Israeli "ethnographical photographer" Harel Stanton, 38, is making his second trip to Pittsburgh to present his exhibition Pure Faith, images of sacred religious rites and ethnic traditions around the globe. His tableau-like insights into Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism will be on display at The Framery starting Fri., Nov. 3. Stanton spoke with City Paper by phone from his home in Hadera, Israel, where he teaches photography and shoots for the magazine Masa Acher.
How do you gain access to sacred spaces?
I believe in communication. I tell my students, "Pressing the shutter is the end of the process." I never shoot from a distance; I am never hiding, shooting people who don't want to be photographed. The idea is to get the trust of people.
In 2001, I attended a festival in India where there were 70 million people! There was a holy man who didn't like to be photographed, so I gave him my camera. He walked away into all those people and I thought, "How stupid I must be!" But after five minutes he came back. We became friendly, and then I could photograph him freely. If people don't say no, it's yes for me. I don't stop them in the middle of prayers. If they don't want to be photographed, they usually give me a sign.
What aspects of life in Israel are least understood by Americans?
Everyone forms stereotypes, a lot of which are created by the media. I used to call one of my shows Israel: What You Don't See on CNN. You have more of a chance of being killed in a car accident than by terrorists. I have to remind myself not to listen to the media. I took the TV out of my house.
Is that why you left the press?
One of the reasons I don't do press photography anymore is because I don't think that a photograph can change the world nowadays. People don't care. They've become very cynical.
What motivates you, then?
The camera is a tool for me to learn. I go to different ceremonies and discover that they are all similar. The essence is unconditional love. This is what I'm trying to explore.
What is a force that threatens culture as you've seen it?
People might not like to hear it, but one problem is that everyone wants to be an American or a capitalist. Take India, where there are almost 1.2 billion people and yet they're losing their identity because they've become materialists. We lose a lot of our culture by moving from village to city, going to work just for money. To see the second generation feel ashamed of their parents' ceremonies, it's very sad for me.
What approach do you try to impart to your students?
I'm not very keen on the technical aspects of photography. Many of my students have better equipment than I do! First you have to open up your heart and then try to photograph from there. I want them to leave the mind thinking and work more from the heart, by intuition and emotion.