Interview with Nina Medioni on The Veil : Photographing the youth and the space in Bnei Brak, Israel
I met Nina Médioni in September 2016 on the terrace of the Ping-Pong Club, a bar in Mile-End, Montréal. Following our encounter, I went to squat the shabby sofa in her workshop on the 7th floor of UQAM where she was preparing different artistic projects. For several months, I watched her create as we spent the winter together, contemplating each other conquer our dreams, desires, all of the latter whilst embracing our contradictions.
Nina is a photographer.
Nina is also a human-woman and a long-time artistic crush of mine. I have no promises to make but I can assure you that her work is worth the detour.
I decide to make up this piece about her today because she needs you to be aware of a few things. Nina Médioni, recently graduated from the National School of Photography in Arles, in the south of France, has embarked on a human and personal adventure but also in a full-fledged social experience. In this interview, we review together a few points regarding her on-going photographic project: The Veil.
The Veil (Le Voile in French) understands photography as a witness, almost always as much documentary as it is artistic. The pictures presented here were taken in Bnei Brak, Israel, where lives the largest ultraorthodox community in the world. Some photographs were captured in Jerusalem, where she stayed during her trip. These are the different layers of meaning that intrigue the photographer. Her camera, analogic, is like a friend, a confidant with which to chart her course, to live the instant, to shed light on realities that most people do not know well.
Let’s enter into the vision of Nina Médioni, let’s wander into the storytelling of a woman who photographs as she speaks, wisely, calmly, in a very serious yet spontaneous way as if she was always on the edge of understanding something bigger than her.
As a photographer, in the act of sharing images, what does the word “conversation” mean to you ?
When I first read the question, there was an ambiguity. I thought “do you want to engage debate by sharing those images?” or “do I want to create a conversation by sharing those images”.
I understand it both ways. First, the project “The veil”, is about my relationship with the territory and especially with Bnei Brak. But I could not focus on Bnei Brak without also dealing with the fact that it’s very close from Tel Aviv. During the project, I took pictures both of Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak and both of the youth of Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak. It was interesting to create a conversation between the two cities. Finally, I concentrated more on what it is to be a young person living a country composed by several frontiers. This series is about creating conversations between territories that should not be speaking to each other normally.
I certainly aim at creating a debate. I think the city of Bnei Brak and ultraorthodox Judaism is something polemical. I don’t have any judgment. I don’t aim at making a documentary about religion or being Jewish because it is not about this but I wanted to show a more personal point of view. I wanted to show softness and intimacy of my family living there and not only on the very hard appearance that you can see when you overlook the city and don’t really know Bnei Brak. The question is “What is really Bnei Brak or a religious life?”.
Does ‘standpoint’ says something to you ? Where do you situate yourself when you’re on the field ? Internal, external, neutral ?
What was interesting is that I took a lot of time to find my standpoint. It was really not easy for me because I am not Jewish. A part of my family lives in one of the most exclusive city of Israel. I was always inside the group because it’s my family and I share memories with them. But also, I was outside because I am not Jewish. In Israel, even if you are not religious, not being Jewish is something very complicated.
For example, you go to a bar and after five minutes someone can ask you “Are you Jewish?”. You say no and this person can say “Well, sad for you”. It is a very big deal in the Israeli society, not only about religion, it is something cultural. It was very interesting for me to find a balance and sometimes not to find a balance and feel completely outside of it. I think also this balance lies in the quest that I engaged during my stay in Israel.
This is really the main point of this period : how can you portray a city and a religious city especially while not being part of it ? What can you share of it while not being part of it when you don’t understand all the rituals ? There are a lot of rituals, a lot of things that you can’t do.
You have to be aware of a lot of stuff. Sometimes I was aware, sometimes not and that was also very interesting for me. My position as a photographer has always been being inside and outside, finding the right distance between being “marginale” and within when I was part of the intimacy of my family. I think it was very interesting to find this balance. I hope I found it. I hope that in the end, when I will share this work next summer, and in the book I am preparing too, this will be understandable. The standpoint was inside and outside.
Conveying testimonies of existences beyond the occidental vision of ‘jewishness’ is part of your work, why did you choose to focus on photographing the youth in Bnei Brak ?
