As a professional photographer, Orthodox mother-of-two Shira Sheps knows how to get the perfect shot.
But, over time, the New Jersey-native grew frustrated with the dissonance between the picture-perfect photos that cycled through her social media feed and the reality of what was taking place in her subjects’ lives, and even in her own.
To bridge the gap, Sheps, 30, launched The Layers Project, a photojournalism blog that showcases the hidden stories of regular Jewish women. Adopting a model similar to the popular Humans of New York blog, Sheps hopes the project will “talk about real life as opposed to what life looks like in their insta-perfect media pages.”
“People were really looking for authenticity and just real conversations in the social media space.”
“People were really looking for authenticity and just real conversations in the social media space,” said Sheps.
The project, which she began in January, is picking up steam after Sheps changed the format of the project, posting shorter pieces of each story over several days instead of posting the full interviews. The change, which makes for a more internet-friendly and sharable experience, resulted in an instant online boost: the project has reached over 200,000 people, said Sheps.
She knows personally about the distance between a polished profile picture and the messy realities of daily life. After being diagnosed with a chronic illness in 2011, Sheps struggled to be open about her challenges.
“People just assumed that my life was fine and everything was good and perfect cause that’s what it looked like on Facebook and Instagram,” she said. “That just wasn’t what real life was.”
At the same time, Sheps noticed the absence of women’s photos in Jewish publications— including publications made exclusively for women, such as Ami and Binah. This issue surfaced recently when Adina Miles, the Orthodox woman behind the popular Instagram profile FlatbushGirl, placed in ad in the Flatbush Jewish Journal with an emoji placed over her face to draw attention to the paper’s strict modesty standards. Sheps wanted to find a way to showcase photos of Jewish women in a way that was real and thoughtful.
“I’m trying to create a media space where images of Orthodox women as well as all Jewish women are front and center,” said Sheps. “I really want to give the world the opportunity to not just look the women in the eye, look at their faces, but also hear what they have to say.”
“They’re average people who live their lives extraordinarily.”
Through the project, Sheps has told deeply personal stories of women recovering from eating disorders, struggling with infertility, and parenting children with disabilities. The stories are extremely personal and surprisingly relatable even though the challenges these women face seem so large.
“You don’t have to be someone struggling with infertility to be touched by the infertility series,” said Sheps. “Their feelings and their experiences can trip off all sorts of memories in our own lives that have nothing to do with the topic at hand.”
Within the first few days of the project, twenty women contacted Sheps asking to be profiled. “I just kept getting message after message from women who wanted me to tell their stories.”
“You don’t have to be someone struggling with infertility to be touched by the infertility series.”
The project recently expanded to include an art section featuring submissions from Jewish women and curated by artist Ruthie Matansky Skaist. Sheps decided to open the project to other media of expression because “not everyone can articulate what they want to say in words but they can write it in art and music and creativity.”
Sheps attributes the project’s success to a hunger for depth in the social media space. “They’re average people who live their lives extraordinarily,” said Sheps. “They’re average people whose resilience and resolve and capacity for love just surpass what’s average.”