Having grown up Spanish Catholic, photographer Jordi Cohen found an unfamiliar scene during Passover last spring. What had started as a vacation during Holy Week in Jerusalem turned into a reportage project.
The seven-day holiday (eight days outside of Israel) marks the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago. The festival, also called Pesach, falls in the Jewish month of Nissan and begins at sunset on April 6 this year.
“It was a point of excitement,” Cohen said. “I’d never been to Israel before.”
But practicing Jews were not always open to giving him access to their intimate traditions. For two days, he was prohibited from taking pictures in the Wailing Wall plaza, which is among the holiest of Jewish sites. Once he was inside, many people were hesitant or even refused to allow him to take their pictures. And he wasn’t allowed to photograph on Shabbat, or Saturday, the Jewish holy day.
It was a very close community, both in terms of space and relationships, and he respected that. He would never force anyone to have his or her picture taken.
The Hebrew prayers and ancient traditions seemed to offer Cohen a glimpse into the past. “Some moments feel like you are in 3500 B.C.,” he said. “You see how people were.”
As a man, Cohen’s access was limited to one gender-specific side for prayer. However, he managed to use a telephoto lens to capture women praying on the other side of the divider. He was struck by the energy in the place - the shaking hands and bodies of the people – which he discovered was “not compatible to the Catholic faith.” In fact, he said it was completely unknown to him.
“You feel the emotions of the people; it’s a vibrant place,” he said. “It made me feel something.”
- Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN