Laura Pannack’s new commission for Stories for Change follows a young man from a traditional Jewish Orthodox upbringing as he forges a new identity for himself.
Stories for Change is an ongoing collaboration between British Journal of Photography and Panasonic LUMIX that celebrates the power of photography in driving positive change. In August 2019, three photographers were awarded a grant and a LUMIX S Series kit to create a new body of work around the themes Inclusion and Belonging. Below Laura Pannack discusses what she has planned.
Remember the first time you went clothes shopping? Watched TV? Made friends with someone of the opposite sex? Probably not. But for the growing number of young Israelis taking the dramatic step of leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world in which they’ve been raised, these experiences are completely novel. In a forthcoming project, Laura Pannack follows one of them, a young man named Baruch, as he navigates a new path, unmoored from his Orthodox upbringing into a more modern lifestyle.
Pannack’s Stories for Change series builds on an ongoing focus on Jewish life that dates back to her early days as a photographer. “When I moved to Hackney after university, I was really intrigued by the Hassidic Jewish community just a few roads from my house,” she explains. “I’m Jewish and I have grown up with an insight into Jewish life but my mother married a Christian man and religion was not a feature in my upbringing. My Jewish culture, however, definitely was. I thought it would be interesting to photograph the community… on my doorstep.”
Over the next three years she immersed herself in this closed community, volunteering at clubs, meeting with rabbis, teachers and local members of the community. “Eventually a few families let me in and since then I have mainly been working with one family. I decided to really build a relationship and explore Hassidic Jewish life through the connections I have made in the UK, Israel and the US. These three locations integrate, and families always seem to have connections to all. It’s a very personal project for me as being Jewish is a large part of my identity. I see this as a long-term project and try not to overthink it too much or construct a concept.”
Elsewhere in her work, Pannack has always been preoccupied with identity, particularly in relation to youth. Noted for personal projects on young British naturists and adolescent love, her collaborative portraits – a kind of alternative selfies, with children and teenagers using a two-way mirror – and was recently commissioned by Multistory to chronicle The Cracker, a wasteland between two estates in Sandwell & Dudley that local kids have made their own.
On a trip to Israel, Pannack discovered a few groups taking the tough decision to leave the culture in which they’d been raised, and she was fascinated. “The Orthodox world is extreme and in many ways built on the past so it was interesting to see how this new generation were exploring new ways of being Jewish.”
Following several months of intensive research and recces, struggling to gain access, pursuing different possible subjects and narratives, Pannack came across Baruch and felt an immediate connection. “I met Baruch at a place I had been shooting that is open to any strangers who are leaving their Orthodox community but want to mix with Jewish people,” she says. “He was a willing subject who was keen to experience the project and tell his story and the more time I spent with him the better friends we became. He has a very unique character, he’s incredibly smart and curious. He understood that I wanted to create a positive project that was about stories of change and that I respected him and his Jewish identity.”
“The first time we for a coffee about 30 people just stopped and took pictures of us together on their phones,” recalls Pannack. “It was a bizarre sight to see an Orthodox boy and a young girl in shorts and a shirt in a public place. We soon had a crowd and had to leave. It was then that I realised how special this moment in his life was.”
Rather than do this through straightforward documentary, Pannack plans to take a more “delicate, reflective and emotive” line. “My approach is instinctive and I tend to stick to the same soft and painterly aesthetic, as I prefer natural light,” she explains. She won’t simply capture every moment, but will work with Baruch to create something more meaningful.
The project is one of three new bodies of work being made as part of the first chapter of Stories for Change, an ongoing collaboration between British Journal of Photography and Panasonic LUMIX. Pannack joins Freddie Paxton and Catherine Hyland, three photographers tasked with creating new work under the Stories for Change project brief. Through the commissioning of socially important work, Stories for Change will highlight the power of photography in driving positive change. Loosely based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the first commissions of the series will explore the themes of Inclusion and Belonging.
Photography, says Pannack, is an “innately expressive”, universal language, and she hopes this tale of self-realisation will speak to others. “Baruch is deciding to completely change his life and experience things for the first time. The meaning of being Jewish is changing for him and this is greatly affecting how he experiences life. It’s a story about freedom, pride and identity.”
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