Don’t Say Cheese

David Frank

In the old days one hallmark of a professional photographer was that the photog was never without a camera. By that standard, today just about all of us are professionals.

Cell phone cameras are ubiquitous. Now we go through our days visually armed, as it were, often immediately emailing friends the resulting photo reconnaissance of our lives. We post these mega-pixel bits and bytes of our lives in our Facebook albums. We tweet them to whoever will follow. We collect them in vast numbers on our computers. Sometimes they are dark, blurry rectangles that assert simply that we exist. Sometimes they surprise us with unspeakable depth, transforming even a random moment into a powerful enduring memory. Sometimes we make prints of them so they can become our companions, or even turn them into hardcover, realio-trulio coffee-table books all about us.

What does it all mean? Have we all become self-obsessed users of the latest must-have tech-tools for noting, recording and sharing our lives? Or think of this – have we, perhaps, all become historians newly in procession of cutting-edge tools for making meaning. Using these tools is it possible that we can now translate our busy, sometimes chaotic lives into the illustrated narratives that, upon reflection, help us understand who we are, where we fit and what we mean.

Here is a small example of what I am getting at. I have spent about an equal number of years in my life working as a Jewish educator and as a photographer. Recently, I have begun to photograph bar/bat mitzvahs – but with what I believe is an interesting twist that incorporates the sensibilities of both.

It is not just about a party. And it is certainly not about lining up the family and at my prompt encouraging them to, Say cheese. In fact, I do as little directing as possible. Just like you can with your cell cameras at the ready, I am after stories from real life. I begin months before photographing the child studying, working with the rabbi and cantor, documenting the mitzvah project, the party planning, the suit/dress shopping, anything related to any aspect of what is involved in a 21st Century bar/bat mitzvah – taking pictures that ultimatelygive me the raw material to tell a much bigger story. Now a trusted confidant, I interview the child exploring what they make of all the attention being heaped upon them, their Torah reading, their expectations, and their fears. I talk to the parents about their child, their aims for the event, their Jewish identities and what they hope to pass on to their children. Then I weave a narrative words and pictures and I put them in a book a personal history book that can play an important role in helping a family define and express the meaning of the experience.

Bat Mitzvah – Images by David Frank

And, here is something to consider – even the very fact of photographing makes meaning. Remember, Im not talking about a Say cheese grab-shot. But Im also not suggesting anything about the quality of the camera you might use. Im talking about the quality of paying a particular kind of attention that has the capacity to suggest to your young subject that THESE aspects of your process (the study, the talks with the rabbi, the time spent alone drilling words of Torah, etc.) are significant and valuable. And the resulting photographs then can take their rightful place.

And the photographs make the memories. Thats why we take pictures. We grab from the swift flow of undifferentiated life a few split seconds of our lives and say, Stop! Just now I want you to be this age, with these people, in this place forever. Such pictures, especially at peek moments can help to define who we are.

Consider the photo documentation of your own life. How your memories are sparked when you peruse an old album. Look at my big hair! Those are some crazy lapels! Look how beautiful Mom was when she was young. What if the interior monologue could continue Here I am before my Bat Mitzvah. Im so proud that or Wow, this was the first time I touched a Torah. or Here I am in the rabbis study Pie in the sky? Perhaps, but without the photographic jolts to memory over the years the event loses its specificity and its power to shape identity. Identity = authentic experiences, sensitively documented and well remembered. My own, now adult, daughter is still awed by the photos that remind her that all those people had come to see HER.

At a recent Bat Mitzvah the family stood on the bima with the rabbi reciting the Havdalah blessings. They tasted the wine, smelled the spices, illuminated their fingertips but missed, until they saw the photograph, the moment when a daughter, caught up in her thoughts and feelings, rested her head on her mothers shoulder. It lasted for a second. Went unnoticed. But the photograph now has great familial power. The photograph creates the memory. The memory is inexorably tied to this very intimate and Jewish moment.

You have the tools. You have the digital means to enter the rush of ones and zeros and use it to stop time, to write histories, to interpret the present in service of the future, to fill the histories of those around you with the memories of Jewish moments. And these moments make meaning. They illustrate the narratives through which we come to know who we are.

Further resources:

The Meaning of Family Photographs by Charles Williams

Candid Photography, and the Meaning of “Real-Life” by Len Bernstein

Reading Photographs to Write With Meaning and Purpose, Grades 412 by Leigh Van Horn

Social Media And The New Meaning of Photographs

Family Photographs: Content, Meaning and Effect by Julia Hirsch

David Frank was a photojournalist and graphics editor at various newspapers in Michigan before becoming a Jewish educator and the Director of Conferences at CAJE. He is a storyteller, always trying to tell the public story, the back story, the whole story – your story. He makes art out of both the simple and the sublime moments in life. He lives in New Jersey. You can learn more about his photography at