Reveal your secrets

Okay, so this isn’t about the the Marauder’s map, and it actually has no connection to Harry Potter at all. But I got your attention, right?

I had the fantastic opportunity a couple of weeks ago to learn from a working photojournalist, and I can’t not tell you about it.

Gil Cohen-Magen presented a lecture at my university’s Hillel in mid-November about his experience photographing the Hassidic Courts. Magen, an award-winning photojournalist, spent a decade living in these secret, ultra-orthodox communities and taking magnificent photos that he later published in a book. His lecture, “A Hidden Society: Photographing the Hassidic Courts,” was accompanied by a Q-and-A session, a reception and a book signing, which offered everyone plenty of opportunities to pick Magen’s brain and learn about what he learned.

Although I could go on to talk about the major points of Magen’s lecture and the knowledge he took away from his experiences, as a wannabe backpack journalist, I was more drawn to the photos and his methods of photography. Meeting a professional who does what you’d like to do is always an invaluable opportunity, so this one is for the other aspiring journalists out there; I present to you a top-5 list of the most important lessons I took away from Magen’s presentation.

1. Don’t take access for granted.

Magen said he gained access to the very private, ultra-orthodox community by spending time there and finding a small group of people who would build up his reputation to the rest. But just because the people said yes at one point was not an open invitation for Magen to take photos whenever and wherever he wanted. He said he was even attacked on occasion, his equipment taken away, because people did not want certain practices photographed.

2. Composition is part of the story.

Many of the photos Magen showed us during his presentation represented events that happened every single year. Had he taken standard, straight-on photos without varying his height, angle or distance, he still would have documented what was going on in the community, and he still would have been the first to do it. However, Magen’s photos would not have been as much of storytelling tools had he not looked for exactly the right moments and taken them with exactly the right composition.

3. Always plan ahead.

One of my favorite photos Magen showed was of a man enjoying a snowfall. Here in Illinois, where it has been below freezing nearly all week long, this might not sound like a moment that will yield much of a spectacular photo, but in Israel, the occasion is rare. Magen knew that he was going to get something great out of these weather conditions, and so he planned to be ready in the early hours of the morning when the snow was expected to arrive. Thanks to his thinking ahead, Magen took a beautiful photo of a man with his arms spread and his face to sky in front of the Kotel.

4. Relationships are everything.

Magen took some wonderful photos of a wedding, and he only managed to snag those images by forming relationships with his sources. Many people who attended the wedding did not want pictures taken because it violated custom to do so. The groom, however, Magen had grown to know very well, and he insisted that Magen take out his equipment and start snapping pictures. The photos that stood out most to me depicted people dancing for the bride and groom, and those photos represented more than the ability to handle a DSLR; they are the products of forming relationships and establishing yourself as trustworthy.

5. Don’t expect to leave the same as you went in.

After his presentation, I asked Magen if he was ever concerned about remaining objective when he spent so much time living with his sources, because it is easy to grow fond of your sources when you immerse yourself in their lives. Not only did Magen say this was never a problem for him, he also said he came out a changed person from the experience. Going in, he said, he was actually opposed to the lifestyle and practices of the people he was photographing. Coming out, though, he said he’d learned a great deal and actually had very positive feelings about the Hassidic Courts, and he wanted his photos to reflect the community exactly as it was.

The featured image on this post is courtesy of Khanh Hmoong and was found on Flickr.

About the Author
Sari Lesk is a journalism student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is pursuing a career as a backpack journalist and hopes to use her career to carry out the old adage of "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." Sari draws her passion for journalism from the Jewish value of tikkun olam and hopes to improve her local, national and global communities through the media.