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Turning a Visual Project into a Book

Friday, May 15, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alina Bliumis wrote about the American-Russian-Jewish identity crisis and a photography series she shot, along with her partner and collaborator Jeff Bliumis, in Brighton Beach to explore this crisis as well as photographing a portrait of the American Jewish community. Today she writes about turning these visual projects into a book. Alina is the co-author of the recently published book From Selfie to Groupie and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

After amassing a large collection of photographs exploring American Jewish identity and American Russian Jewish identity, the next step was to turn the visual project into a book n order to share all those wonderful voices (and images) that we gathered over the years with the public. Genesis Philanthropy Group stepped in to provide the necessary support to make publication possible. A year-long process started—we had to choose 240 images from 7,160 photographs and 1,910 people for the publication. We were working with editor Joshua Ellison and commissioned original essays from David Scheer and Anya Ulinich as well as a “survery” from Jenya Gorbatsevich.

In the publication, Joshua Ellison introducing the project and reflecting on some key themes. His essay reflects on this project’s timeliness and resonances with our culture of sharing and self-presentation: the age of the selfie. In the era of Facebook and Instagram, does a traditional approach to portraiture still satisfy us ethically and artistically? Or is it now our inalienable right as individuals/subjects to decide how we ought to be represented?

David Shneer, the acclaimed scholar and critic of Russian-Jewish culture, contributes vital context for readers, including the history and character of the Brighton Beach neighborhood and its significance to the Russian-Jewish experience in America. The essay recounts the Soviet and post-Soviet migration to the United States and connect that history to the images in the book.

Anya Ulinich’s brilliant essay “Where are you from?” pretty much sum up how many members of Russian-Jewish community often feel, and at the same time she also describes her family history, contributing her own personal reflections on identity and its complexities.

A research sociologist, Jenya Gorbatsevich creates a database of all 1,860 images to be used as raw data for a visual survey— synthesizing the quantitative methods of sociology with the expressive material of photographs. The analysis considers basic demographics, like age and gender, as well are more nuanced information like bodily gestures and word choices. Based on dozens of data points, the essay includes graphs and statistics, comparing our results with findings from the Pew Research Project’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans.

The publication is also includes a historical essay by Konrad Bercovici, “The Troubles of A Perfect Type” (published in 1919), giving us a humorous look on “importance of holding on to one's own unique identity.” He tells us a story that takes place on Lower East Side of New York City and the beginning of twentieth century.

At the same time, identity is still a topic of obsessive interest in the Jewish-American world. The demographics and values of the community are changing, provoking anxiety in many quarters and prompting a deep reckoning over what the future holds for Jews in America. In the book, even though a subject in a photograph expresses their own self identity, taken all together, the photo collection builds up a picture of a group identity.

From Selfie to Groupie is an artist project, case study, a sort of visual sociological research. Spanning eight years and 2,000 participants, it captures a glance of today’s Jewish Americans.

Find out more about this project and the companion book, From Selfie to Groupie, here. In NYC? You can participate in a pop-up version of this photography project at Jewish Book Council's May 19th Unpacking the Book event, "Soviet Roots, American Branches." Register here (it's free!).

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Photographing a Portrait of the American Jewish Community

Wednesday, May 13, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alina Bliumis wrote about the American-Russian-Jewish identity crisis and a photography series she shot, along with her partner and collaborator Jeff Bliumis, in Brighton Beach to explore this crisis. Today she writes about the expansion of the project to include questions around American-Jewish identity. Alina is the co-author of the recently published book From Selfie to Groupie and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Over the next few years, while we were publicly showing photographs from our Brighton Beach photography series, we became interested in this question: Considering that Russian-speaking Jewish-Americans are looking to fit into the Jewish-American community at large, what does it mean to be Jewish-American today?

When Joshua Perelman invited us to show selected photographs from the series at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia in 2013, we saw it as a perfect opportunity to expand our visual survey to the wider Jewish-American community, beyond the Russian-Jewish diaspora. We wanted to ask as many people as possible to describe their identity and record every individual voice that would eventually become a brushstroke in a community portrait.

At that time we also came up with an interactive setup for the exhibition, so that museum visitors could write their identity and take their own photographs without our presence. We printed an 8 x 8 feet vinyl photo backdrop depicting a view of Brighton Beach and sent along three white erase boards—the boards were blank so anyone could write their own group identity with markers. A camera was mounted on a tripod in front and directions for how to participate and take a photo were on the wall.

By the end of the show, Shira Goldstein (who was working closely with Joshua on the show) send us a disk with 720 photographsabout 460 people participated in the project. We were ecstatic with the number of participants and images, the range of voices and expressions, and all of those thoughtful or silly identity definitions. Here are few of them:

The next step for us was to continue the project in other locations, thanks to Vita Anesh introducing us to Audrey David, the amazing leader of the GenerationR program at JCC Manhattan, and in collaboration with Megan Whitman, gallery director of The Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at the JCC, as well as the support of the JCC staff, our Casual Conversation exhibition was opening at the gallery in JCC Manhattan's lobby. Saying that every corner of this community center is in use is an understatement; a ton of people pass through the lobby everyday, and more people translates to more participants. Soon enough, the backdrop started to look like one big graffiti and Avi (who was working with Megan) would start cleaning it everyday. Ultimately, though, the image with all graffiti would be turned into the cover of our recently published book From Selfie to Groupie. We loved that participants took the time to “play around,” writing, dancing, singing, etc. Looking at all the “in-between” photographs we had a sneak pick of their interactions. At the end of exhibition we had 2,070 photographs and 1,049 participants.

