Words by Monica Uszerowicz
“The function of the Christ is not to rescue the sinners, but to empower you…to be more deeply and fully human than you ever realized there was the potential within you to be.”
December 3, 2014. The quote above is from a video interview with the retired Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong—the video went viral, primarily for Spong’s understanding that it is not the goal of humanity to be more Godlike, but to accept ourselves as imperfect, multifaceted, and still connected to Christ. It’s a sentiment echoed in photographer Zack Balber’s Tamim series, a set of portraits of Jewish men wearing Balber’s Bar Mitzvah yarmulke. Some of the subjects are heavily tattooed; one dons his liposuction vest. None heed the Judaic laws into which they were born, but all, Balber feels, are pure, divine, and holy in their vulnerability and honesty. In their truth, there is—maybe—God.
Balber’s work tends to explore the mostly inexplicable—big, sweeping themes, like holiness, exploitation, his place in a patriarchy—with an unassuming eye and honest sensitivity. There’s an irony, too, emblematic of the kind one finds within the human condition: after taking a series of photographs of prostitutes and their pimps, he invited them to the subsequent exhibition and shared with them a portion of the proceeds. There’s a statement here on the art world’s similarity to prostitution, to be sure, but what’s more admirable is the fact that the photographs weren’t snapped to the chagrin of their subjects—they were included in the process.
Balber’s latest work, Recomposing Sister, is a series of glamour shots taken of his sister, Liz, before her death. Even in lieu of taking the images himself, Balber examines the tricky role of photography in creating a particular story, complicating and addressing his own role in the process. I spoke to him about this and his personal history. If you are in Miami for Art Basel, you can see his work at International Friendship Exhibition, an exhibition of 19 artists at Primary Projects in Miami, opening as part of Miami Art Week.
I recognize one of your subjects in the Tamim series—he works at the place where I got my tattoos.
ZACK BALBER Yeah, the tattoos in those images are an interesting dynamic. We were being marked as animals [during the Holocaust], so I thought it was a unique juxtaposition. Most of the guys that I photographed—I didn’t know how many tattoos they had until they took their shirts off for the series. To me, [the unifying theme] was more of that walk in life. A lot of those guys were my students; I was their spiritual mentor.
Can you tell me about your work as a mentor?
ZB When I was 18, I got faced with 25 to life in prison for drug trafficking. My life was almost at a standstill, and I was offered heaven. I got pardoned. I had a judge who told me if he ever saw or heard about me again, I would never leave jail. So I joined Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. I was eighteen years old, I went to rehab, and I thought that was my deal—that one drink or drug meant disaster. I found something way bigger than I ever imagined there. It was like religion without all the stuff that people argue about. It was a very liberal approach to spirituality. There was a humanness that was allowed. I think, in most religious centers, it’s frowned upon when you act like a human being. The camera was really the outsider to our relationship [in Tamim]. The relationship was very strong with all the men, prior to the photograph. I usually don’t mix my personal life and my work. But something I had experienced as a mentor was that, in order for these guys to recreate their lives, just as I had done, another man had to become vulnerable. I had never seen that before. It made me think about a different conversation about masculinity—what it meant to be masculine, what it meant to be a man. These guys exposed the worst of themselves to me. When you’re able to share all of you with somebody, and that somebody looks back at you with love and not disgust—that feeling was what this work was about. It’s a purity, a wholesomeness. Not that they did everything right—quite the contrary. They were human. And they were still, nonetheless, wholesome and pure and, in my mind, pure Jews. One them was a friend of mine, David Zimmerman, and he had a liposuction vest on. He was 23 years old; he thought he needed liposuction to look better. I thought that was a testimony to our time and what men are doing now. I’m very interested in gender roles. I like when things start to switch.
I was looking at Recomposing Sister, the set of contact sheets from a photo shoot of your sister—glamour shots. You’ve explained that after your sister passed away, you wanted to investigate the role of female objectification and the role it played on her death.
