A report about the difficulties faced by female photographers at Orthodox Jewish or Muslim weddings reminded me of of the day I got told off over a serious religious violation.
Half a lifetime ago, after earning a diploma in photojournalism—a course paid for by a local weekly I worked for in South Africa—I immediately put my newly-acquired skills to work outside office hours by doing something that, today, would get me lynched.
I’d lean over garden gates and fences and snap pictures of young children. I’d note their addresses and, once I’d made prints I’d return to show them to the parents. My line was always the same: “I’m a reporter and photographer for The Springs Advertiser, and when I was passing your home I spotted your enchanting kid/kids and couldn’t resist taking a few shots.”
Never mind the fact that some of the little brats were as far from enchanting as Pluto is from Earth.
And their reaction was always the same: “Oooh, they are lovely! How much do you want for them?”
If no kids were available, I’d photograph adorable pooches, and the money kept rolling in—enough eventually for me to buy a Zenza Bronica S2, known as “the poor man’s Hasselblad.” Still, it set me back $500.00—$4,856.49 in today’s money.
Then, on one occasion, a delighted mum asked whether I ever did weddings. I lied and said “of course” and agreed to attend her sister’s upcoming nuptials. It was a weird ultra-Orthodox Jewish affair, and because the bride was heavily veiled, her face never showed up in any of my photos. In fact, I never got to see her face at all!
The assignment got off to a really bad start because I’d brought along a female friend to assist me, not realizing that her presence—in a miniskirt and skinny top—would greatly annoy the male guests. I had no idea then that such weddings were strictly segregated—or that Orthodox Jewish men were so damned paranoid.
Alessandra, herself a keen photographer—she’d even brought her own camera along— was ordered to leave immediately, and I was heavily berated for (a) entering the premises without a head covering and (b) for flouting strict segregation rules by bringing an “immodest” human of the female variety into a room full of men who were casting murderous looks at us from under huge furry hats.
Later, when I came to London, things went horribly wrong in the early 1980s when I was asked to photograph the very first same-sex wedding ever held in a church.
After the service, I put my camera on the bonnet of a car in the church parking area in order to corral the lesbian newlyweds and their friends into a group on the steps of St John. When I turned round to pick up my Bronica, it was gone. It had been snatched by an opportunist thief.
So no record of that historic wedding exists. It was heartbreaking, for the couple as well as me because I’d hoped to cash in on the photos of a unique occasion.
But one assignment that did earn me big bucks was a grisly funeral. I’d been tipped off by a policeman that an Australian immigrant had been found hiding the remains of his wife in a trunk under his bed.
He somehow managed to bring her corpse over to South Africa in the trunk. After the discovery was made by his landlady he was ordered to rebury the desiccated remains, and I was the only photographer present to snap the guy standing in the grave, looking up mournfully at the handful of authorities who were there to make sure that the burial was properly done. Later, the guy was certified insane and locked up.
I’d completely forgotten those incidents until this week, when I read a Religion News Service report about the problems faced by a secular Jewish photographer in New York called Ghila Krajzman.
Tasmiha Khan, writing for RNS, said of Krajzman:
Sometimes, she has resorted to asking the groom’s sister to take a photo because a male relative of the groom was not comfortable with Krajzman’s presence.
At another wedding, the shoot went fine, but when it came time for her to get paid, the father of the bride simply left a stack of cash on a table to avoid the possibility of physical contact.
Florists, caterers and other wedding professionals have the luxury of keeping their distance or setting up long beforehand. But capturing a wedding’s special moments through the camera lens can be a challenge in Orthodox Jewish, Muslim and other faith communities where strolling over to the opposite gender side to get a shot is a religious violation.
The Jewish wedding I attended—my first and last—was creepy, but nowhere near as harrowing as a Catholic one I was asked to photograph. The newlyweds wanted me to photograph them with a group of nuns who were unable to attend the main event because they were behind bars in a cell in the basement of the church.
My immediate thought as I gazed into the cell was “Oh jeez, Mother Teresa sneaked in and pupped.”
The result of the shoot looked like something from a Wes Craven horror movie. My pictures showed the couple pressed tightly up against the metal railings of the cloistered cell while upturned, prune-like faces grinned demoniacally at them and reached out through the bars with gnarled old fingers to bless and caress them.
A few of those fingers brushed my face. My flesh crawled and I had nightmares for a week.
One other wedding that didn’t turn out too well involved an Afrikaner couple. When I delivered the photos to the bride’s mother, she stared at them for the longest time, then snapped, “you’ve made my daughter look like a fucking kaffir!”
I stood on her doorstep, lost for words. The bride was white as white can be, but her hands looked slightly darker because they were in shadow, something I hadn’t noticed. When the mother declared that she wouldn’t pay for the pictures, I tore them up and threw the pieces in her face.
A week later she called to tearfully tell me that no other pictures had been taken at the wedding, and asked whether I would do her another set of prints, which I agreed to do provided she paid upfront. She did.
When I settled in Spain, I set up a small photographic business and promoted it via a Facebook page with the intro photo above. Now it’s practically inactive because, thanks to smartphones, no one’s prepared to pay photographers—or buy cameras.
Right now, all the camera equipment I paid almost $6,000 for is gathering dust in a cupboard. When I put it up for sale on Facebook for $200 I got an offer of $20, and the prospective buyer had the temerity to ask whether I would deliver the stuff for free to an address so far away that the traveling costs would have far exceeded my asking price.
Using Kurt Vonnegut’s words, I politely told him, “go take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut. Go take a flying fuck at the moon.”