Our next stop were photo sessions at Limmud NY, Limmud Bay Area and Jewish Funders Network's international conferences, with our last stop being an event organized by Ilana Volodarsky at JCC St. Paul, MN. It was an evening full of energy and music. All those locations where possible to visit thanks to the dedication of local organizers (Mila Wichter and the Limmud Bay Area team, David Ezer and the JFN team, Ella Shteingart, the Limmud NY team) and generous support of the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

In total, 1,922 people participated in creating a portrait of the community—in its many shades, shapes, and sizes—and a collaborative statement about collective identity. Participants ranged from a two-year-old girl who identified herself as a “future president” to vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who identified himself as “a proud and grateful Jewish American.”

Find out more about this project and the companion book, From Selfie to Groupie, here. In NYC? You can participate in a pop-up version of this photography project at Jewish Book Council's May 19th Unpacking the Book event, "Soviet Roots, American Branches." Register here (it's free!).

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Addressing the American-Russian-Jewish Identity Crisis, Camera in Hand

Monday, May 11, 2015 | Permalink

Alina Bliumis received her BFA from the School of Visual Art in 1999 and a diploma from the Advanced Course in Visual Arts in Fondazione Antonio Ratti, Como, Italy in 2005, with visiting professor Alfredo Jaar. She is the co-author of the book From Selfie to Groupie and will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I moved from Minsk, Belarus, to New York 20 years ago, I noticed a certain ‘identity crisis’ within the Russian-Jewish community in the United States: Americans often consider members of this community to be Russian, Russians consider them to be Americans, and some Jewish Americans are not quite sure how to relate to this subset of their own community, still struggling to fit into the larger Jewish-American context. The question of how people define their own identity compelled my partner and collaborator Jeff Bliumis and I to undertake our artistic anthropological inquiry into Brooklyn’s Russian-Jewish immigrant population — we wanted to hear from people firsthand.

One morning, on a sunny July weekend in 2007, we drove to Brooklyn’s predominantly Jewish, Russian-speaking Brighton Beach to ask beachgoers to define their identities. Each participant was asked to pose for a photograph with any or all of three signs reading “Russian,” “Jewish,” and “American,” or to come up with his or her own self-definition by creating a unique sign with a marker and a paper pad.

We didn’t know what to expect. Would people be willing to interact? Would they feel comfortable publicly sharing their identity or be willing to be photographed, considering the history of Soviet Jews hiding they Jewish identity for decades?

We started at 6 in the morning, as we wanted to get a few shots of the three signs on a deserted beach. While we were photographing the signs, a seventy-something-year-old man named Alex walked by (from my experience in New York, passersby don’t usually get involved in other people's business, but that rule doesn't apply in Brighton Beach). The man stopped and asked “Chto vu zdes’ delaete?” (what are you doing here?). Again, anywhere else this question or the fact that he didn’t attempt to ask it in English might be strange but not in Brighton Beach. We explained that we were artists and told him about the project, asking him if he was willing to participate. He quickly replied “it is easy, I have an American passport, so I am American.” He took the “American” sign and posed.

We took his photo, and then as Alex was telling us his “immigration” story two more men, also in their seventies, walked by and asked: “Chto vu zdes’ delaete?” Once again we explained, and they both picked up all three identities and posed for a photograph. One of the men, Boris, explained “We are Jewish, we fought in the Russian army during Word War II, and we have American passports, so we chose all three signs.”

Alex wasn’t satisfied with Boris's answer, though, and argued that once you move to a new country, you have to forget your past and move forward. Boris and his friend disagreed, and the conversation became more heated. At that moment we understood that it might be an interesting day ahead of us.

Each interaction took about 15-30 minutes: we introduced ourselves and our project, talked about where we came from, listened to where the participant(s) came from, talked about family history, occupation, interest, health, assimilation, political views, etc., and then we would finally, at the end of the conversation, we would ask them to participate and pose for a photograph. To our delight, most of the participants would say “yes,” although sometimes it took some persuasion. For example, one young women believed that it is bad “karma” to take a photo, so we explained to her that her voice (via the identification markers) was what mattered and she could cover her face, if she wanted. She did.

By 3 in the afternoon, 52 people had posed, and 44 portraits were taken.

And while the photos present part of the story, the explanations of the participants adds an additional level of nuance to the question of how one self-identifies. A few of these explanations can be found below:

“When I was living in the former Soviet Union, we had to hide the fact that we were Jewish. I wouldn’t want to make it public and talk about it openly. When my family moved to the USA and became citizens, I was able to say openly and proudly that I am an American Jew.”

“I am an American citizen but I don’t feel American. I like living here but I haven’t assimilated, didn’t learn the language well, and don’t have a deep understanding of American culture.”

“A writer is condemned to work with his own identity, shaped by language. In my particular case, Russian and English are the tools of this Soviet-born and American-raised author from Odessa.”

“In the Soviet Union, a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ was someone who lacks patriotism and betrays his birthplace. They were wrong: a cosmopolitan is someone who believes that all people are equal, no matter where they come from.”

Find out more about this project and the companion book, From Selfie to Groupie, here. In NYC? You can participate in a pop-up version of this photography project at Jewish Book Council's May 19th Unpacking the Book event, "Soviet Roots, American Branches." Register here (it's free!).

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