At first, I wanted to go back to Bnei Brak because I always heard the story of my older cousin who moved in Isreal 20 years ago. She was jewish but not religious and suddenly she decided to move in Israel and build a family to lead a very religious life. I was always fascinated by this figure that I did not really had the chance to know when I was a child.
To introduce the context, I’ll say that the first time I was in Bnei Brak was in 2015. I just decided to go see her and her family, not to do a photo project. I didn’t really meet my cousin before this trip in Bnei Brak but we had a lot in common even though I am not jewish. We shared a lot and it’s interesting because when she was 18 years old in France, she wanted to prepare the Femis (School of Cinema in Paris) and just before doing the exam she decided to go to Israel for a month to think about her project. Finally, she never came back. This attraction that she had for cinema and images, the fact that she went to a very religious community where pictures are not really allowed was very interesting and I was very much fascinated by this girl and her choice. I wanted to understand.
Then, when I was 17 or 18, I found out I was kind of like her, a bit lost maybe and very attracted by doing a school of art. I thought “I could have been this person”.
When she saw, when we spoke, when she finally accepted that I come to Israel to do this project, she still had this curiosity about pictures and images. Now, when we speak, we can be really close friends. This bond we have beyond religious is amazing and it’s not evident because religion is everywhere when you live in Bnei Brak.
In your vision, is there a specific goal in sharing the lives of those young people you photograph ? Do you aim at sharing a different point of view ?
Yes. I speak a lot about the context of this project because at the project was about Bnei Brak and my cousin and her family, her children, but then, by living in Tel Aviv and taking pictures there, I discovered others things.
Tel Aviv is a very liberal city, there is a huge contrast between the two cities. What was interesting for me was that beyond all of this questions I had in the beginning, I started thinking about the youth. I came to understand the youth as something to embrace.
You embrace a social role. You begin to understand to have a body, what is it to be in a social community, to go outside, to go party. I thought about the connexion with the space, about those moments when you are outside with your friends, in a park or at a party but also I thought about the moments when you are in your room with yourself. I wanted to show what youth is for me. Youth can be the beginning of something. In Tel Aviv, those young pretty girls, going the club, to the park, being naïve and légères. And in Bnei Brak, I wanted to show another aspect, this kind of very specific femininity. Being a young woman there is not something that you can show the world. This engages another reflection about being young. I think I wanted to question the youth in both ways.
When you were in Israel for your project, what were the reactions of the people you met when talking about your project ?
I met a lot of different people when I was in Israel. First, I had those roommates, guys working in the military. They didn’t really understand what I was doing, maybe they thought I was this cute French girl a little bit crazy going through a crisis. I met some people from different artists community in Tel Aviv. When I traveled in Palestine I met also other artists and maybe it was more clear to them what I was doing. The fact that I was there by myself without an artistic residency, engaging my own way was something kind of weird for people.
You know Tel Aviv is very expensive and I was in a city Bnei Brak where I was not sure if I would be able to take pictures. I could have taken big risks; it was not sure that I would come back to France with something. First because they were saying things like “Wow you are doing to do this it is very brave of you but maybe you won’t be able to do anything”. It’s really not so common to meet someone who can take pictures there. It was not so easy at first.
When I first called my family in Israel to tell them I would come to Bnei Brak to do a project, to make a project with them, that it was going to take a few months and all the other informations, my cousin just said “Okay”. At the moment she didn’t have to think about it. It was pretty surprising. I think my family agreed to the project also because they thought I wanted to reconnect with my Jewishness or maybe because they thought I was lost. I was okay with this idea they had about me, the fact that I could potentially reconnect with something I never knew. Why ? Because my Jewish family in France is not very religious and they are not really into celebrations. They thought I was looking for my roots. When I was in Israel, many times I’ve been asked if I wanted to become Jewish or if it was sometimes a burden because of this project. It is not but of course but I think it is completely okay that they considered it before I came.
And to finish answering your question, I wanted to talk about the pictures. When I first showed the photographs at galleries and residencies in Israel, they were really interested because it is not very common to make a project in Bnei Brak with this very intimate point of view. The feedback was very positive and encouraging after my stay there.
As an analog photographer, what are you trying to do in keeping the old ways of taking pictures alive ?
It’s funny because when I decided to use this medium format for travelling (I’m using a MAMIYA 645E) I never thought had the idea that it was an old camera nor and old way to take pictures even if it is. I think and I can’t explain really why but my pictures are different when I’m using an analogic camera or a digital one and I don’t know why.
