier with my camera had prevented her from actively fleecing the two. She walked back and so did I. We reached the deli and she turned to look my way. I watched her as she approached the bench, and I knew that she was going to find the handbag the stuporous woman had wedged between her body and that of her boyfriend. It was this ongoing and bizarre little silent tragedy, unraveling in front of me close to 3 a.m. on a warm summer night two days ago. I saw for the first time that the woman on the bench had been sick and that the truck drivers had not been mistaken. I realized suddenly that they may not be in an average stupor, commonly observed every single day all over the city. I told her to stay away and leave them because it was time to call for help. She was a clever mimic, seemingly concerned but trying to get close enough to take their belongings. I made my call, and told her repeatedly that she had to leave them alone until help arrived. Someone in a passing car offered water, and the would-be thief entered the intersection to take the bottle, using the gift of water as an excuse to get close to the couple. It was unnerving, her persistence and stealth. I told her no water! They’re sick and can’t have any fluids until they’re in the care of EMS. We could hear approaching sirens and, as the first police car pulled up to the corner, she disappeared into the night.
I know now that there were three predators that night. The taunting men, who focused on the man as he appeared on his half of the bench in a state of complete helplessness. The gaunt woman, intent and purposefully targeting the possessions on the female side of that sorrowful bench. And me with my camera, focused on the image and the vision, the story in the picture that will be forever unknown. The families of those in the picture who will never know about their loved ones on this night, their calamity, the stories that happened around them during these minutes. The families that may be unaware of this disease of addiction until entirely too late, a surprise overdose that nobody saw coming.
All of this intersected in one little picture on one night buried in a city full of sleeping people. As I walked home, the couple safely surrounded by EMS workers and police, I wondered for the first time how many people suffered this same loss of control and consciousness. How many does this same thing really happen to, everyday? People in their homes, in front of a television set, in a bathroom, a darkened bedroom, a studio apartment…..unseen. For every public overdose that may or may not result in the administration of Narcan–people either eventually getting up and making their way back to their lives after a near overdose– there are hundreds of people who are struggling to keep this disease a secret.
This picture is a secret revealing a secret. I’m not sure about this picture because of the nature of the personal tragedy of the situation. I felt compelled to make this image and I think that the narrative is important despite the loss of privacy and the nature of the exploitation involved in creating the picture. Documentary photography is documentary photography, whether it’s done in a plague-or-famine-ravaged landscape depicting starving people without clothes in an impoverished country far far away, a war zone, or a city street in an affluent community in the United States.