ZB Art, for me, is sort of geared around art therapy. I create bodies of work, one after another, trying to heal. Regarding my sister, I did an investigation on strippers—she used to be one—for almost a year. I read this exhibition book, Exposure. There was this huge exhibition in L.A. about voyeurism, exhibitionism, the breach of privacy. I was fascinated with this perversion of looking we’ve all become obsessed with. At some point, I was digesting ways to discuss how she fell into this. I sort of use society’s preconceived notions about me—a white guy, a ginger, with a camera—to explore gender roles. I feel like I’ve pushed myself to have photography answers, rather than photography questions, and I don’t think there really is an answer. I’m very interested in portraiture, and the transference of the gaze. And throughout photography, the gaze, for the woman, has always been upon her.
It’s interesting to use your role as a man to explore issues that have been essentially perpetuated and caused by men. I want to know how these ideas might connect to what you see in these glamour shots of your sister.
ZB There were three found contact sheets, from when she was a model. My sister was striking, but she didn’t know it. I feel like I meet a lot of women who are beautiful, but because of the propaganda, it’s really hard for them to grasp that they are. You see these magazines with women with no pores and no cellulite. I would watch my sister look through them and I could see the fight in her. She would discard her idea of self for Photoshop’s ability to perfect our reality. I wanted to rearrange the images into a progression of emotion, into the way I got to see my sister—where she was afraid and vulnerable and insecure. The best part about it: she was photographed by a man. I’m going through the oeuvre of another man, looking at my sister when she was 18 years old. He circled, on that piece, some of the images that he thought were the best. I wanted to explore, as her little brother, which images really showed her confident. I think the images at the end are the ones where she’s really allowing us to see her. There’s sort of this theme in modern literature—the desire to connect with each other, but an ability to do it. I feel like the only way you can get around that is to get vulnerable to the point that it hurts.
In terms of healing, how is everything you’ve been through the inspiration for what you choose to document? With photography, the idea of creation is more abstract than in other mediums.
ZB I told my assistant, “You have to figure out what’s wrong with you—you have to figure out why you need photography in your life.” Photography bridges gaps. It’s an excuse. It’s not so much about the image. It’s more about the experience. It’s like photography has become my excuse to connect to people, in every margin of life, because I have a camera. I don’t really know any other medium that allows you to do that—that gives privilege, takes it away, empowers people. I use the camera in different ways. When I worked for Bruce Weber, I saw that perfect symmetry, five full-time assistants, million-dollar-a-day shoots. And I was going to art school and listening to critical theory. They were two different worlds. One mimicked the other, but they were coming from different places. The reason I chose to pursue art, rather than fashion or commercial photography, is because I felt like art is the one place where you can actually change people’s perception of things. It’s something I figured out when I was in recovery—the only way you’re going to see somebody is if you get naked first: emotionally, spiritually, in your work. Recomposing Sister, for me, is already resolved. I sent my mother the piece. My mother was changed, indefinitely, by my sister’s death. I showed her the piece and I told her the work was going to be seen, that people were going to talk about Liz in a different way, and she cried. Maybe nobody else is going to get it, and I don’t care. I’m being open and vulnerable, and that cuts through all the art academia, what it’s supposed to be. When I’m around that piece, I feel naked. It’s a real sensitive zone, but that’s part of my process.
Taking a photo is a strange space to occupy, because you are both observer and participant.
ZB My first body of work was called My Americans. It was my revisiting Robert Frank’s The Americans, but I was a transplant from Pennsylvania who just moved down to Miami. They were taken from my car, driving through Miami, making wrong turns on purpose. It took me about a year. I realized, after that series, though it was good, I was comfortably removed with a zoom lens, in my car, in my bubble. I wasn’t vulnerable at all. I’m of the belief that there is a big degree of serendipity in photography. Photography does take you out of the moment. I like Susan Sontag; I’m obsessed with the way she writes about photography. She alludes to this—when people go on vacation, it’s not even about the vacation; we need the documents and pictures to prove that we had fun. Everyone’s got to prove it. Photography has become the receipt of life. For me, it’s not necessarily about the receipt. It’s my receipt of the interaction. I’m trying to figure out how to bring the interaction into the image.
See Zack Balber’s work at Art Basel Miami Beach at the International Friendship Exhibition