What was the most important for me was really to take the time to take a picture. Not to rush. I had to take time also because taking photos in Bnei Brak is not something forbidden but it is not common. You have to take your time. If you want a take a picture in the street it’s okay but you have to be present in the space. Slowly. If someone comes up and asks a question, just answer and try to speak with the person even if you don’t speak Hebrew. It’s really something I understood with this project.
Being a photographer is about staying in a place, taking the time. If you want to take a picture, you have to stay, you have to come back. You have to escape from this common idea of time. In Bnei Brak it is uncommon to stay somewhere, to not move, just staying somewhere for a while asks questions because everyone is always busy doing something. There are no coffees or meeting places expect the synagogue. It’s not really well seen to stay in a place for the simple sake of pleasure. As a photographer, it was very interesting to be still in a place, to be patient, take the time, take the time to take the picture. With an analogic camera, the idea that you cannot choose the picture right away was really something that worked with the idea.
Nina Medioni by Julie Hrncirova
Finally, would you say that your work sheds light on what goes on in Israel, that goes in pair with the rising antisemitism in the world ?
I don’t know if I was trying to speak about antisemitism but for sure I wanted to show different territories in the same photographic project. I wanted to question the frontiers that exist between Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv but also between Israel and Palestine. I went several times in Ramallah an Jericho and others cities but it was too short for me to start a project there. There are a few pictures from Palestine but I don’t even know if I will keep them. I went only four days, always going back and forth between Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak. It was actually a bit of a schizophrenic kind of vision at some points even though I was very interested in moving all the time it was a bit too much. It’s actually not possible to deal with all of theses spaces at the same moment.
The main idea was that Israel is composed by frontiers, but those frontiers are questionable and maybe the youth from Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv can share some common views. For sure my goal is to go deeper into those interrogations. I will go back next spring in Israel for a residency in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is now the biggest city in Israel, it’s also at a frontier with Palestine, I will go back in Palestine as well, trying to take more time there. I hope I can manage it.
“The veil”, this project, is still in progress. The goal is to go back several times, visit againmy family in Bnei Brak. I also want to treat this subject through the exploration of frontiers and the worlds that surrounds them. In reality, Bnei Brak does not exist without Tel Aviv, without this proposition of a liberal city. For example, I’ll go in Jerusalem to see a cousin next year. He left Bnei Brak to go live in Jerusalem. I want to follow him in his very new and different life that he has now. I want to know how he is still connected to Bnei Brak.
Nina Medioni by Julie Hrncirova
The world of photography has been openly more open to highlight the work of male photographers but things are changing. When did you notice this reality and what kind of initiatives do you see changing this status quo ?
I think there are more and more initiatives that aim at highlighting the work of female photographers. It’s great but I think in photography and especially when you think about art, the discussion about the male gaze really matters. I think photography is still really influenced by it. For example, when I first entered the school of photography in Arles, there was only one teacher who was a woman and then only men. It was really the cliché we expect in the world of photography.
I don’t know how to say but I remember when I entered my first class there were like 20 girls and 5 boys but on 8 teachers, only one was a woman… so… those initiatives come at a moment when it’s needed because photography is still ruled by men. If you look at the selection at photography festivals, you will see mostly males. Since two or three years now, directors of photography festivals have been warned and asked to invite more women in order to rebalance the representations.
Things are changing slowly but it is not obvious. I don’t want to complain as a photographer now because in the 80s or before, it was harder then to work as a woman so I’m really thankful for this energy of change. One thing I want to add is that sometimes I’m worried that this movement towards most spaces to show women’s work is fashionable, like a trend for the next three or four years and then they will just disappear. I’m saying this because when I came back I met several people in galleries, museums and a woman said to me “It’s really great you’re a woman, it’s a good time to show your work and it would be even better if you came from another minority, even better if you were a lesbian”. I thought “she can’t be serious” but she was.
It is a real issue, I don’t want to speak about it lightly. It’s something that matters and even if there are great initiatives I want to participate in this change and I want to take the time to observe the changes coming. For now, nothing is sure on how this reality will evolve so… Let’s see. Let’s see.
- AWARE collective
- Les femmes s’en mêlent
- La SAIF – photography and organizers
- Les femmes s’exposent
Thank you friend !
More Nina Medioni here
By Alizée Pichot from PEACH