On the coldest day this month, I stepped onto Brighton Beach and contemplated my identity. I am not a member of the Polar Bear Club. I hate being cold! Rather, I was participating in a “Casual Conversation” in the warmth of the lobby of the JCC in Manhattan.
Conceptual artists Alina and Jeff Bliumis are using photography to engage the public in a conversation about identity. The project started on the Brighton Beach boardwalk in the summer of 2007. The artists asked 45 beachcomers – mostly Russian immigrants – to stand beneath the sign that most represented how they thought about themselves: Russian, American or Jewish. The artists photographed each participant with the selected sign. With the beach and ocean in the background, the “stand up and be photographed” anthropological research began.
The Bliumises are continuing their summer research in the Laurie M. Tisch gallery, in the lobby of the JCC. They have created a backdrop of the Brighton Beach boardwalk with three erasable signs posted. Instead of being limited to one of three choices of identity, participants jot down their self-proclaimed identity onto the three white signs. A camera snaps a photo of the participant with the completed sign. It’s logged into a database at flickr.com/photos/thejccinmanhattan.
In this do-it-yourself JCC version, very few, if any, participants select Russian or American. Some write “Jewish.” Most seem to focus on who they are in a family – sister, mother, or cousin. Perhaps that is because they visited the exhibit with their families.
I visited the gallery on my own. When I considered how I would fill in the placards, I fell back on my standard “Jewish,” “Woman” and “American.”
Yet, I think that how one identifies oneself is not as static as a photograph. It changes with social circumstances, experience and by choice. If I had visited with my husband, perhaps I, too, would have listed “wife.”
I was struck by one unifying element among all the photos on line, other than the fixed backdrop. Everyone photographed appears to be having fun. Go to the JCC, take a photograph, start a conversation with your friends and family about your identity, and enjoy the experience.
“Casual Conversations” is on view in the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at the JCC in Manhattan, open daily (Mon – Thu: 5:30 am – 10:30 pm; Fri: 5:30 am – 9:30 pm; Sat: 7 am – 9:30 pm Sun: 7 am – 9:30 pm), through January 26th, 334 Amsterdam Avenue at West 76th Street.
Caroline G. Harris is a writer, amateur photographer and a land use attorney with GoldmanHarris LLC.