Laura Pannack’s new work explores the emotions of a young Hasidic man searching for transformation

Laura Pannack’s new project, supported by Panasonic LUMIX’s Stories for Change collaboration with British Journal of Photography, is a bold documentation of a young Hasidic man stepping away from the stricter bounds of his faith.

“I don’t want Baruch’s decision to be seen as him leaving his religion; that isn’t what happened.” The subject of Laura Pannack’s newest project is a young man taking his first steps into a new life. “He is proud to be Jewish,” says Pannack, “but wanted to explore certain things that his lifestyle did not permit. So he broke away from his community.” The photographer has spent the past year coming to know Baruch and documenting his exploration of how to be Jewish alone: studying, learning, and becoming independent.

Supported by Panasonic LUMIX in collaboration with British Journal of Photography called Stories for Change, the project — simply titled Baruch, after its protagonist— saw Pannack researching and developing ideas over the course of a year. She made four separate trips to Israel, travelling the length of the country, following leads, and making connections.

The award-winning British photographer is known for her exacting sensitivity in portraying character and emotionality, as well as for her talent in gaining documentary access to otherwise fairly private communities. Earlier projects include a three and a half years-long documentation of young British naturists, and a Multistory commission following the lives of a group of young people in the Black Country. She has also long been fascinated by Judaism; Jewish herself, though raised in a non-religious home, a move to Hackney after university precipitated an ongoing work about Orthodox Jewish women entitled Purity. This newest project, Baruch, seems like a natural extension of her interest in these closely-guarded communities, and the support from Panasonic allowed her to broaden the horizons of this exploration by going, as it were, back to the source.

“I wanted to explore connection, and in some way focus on individuals who were changing their lives to connect with others.”

- Laura Pannack

“The theme, ‘Stories for Change’, spoke to me about transformation,” Pannack says. “I wanted to explore connection, and in some way focus on individuals who were changing their lives to connect with others.” Initial recces saw her travelling Israel with her collaborator, Theresa Breuer, and spending time in housing clubs organised for Orthodox men and women who are considering breaking away from their communities. The time she spent there was instructive. “One of the most special moments was having Shabbat dinner,” Pannack remembers. “People were singing and dancing and it felt so free and inclusive. There was an unspoken acceptance and warmth.” However, the delicate nature of this kind of subject matter meant that finding her focus took time; initial contacts later proved nervous of exposure, or unreliable. She was pursuing various ideas concurrently, waiting to see which would reveal itself to have the most potential — but it was when she met Baruch that the project really began to take root.

“As soon as I met Baruch I knew that idea was the strongest, as I felt a connection with him,” describes Pannack. This emphasis on connection is characteristic of the photographer, whose images are full of hard-won intimacy: forming a relationship with her subject is key. Baruch proved to be a particularly special collaborator and, eventually, friend. “It was his unique personality,” says Pannack. “This incredible open-mindedness. He was just so relaxed and approachable, and — for someone making such a leap — this intrigued me.” 

The two could hardly have been more different. At the time of their meeting, Baruch had never seen a TV, spoken to a woman outside of his community, been to the cinema, cooked for himself; the list goes on. During their first meeting for coffee, a small crowd gathered to photograph the unlikely pair. Baruch was undaunted and open. “He seemed curious to meet me, and a beautiful blend of a naive child who has had decisions made for him his entire life with an ambitious and proactive adult,” Pannack says. “He is a kind man, and I think we both sensed a transparency in our characters that made it easy to trust one another.”

From that point onward the work began to flow. For the moving image Pannack started to soundboard ideas with Breuer, building an approach together that could speak to the many layers of experience that were slowly being revealed by her weeks of conversation with Baruch. 

One thing was certain: Pannack was not interested in producing a straightforward documentary project. “I wanted the result to be a little more mysterious,” explains the photographer. “I wanted to create imagery that was playful, and not too simplistic. I searched for images that felt like scenes or tableaus that portrayed our many discussions and ideas… It needed to be delicate, reflective and emotive.”

Many of the images show Baruch’s figure, in distinctive Hasidic monochrome, set in a vast or beautiful natural landscape, and turned away from the camera. The project is rich in themes of exploration, introspection, searching: Baruch gazes towards himself in the surface of the water in which he is submerged, his reflection rippling, warping. He holds a tzitzit above his face, or hides beneath a sheet in a delicate dance of hiding and revealing which softly underscores the tension between his old life and the allure of the new. In such images, Pannack and Baruch together have managed to visualise and dramatise a search for self, an immaterial subject matter that others may have found it difficult to capture. More often than not, the images don’t even show Baruch’s face; when, suddenly, a close-in portrait depicts him reclining, shirtless, heavy-lidded eyes softly focussed towards us, it feels like a shock, a flash of intimacy as strong as a confrontation.

The film extends this symbolic approach. Baruch steps through an extraordinary landscape, a tall, broad forest of thick date palm trees that stretches on indefinitely, the wildness of the terrain in contrast with the smartness of his suit. He floats, weightless, in the Dead Sea, seen from high above so that he looks like a piece of drifting flotsam. These vistas remind us of the unfamiliar and unknown life Baruch is carving for himself, his fearlessness as he walks into it, how exotic it must feel, how exhilarating. Elsewhere in the film we are granted a closer look at the life he is leaving behind: street scenes, Hasidic life thrumming busily by. Baruch’s voice asks us, as we watch groups of pedestrians walking across an intersection of numerous roads: ‘What path is right? What makes us who we are?’

“I try to stay open minded and portray my lack of understanding, but desire to learn.”

- Laura Pannack

True to form, Pannack was rigorous in her creative method, using the assignment as an opportunity to push her work in new directions. “I try to really challenge my visual approach with each project,” she explains. “I don’t mean in a gimmicky way, but in one that pushes my understanding of how I see the world.” The collaborative creation of dream-like tableaus was one way of doing just that: the setting aside of documentary methods allowed her to access subtler psychological aspects of Baruch’s personal journey. Pannack’s vision is open, with a cultivated naïveté: “I try to stay open minded and portray my lack of understanding, but desire to learn.”

"Ultimately, we are all trying to figure out how to live in this world."

- Laura Pannack

More than anything, Pannack was searching for a sense of relation with her subject, both for herself and to share with the viewer. Wherever she finds herself, even spending time in a country in which she doesn’t speak the language, it is commonality that Pannack hopes to invoke. “It’s really important for me to find universal themes that we can all relate to,” she says. “In order to connect with others, we need to see a part of ourselves in them. Embedded in Baruch’s journey are so many opportunities to reflect on our own choices in life.”

“Baruch made me think about all of the paths I have taken, the choices I have made that have defined all of the opportunities and losses,” she goes on. “His story reminded me how I have been reborn many times; how the more vulnerable I allow myself to be, and the more awareness I obtain, I evolve into a new being… Ultimately, we are all trying to figure out how to live in this world.”

In documenting this very particular moment in Baruch’s life, Pannack has captured a true fork in the road for this young man, a pivotal time that will change his life in the most dramatic of ways. “Baruch could have looked back in 40 years, married with several children, and think of his life very differently. And, perhaps, so could many of us,” says Pannack. In sharing his story, her aim is to encourage this same boldness and frank curiosity in the viewer. “If we have freedom, the possibilities are endless,” she says. “I hope it inspires others to consider a limitless life.”

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