Anyone who lives in east London will have experienced the magic of Purim. You’ll be sat on the number 149 bus and then, bam! out of nowhere they’ll be a mini Elvis running down the road with a gang of firemen, closely followed by a man dressed as a lion and two milkmaids. This dress-up spectacular is how London’s Haredi Jewish community celebrates Purim, the March holiday that marks when Mordecai foiled Haman’s plans to rid the Persian Empire of the Jewish people during the fourth Century. It’s also the subject of a heartwarming new series by photographer Grey Hutton, who documented the celebration from dawn until dusk.
Originally from London, Grey has been living in Berlin for the past seven years working for VICE Germany, but recently returned to his home city to focus on freelance photography. “With this time away from the UK I’ve really missed the diversity in communities that the country, and especially London, has to offer,” he tells It’s Nice That.
One such place is Stamford Hill, home to the largest Haredi community in Europe, and next door to Grey’s new home. “Traditionally this is an insular community that likes to keep to themselves, and while there will always be crossover with the rest of society, it’s predominantly segregated. Orthodox Jews have a reputation for being conservative and withdrawn, but Purim is the holiday that brings this community onto the streets in all their glory.”
During Purim, children and some of the younger men dress up in incredible costumes, from cops and robbers to Henry the Hover. “The attention to detail is amazing,” says Grey. “Preparation begins weeks in advance and sometimes at a heavy price, one guy I spoke to spent £100 just to rent his costume.” Grey’s series follows kids enjoying the carnival atmosphere, families hurrying to get home for the traditional feast and young boys collecting money for charity while Yiddish music blares out from sound systems strapped to the back of trucks. “There is dancing in the streets and singing from the houses, the vibe is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” says Grey.
Given the Orthodox community’s private nature, Grey knew that his image making needed to be done sensitively. He was surprised to find that families were incredibly encouraging and often asked him to photograph their kids. “It felt like we were celebrating their awesome costumes together, giving them the recognition they deserved. Many of the people I took portraits of I sent copies to after. I even received a commission from one mother who now wants her boys photographed the same as her girls,” he says. Bonding over the camera, Grey also had the opportunity to practice his Yiddish pronunciation and discuss the language similarities with German, as well as learning about the Purim story. “As the day rolled into evening I was invited to a party in a synagogue by three guys dressed as Jesus, Buddha, and a mariachi. It seemed like a suitably surreal ending to my Purim. Leftover food and empty wine bottles were scattered across tables while a few faithful revellers kept the music playing and the wine flowing in case more people showed up.”
Scrolling through his pictures on the way home left Grey with a thirst for a deeper understanding of the Haredi way of life, and he’s currently planning a follow-up series. “I was invited into homes and synagogues, I broke bread and drank wine, and shared endless smiles and laughter with passers-by. I am looking to expand the project now with some of the people I met during Purim, and it’s my hope that the work will challenge some of the cliches and prejudices surrounding this community.”