John Offenbach interview: ‘I wanted to examine what it means to be a Jew and to reclaim the word’ – Evening Standard

Posted By on December 7, 2019

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Photographer John Offenbach is emphatic that his provocatively titled new book, Jew, is not a political statement about anti-Semitism. Were sitting in the caf at the Jewish Museum in Camden where 33 of his 120 black-and-white portraits of Jews living all over the world have just gone on display in an exhibition with the same title.

I wanted to examine what it means to be a Jew and to reclaim the word, says Offenbach, 55, who grew up in a liberal Jewish family in north London. Several family members, including his mother, were shocked by the title as if the word Jew was an insult. We talk about Muslims, Hindus and Christians, so why Jewish people?

The biggest shock for most people buying his book or visiting the exhibition, however and anyone interested in the question should will be the sheer variety of faces and ethnicities on show, which challenges the idea ofthe benchmark Jew being a white Ashkenazi, says Offenbach. He began his project four years ago, looking for people willing to be photographed from all walks of life, from all over the globe.

I wanted to know where normal resides. Normal isnt just the great and the good, not just the successful or rich Jews, and I do think that anti-Semitism springs from that basic misconception, which as you can see from my photographs, is plainly not true. They include murderconvicts and drug addicts too. When I started photographing homeless people in Israel, some of my friends here couldnt believe they even existed, while people over there were amazed that there are Jews in the House of Lords.

Of the more shocking portraits there is a topless scarred woman who was raped by her own father, and a man with the word f*ck tattooed across his face. These sit beside a Hasidic man, one of the 30,000 annual pilgrims visiting RabbiNachmanofBreslovsiconic tomb inUman, Ukraine, and a physicist from Tel Aviv.

Global mission: John Offenbach first began the project four years ago

There are Chinese Jews from Kaifeng, schoolgirls from Azerbaijan and a convert soferet scribe from London. Offenbach reached out to celebrities too, such as Matt Lucas, an instant yes, nightclub promoter Philip Sallon who styled his hair specially for the exhibition opening and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, the only survivingmember of the Womens Orchestra in Auschwitz, forced to play the cello at the camp gates while prisoners went about their slave labour.

The project began in the obvious place: Israel. Even so, Offenbach has organised some of the portraits in such a way as to challenge both the stereotype of what a Jew looks like and to ask what it is to be one. Inspired by the work of the German documentary photographer August Sander, most of his subjects are described anonymously, simply as victim of a terrorist attack or homeless man or newspaper editor. They are carefully arranged in the exhibition to provoke more questions.

Why is a transsexual waitress next to a life model, who is next to a fully veiled woman? Im sure the veiled woman would say the life model wasnt Jewish, because shes not modest enough. It seems to me everything depends on who you ask, he explains. When I was in Ukraine, someone told me that I couldnt be Jewish because I havent got a beard. Some people have these strict rules; others have much broader ideas.

For Offenbach, it was enough for his subjects to self-identify as Jews. He admits he ran into problems in Kaifeng, China, where claims from some of the Jewish community seemed contradictory. In the end, he chose just twopeople. One man said hed had a DNA test and could trace his ancestry back to the Silk Route, while a woman remembered seeing the word Jew under ethnicity in her family book, he pauses. But there was also something familiar to me about the way they were.

Perhaps the most arresting image, used on the books cover, is of a beautiful young black man who Offenbach met by chance in Tel Aviv. It was right at the beginning of the project. We had set up a stall in the market and just talked to people as they walked past. Id say hello, my names Johnny and Im doing this project and were inviting people to come and be photographed. He was the guy selling pastries at the next door stall.

What the project really shows is that Jews come in all shapes and sizes. When I look at the 120 portraits I feel Im made up of all of them a little bit, good and bad. And the fact that around 20,000 schoolchildren visit the museum every year and will see some of them, now that makes me really proud.

Jew: Photographs by John Offenbach is at the Jewish Museum, NW1 ( until April 29. The accompanying book is published by Skira (50). Signed prints in an edition of 12 cost 1,900 each (

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John Offenbach interview: 'I wanted to examine what it means to be a Jew and to reclaim the word' - Evening Standard

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