In photographer Grégory Michenaud’s ongoing project he explores Jewish identity, which takes him on a journey inside religion, family values and history. The project is inspired by an old Jewish tradition that’s not practised anymore, called “Yibbum” or levirate marriage, and it obliges the oldest surviving brother of a man who dies childless to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother.
“On my last project I photographed the historical minorities of Poland, where I am living. My interest in those old photos and documents brought me to an old autobiography handwritten by a Yibbum child, his life from birth till he was 16 years old. Reading his story just gave me the need to tell it through photography,” says Grégory.
For this first part of the project, the photographer has focused on the religious aspect of the Jewish identity. Grégory documented a community that was close to him geographically for ease but also for its significance. “I am actually living right in the middle of a very important historical region for Hasidic Jews, a region where this movement began,” the photographer explains. “It provided a lot of opportunities like the yearly pilgrimages to the region. As I became more a part of the community, I also had the opportunity to become a guide for Orthodox Jewish groups visiting the region. This was very helpful for my photography and for further contacts.” To ingratiate himself further into the community, Grégory took several Hebrew language classes and did in-depth research about the religion before trying to gain access, which helped him a lot during his time in the community.
Grégory’s presence doesn’t seem to effect his subjects, with their backs often turned away from his lens or simply looking straight through him. The reportage style of the series has an almost filmic quality, as Grégory captures a great sense of scale in many images, be it a sprawling landscape photo or a packed crowd shot. “I’m taking pictures after being in a place with the same people for a while, which means I am already a part of what is happening. That’s maybe why there are no reactions to me taking pictures,” says Grégory.
The next part of the project will see the photographer concentrate on family and land, which will take him to Israel. “I am going to stay with a Hasidic family who I’m close to, to capture holidays and important events for them and also just to spend time with them,” says Grégory. “I think we need roots and what we call identity. Yibbum is just one particular, individual example of that. I hope it will make viewers wonder what defines them, what constitutes their own identities. I believe that by discovering ourselves, we have a greater chance to understand others and avoid stereotypes and prejudices.”
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