I am a 100 percent independent freelance documentarian of Jewish communities worldwide. To date, my library includes some 40,000 images from 84 nations and territories. My mission is to contribute to the preservation of Jewish communities by documenting them photographically.
While I am the guy behind the lens, I cannot achieve my goals without the support of numerous behind-the-scenes souls who give me their time, assistance, access, and permission.
Recently, however, I have received more and more negative responses to my requests for photo permission. In most cases, my requests are denied for unspecified “security” reasons. As a documentarian, I find this trend frustrating. As a Jew, I find it disheartening, if not disturbing.
This [column] addresses two issues: 1, to highlight inflexible, over-reactionary community security policies which greatly restrict photographic access or flatly refuse photo permission altogether, and, 2, to encourage discussion by lay members of the Jewish community at large on matters of security, access, documentation, and community image.
Some readers may be familiar with a similar letter or related article on these same matters when, in spring 2009, the Australian Jewish security organization, CSG (Community Security Group), viewed me with such suspicion that I was virtually blacklisted across the entire continent. With persistence, patience, and understanding, and to the credit of CSG, we were ultimately able to reach a workable set of terms and conditions that compromised the security of neither facilities nor community members. A year later, I was at last warmly welcomed by the Australian Jewish community and contributed to that nation’s Jewish historical record by filing some 7,000 images for posterity.
I am a stranger in every community I document. Naturally, verifying and vetting outsiders is necessary. Jewish community security concerns worldwide are justified and do not need explaining. I do not “map out” synagogues or other Jewish institutions. Nor do I not make images available if an institution has issues with said images. No exceptions.
I am aware of anti-Semitic sentiments worldwide. But documenting Jewish life is important even in times of adversity — perhaps more so. By restricting documentation today, the Jewish community tomorrow will have no photographic, no film, and no video record available to them. That is a real shame. A blanket no-photo policy, therefore, is actually a detriment to the Jewish community. Moreover, hyper-sensitive security measures are a victory for the terrorists. But by photographing a vibrant community, the Jewish people win. In fact, I challenge anyone to name a single incident — worldwide — where photographs played a proven integral part in an attack on a synagogue or a Jewish institution.
Each community ought to ask its leaders just what security is aiming to achieve. Do they wish for the Jewish people to go underground? Do they desire shutting down community websites, which, contrary to their own security advice, display to the world sensitive community information such as addresses, staff and clergy names (often with pictures), maps, prayer schedules, events and times — information that is potentially more detrimental than any photograph? Imagine a terrorist lying in wait till one of those events and a ready crowd of victims gathers. Should those same community websites be stripped of photographs similar to those I wish to take?
Do community leaders desire stopping the presses too? All Jewish publications are portals into the life and times of Jewish life. Jewish newspapers are replete with community news and affairs past, present, and future — information that can be employed by the savvy terrorist. What is the point of “securing” a Jewish community, particularly in a free nation, if it cannot thrive openly? Who’s to stop an attendee at a bar mitzva or other synagogue event from taking photos even with a cell phone and posting them online (before they’ve even left the building)?
With so much Jewish history destroyed over the millennia, why surrender now? Jewish communities of the world have always been resilient in times of adversity and always emerged stronger because of it.
I will not give up on my photo work because I will not give up on the Jewish communities of the world. Isaiah 41:6 says, “Each helped their neighbor and everyone said to his brother, be strong and courageous.”
(Jono David is a British-American freelance photographer, living in Osaka, Japan, who visually documents Jewish life and history around the world. His photos can be seen at story available at Jono David’s website JewishPhotoLibrary.com. David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)