Tori Ferenc – Tradition
WORDS BY HARRY FLOOK
Stamford Hill in North East London is home to the largest Hasidic community in Europe. They have recently attracted a lot of media attention by a press that has largely taken issue with their strict conservatism. Almost all children attend gender-separated private faith schools, which are criticised for not adhering to national curriculum, and there are issues with equality of women and LGBTI+ people. Does this knowledge make Tradition an unsettling body of work?
Tori Ferenc photographed the community at their annual Purim festival, a celebration of the saving of Jewish people from Haman – who according to the Tanakh planned to kill all Jews. Images of smiling children in fancy dress set a positive tone early on. They could be from any background if it was not for the boys’ telltale side locks – their Payot. However, it’s not long before accusatory glances begin to betray the unease Ferenc felt shooting the work. It’s disorienting. Ferenc states, “Under the surface of cheerfulness, there was a lot of caution toward outsiders like me. A lack of trust of the outside world is ingrained in the community.
There’s an irony to the festival. The community defines itself in opposition to liberal modernity but uses pop icons as dress up. For Ferenc, Purim is “a strange mixture of past and present" and crucially, the "crack in the wall that allows us to look into their lives.”
The portraits are both posed and reactive – occasionally Ferenc documents without intervention, resulting in a series of sometimes off kilter and slightly awkward images, which echo the uncomfortable subjects.
The pictures that Ferenc presents don't match up with recent media portrayals. She uses a different approach, offering a sentiment both critical of and yet sympathetic to the ultra-Orthodox community. The images display this tightly closed group at their least guarded, and we see that amongst their extreme conservatism, the Hasidic hold onto a sense of community which seems lost in contemporary society.