Mati Engel, a student photographer at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, believes staunchly in the power of photography to create change. That’s why Engel contacted Steve Rosenfield, the photographer who created the What I Be photo project in 2010, and asked him to come to Yeshiva University.
“I first met Steve at Princeton University, where he had taken What I Be,” Engel told me. “I was blown away by his photography. I knew that the Orthodox Jewish community could benefit greatly from his work.”
That’s because What I Be is more than an art exhibit—it’s a social experiment. Rosenfield writes bold statements in black ink on his subjects’ face, chest, or arms before taking a straight-on headshot. Next to the photograph reads the statement: “I am not my ______,” filled in by each subject with his or her greatest insecurity or fear.
“There’s so much fear and judgment in our community,” Engel explained. “I thought this project would be a perfect chance to undo some of the stigmas that plague our religious world.”
The project became exactly that. In creating a What I Be series for the “Jews of NYC,” Rosenfield waded through some of the community’s greatest fears and stigmas, one photograph at a time.
“I AM Observant,” were the words Dina Horowitz, a 2011 Stern graduate, chose to have sketched onto her forehead and arm. Next to the photograph she wrote the caption: I am not my pants. Interpreted as a tenet of modesty, many see a woman’s decision of whether or not to wear pants as a litmus test for religiosity.
“People have questioned my observance because of how I dress,” Horowitz told me. “Participating in this project was my way of speaking out against those who judge others on such insignificant details.”
Sruly Heller, a Yeshiva University senior, had the word “family” written in fading letters on his forehead. “I am not my envy,” read the caption.
“I grew up in Boro Park, to a very right-wing yeshivish family,” said Heller, who described himself as “leftist Modern-Orthodox.” “For many reasons, including our religious differences, I’ve been on my own since high school. This project allowed me to acknowledge that I miss a family. I’m envious of others who have the support system I lack.”
Rosenfield, who identifies as an unaffiliated Jew, said the insecurities he uncovered while photographing the Jewish community were different than those he had previously encountered with the project. “Within this world, students aren’t just battling judgment from their peers,” he explained, “They’re also battling the institution of religion, and the strict expectations that come with.”
Despite the unique insecurities he unearthed, Rosenfield is continually surprised by what he referred to as the universal nature of our insecurities. “At the end of the day, we’re all scared about similar things, no matter how different our backgrounds,” he told me. “This project gave voice to the fears and stories of so many different faces, while showing at the same time what we so deeply share in common.”
A proposed exhibition of the project, displaying what Engel admits are “uncomfortable” images, was reportedly rejected by the Yeshiva University administration, Haaretz reported this week. “After Engel and Sominski had spent some 50 hours meeting with YU officials to work out the project’s details, and agreed to bar students from referring to issues around sexuality in their portraits in order to comport with YU’s culture, the university backed out,” the article stated.
The school’s dean of students, Chaim Nissel, released a comment which said, “After close review and much discussion of this event with the student organizers, and taking the sensitivities of all of our students into consideration, we determined that a YU venue would not be able to showcase the project in its entirety.”
Regardless of Yeshiva University’s involvement—or lack thereof—Engel believes bringing the project to students accomplished what he hoped it would. “We wanted to break down fears. We wanted to bridge barriers. We wanted to spark dialogue. All of that, we did.”