By Yael Ben-Zion
Foreword by Amy Chua, Essay by Maurice Berger
2014 Kehrer Verlag
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
One of the key ideas that comes across in Yael Ben-Zion's Intermarried is that being in a mixed relationship entails a kind of contradiction: how does one preserve one’s own sense of heritage as an act of choice when religious or family pressures insist that tradition is not a choice but a mandate, or when social pressures invade a relationship with unwanted hierarchies?
Yael Ben-Zion, through the portraits and still life photographs, texts and testimonials in Intermarried, explores the ways in which self-identified “mixed” couples in New York navigate the categories imposed upon them by others, or which they have themselves embraced, when they choose to marry someone considered to be categorically different by others in their life. The particular ways in which Ben-Zion’s subjects understand this difference distinguishes the stakes for each intermarried family.
Ben-Zion herself is in an interdenominational marriage, and the project, while “triggered by a media campaign of the State of Israel that targeted Jews outside of Israel who were ‘lost’ to intermarriage,” derives from her own experiences and observations. These include her friendship with African-American opera singer Beatrice Rippy, who was married in 1959 to a white husband, during an era when anti-miscegenation laws were rife though out the United States (Rippey was married in New York, one of nine states that never had such a law).
For some of Ben-Zion’s subjects, cultural and religious heritages are felt as a responsibility or obligation and their intermarriage weighs heavily on their decision-making. For others, “mixed” status may not be felt as contradiction or pressure, but nonetheless informs their experiences. And for yet others, their visible intermarriage painfully exposes ways that others around them conceive of race (“Joselin and I would walk in our neighborhood and would run into some of the Dominican women in neighborhood. They would tell her that she ‘really improved her race’ by marrying me. That shocked me, as I certainly didn’t think that way and neither did Joselin.”)
Roughly three types of images are intermixed in the book: portraits in which the subjects confront the camera; studies of the subjects’ bodies in their own environments, absent their faces; and found still life arrangements. Some of the posed portraits are strong while others feel a little too self-conscious, the deployment of material or gestural symbols too overt; the effort to show the intermixing or persistence of symbols as part of an organic fabric of ordinary life works uneasily alongside the desire to draw attention to those symbols. In a handful of gestural studies that focus on arms and legs, subjects feel distanced and at odds with the frankness of the interview quotations.
The still life scenes are the most effective and work well with the subjects’ statements. They appear as small found sculptural displays, often presenting objects with religious and cultural symbolism alongside photographs. They speak to the relationship between family histories and legacies of tradition, and show, with complexity, the power that each can maintain in everyday life. Many of the portraits resound with both emotional and informational depth: a photograph of a man touching a picture of his wife’s grandfather’s picture is wonderfully specific in its depiction of a tiny yet abundantly significant gesture.
Overall, the book succeeds in bringing to life questions about the tensions between tradition, expectation and lived realities, and is thought-provoking in the way in which Ben-Zion visualizes social categories in order to question the imperatives and social divisions on which they have been built historically. Ben-Zion seeks to redefine intermarriage, wresting it from stigmatized prohibitions and conservative cultural attitudes, and reassigning it as the lived experiences of families in New York today. She deploys photography to acknowledge and affirm realities by making them visible. Most powerfully, she portrays children of mixed-race parentage as undeniably whole.
Inevitably, the ties of family must be negotiated. Ben-Zion’s subjects do their best to position themselves in relation to the legacies and histories that they receive, and to build upon them, rather than simply to embrace or reject. As the mother of a girl who is being raised with two faiths put it: “After all, one’s religion is an accident of birth. And her birth did not accidentally give her just one religion.”
Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here.