In his latest body of work, photographer John Offenbach explores the nature of what it means to identify as Jewish today: from religious to secular, rich to homeless, criminal to lawful through 34 striking large-scale photographs.
The series brings together the diverse faces of Jewish people from myriad walks of life, dispelling the myth that there is just one type of Jew. For Offenbach, this has been a very personal project, travelling the world to capture the subjective essence of Jewish identity across 12 different countries, from Ethiopia to Ukraine, and Argentina to China.
Despite experiencing some initial resistance regarding the project's title, Offenbach was adamant that this body of work was to be given the name JEW. He says: "A large part of the project was to re-own that word – it shouldn’t be seen as an insult."
In November 1938, an exhibition entitled 'The Eternal Jew' opened in Munich promoting the Nazi stereotypes of Jews through photographs. In November 2019, Offenbach’s portraits challenge the contemporary, hateful propaganda of uncomfortably recent history, while contributing to a vital story of Jewish representation in the arts and posing urgent questions about identity and belonging that are pertinent to all of us.
Offenbach’s images are executed in black and white, a stylistic device known for its democracy. The removal of the background serves to avoid connotations of documentary. Offenbach explains: "I did travel to 12 countries, but my thinking was not necessarily to see it entirely as a diaspora project. I travelled with a neutral background and photographed each portrait against it, in black and white. The result is more objective, and at the same time more inclusive, in that each one, devoid of its surroundings becomes part of a single story."
The series was inspired, in part, by August Sander, German photographer of the early 20th century who radically documented German people in a way that dismissed the era’s social divisions. In line with Sander’s work that spoke honestly of the contemporary human existence, Offenbach says: "My project is about the faces. There are truth, honesty and diversity in these unretouched photographs. Each sitter is a normal person with a normal face, and I wanted to celebrate this normalcy. The ordinary is extraordinary and deserves our attention."
Each portrait is titled not by the sitter’s name, but by their occupation or circumstances. For example, Spy, Refuse Collector and Nobel Laureate are contrasted, creating a mosaic of unadorned snapshots, challenging the received view of world Jewry. Through these titles, Offenbach hopes to normalise the identities and quotidian existences of Jewish people across the spectrum of life.
You can see Offenbach's work in an upcoming exhibition at the Jewish Museum London. JEW will launch on 14 November 2019 and run until 19 April 2020. A major art book on the subject featuring the full set of 120 works will be launched during the exhibition's opening.