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Friday, April 18, 2014

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Controversial magazine spread inspires photographer

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Liat Aharoni

Israel’s BelleMode magazine’s decision to publish controversial photos depicting Orthodox Jews in provocative poses on buses earlier this year inspired a Toronto-based photographer to run a workshop examining the role of women in Israeli society.

Liat Aharoni, a 22-year-old fifth-year political science student at the University of Toronto who calls herself a “self-taught fine arts photographer,” said she’s excited about leading a workshop on July 22 that will combine both the technical and the analytic aspects of photography.

She said the goal of the event is to hone participants’ photography and editing skills while examining the tensions that bubbled to the surface when women began protesting being pressured by the Orthodox community in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh to sit at the back of public buses.

 Aharoni, Hillel of Greater Toronto’s event co-ordinator – a role she is serving as part of the Kohn Internship program, a 10-week Jewish Vocational Services initiative that places students at Jewish non-profit agencies each summer – applauded BelleMode for publishing the photos, which ran a few weeks after women’s rights protests in some of Israel’s most religious Jewish communities.

For years, Israeli women have been pressured to move to the back of public buses that serve primarily haredi Jews.

This practice is seen as a prime example of the growing tensions between the secular and Orthodox communities, but tensions peaked late last year when an eight-year-old girl was spat on by haredi men in Beit Shemesh because they felt she was dressed immodestly.

This sparked demonstrations against the segregation of women, and weeks later, the Israeli magazine ran photos that Aharoni felt were published in support of women’s rights in Israel.

To view the photos by Israeli photographer Guy Gomel, visit guy-gomel.livejournal.com/755004.html.

“From what I gathered from other people, a lot of people were offended by [the photos], but for me, I think they represent something so powerful,” Aharoni said.

“These models who were dressed as Orthodox chassidic men, they were also being very provocative, and to me, that symbolized that regardless of your faith, you’re still a sexual being at the end of the day,” she continued.

“In one picture, the woman’s mouth is taped shut, yet she’s still posing in a sexual, provocative way, with her hand on her taped mouth, while the men are gazing at her. Even the way the photo was taken, I find it voyeuristic in a way.”

Aharoni said that although she only delved into photography “in a meaningful way” a few months ago, she has always been inspired by the art.

“It’s a recent thing for me that I’ve taken this very seriously, but I’ve had a lot of positive feedback about my work so far in such a short time, so it’s been very encouraging,” she said.

On top of her internship with Hillel and her two jobs, Aharoni said she still makes an effort to find time to hone her photography skills.

“I try to come out as much as possible – for me that means giving up on a lot of my social life and working into the wee hours of the night because it’s something I’m so passionate about.”

Aharoni’s photo, titled Saudade, is one of her favourites

And Aharoni hopes her passion for the art will inspire others later this month when students meet for the workshop, which will be held between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life.

She wants the event to push students to think critically about issues where women are demeaned and marginalized, but also explore how women are celebrated in Jewish and Israeli cultures.

“I don’t know what knowledge each participant will be coming with, what understanding they already have, so it’ll be an opportunity to learn about Judaism and women, and also hopefully to inspire their own opinions during the several hours that we’ll be together,” she said.

Following a lecture and discussion, the students will work with three experienced photographers, including Aharoni, to learn how to edit photos on software such as Photoshop.

The participants will have two hours to take photos in Toronto’s Kensington Market, and each will have time to work with a model.

The lead photographers will also take the participants through the process of editing a photo step-by-step.

 “They don’t have to come with the best camera and they don’t have to have a lot of knowledge about it, but if it’s something they’re interested in, it can be a really interesting experience for anybody.”

For more information, or to sign up, email Aharoni at liat.aharoni@hilleltoronto.org.

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