On The Road, Jewish Photographer Points Lens At Society’s Unseen Corners

On The Road, Jewish Photographer Points Lens At Society’s Unseen Corners

Canadian-born Naomi Harris finds success by capturing lesser-known, bizarre subcultures around the world

Canadian photographer Naomi Harris spent more than three months earlier this year driving across the US, sometimes living out of her car in Walmart parking lots. It was the best way for her to meet and photograph supporters of President Donald Trump. She wanted to know what made them tick, and specifically what made them vote for the president.

Having grown up attending Jewish day school in Toronto, the decision to sleep in her car might not have been an obvious one. But given Harris’s innate rebellious streak and habit of sneaking out of her parents’ Modern Orthodox home on Saturdays to ride in friends’ cars, it’s not surprising she carved a different path as an adult, leaving Jewish suburbia behind to make a career of capturing images of interesting people she meets on life’s journey.

In particular, Harris focuses on bringing society’s subcultures out of the shadows, celebrating their quirkiness — and sometime outright kinkiness.

Earlier this year, the photographer (who became a US citizen in 2013 and now splits her time between Los Angeles and Toronto when not on the road) gained widespread attention for a series of portraits she made of Trump supporters across the US.

Photographer Naomi Harris with her dog Maggie (Erika Larsen)

On assignment for Vice and traveling alone across the country during the new administration’s first 100 days, Harris met a variety of people who voted for the president in the 2016 election. She asked them why.

“It was about listening to people without judging them and letting them have their say. That’s how I built a connection with them in a short time,” she said.

The project was Harris’s idea. She was surprised by the election’s result and wanted to know how it happened.

“This was the first US election I voted in, and I was a huge Bernie [Sanders] supporter. I was really surprised by the outcome because I deal with a lot of people from middle America, or fly-over country. I wanted to put a face on the Trump supporter. They are not all KKK members,” said Harris.

The photographer began her 100-day journey in Washington, DC, and then headed south to Florida before continuing westward along the border in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, to see where Trump proposed building the wall. She reached northern California, and circled back through the Rust and Bible Belts before ending in Niagara Falls, New York.

‘Overpasses for America’ Member Roger Frederick, outside Kansas City, Missouri. Voted Donald Trump. Shot March 26th, 2017 (Naomi Harris)

“I was surprised to discover that most of the people I met were less optimistic about Trump and more jaded by the political process as a whole. Many lifelong Democrats, I learned, just couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton… Republicans, even those who didn’t take Trump seriously, couldn’t bring themselves to do so either. Others thought the media didn’t treat Sanders fairly; more still didn’t like the direction the Democratic Party was going and where it continues to head,” Harris wrote in Vice.

She quoted a “musician and race-relations crusader” named Daryl Davis as best summing up the situation, “comparing America to a broken bone that, over the course of history, was never properly set.”

“Sometimes the doctor just has to break that bone and reset it again,” Davis said. “That’s what needs to happen to America.”

Harris’s latest independent project, EUSA, is a book of photographs of a subset of people in the US and Europe who like to dress up and play pretend, with the twist being that each group is obsessed with the other’s culture and history.

Dutch Cheerleaders, Tulip Festival, Orange City, Iowa, 2014 (Naomi Harris)

Dubbed by its creator as “a photo book about European places in America, and American places in Europe,” it deals with how two subcultures an ocean apart are infatuated with one another’s historical mythologies. This translates into things like a Wild West theme park in southern Sweden, an American Civil War reenactment in the Czech Republic, and a Norwegian festival in Petersburg, Alaska.

Harris’s career took off almost 20 years ago with her first major success, a series of photos of elderly people living at Haddon Hall, a Jewish Miami Beach, Florida, retirement community.

“I owe a lot to that work. It opened doors for me, including my first assignment for the New York Times Magazine,” Harris said.

“It’s still my favorite project to this day. I immersed myself the most in that project and got to know my subjects for over two and a half years. They became like surrogate grandparents to me,” she said.

Marie and Sonja by the Pool, Haddon Hall Hotel, Miami Beach, 2001 (Naomi Harris)

While living in Miami between 1999 and 2002 after completing her training at the International Center of Photography in New York, Harris actually resided with the retirees in Haddon Hall for two months, before moving into an apartment with an Israeli roommate.

“Unbeknownst to me, he was an ecstasy dealer. That is, until the police showed up and raided the apartment,” Harris said.

It’s not unusual for the single Harris, 44, to embed herself in her subjects’ life in an intimate way. For her “America Swings” book, she penetrated the world of middle-class citizens who have a penchant for doing everyday things in the nude and swapping sexual partners. (All but a couple of these photographs were not suitable for publication in The Times of Israel.)

“It was the funniest thing I had ever seen in my life. Maybe I was attracted to this because of my boring, basic vanilla life. I am so square,” Harris said.

“The swingers project killed my libido for quite a while,” she quipped.

Captain Richey, Bella Vita Nude Boating Regatta, Miami, FL, June 2006 (Naomi Harris)

Harris said she is happiest on the road, driving around in her car with her small dog Maggie riding shotgun. Traveling so much alone raises safety concerns, but Harris relies on her “sense of naivete” and what she hopes will be continued good luck.

“I believe that people are good at heart. There was only one time — during my shoot for the swingers project — when I was a bit scared going into this house in the middle of some remote swamp. I warned my editor about my location in case I didn’t come out,” she said.

Notably, Harris does not always reveal that she is Jewish.

“You’ve got to be careful around racists,” she said.

Roy and Marilyn Elmer, Members of the Board for Spock Days, Vulcan, Alberta, June 2011 (Naomi Harris)

Unlike many photographers keen on youth and youthfulness, Harris said millennials are not her cup of tea.

“Young people in their late teens and early 20s terrify me. I’m far more interested in older people,” she said.

Harris is flattered by comparisons to Diane Arbus, the American-Jewish photographer who died at age 48 in 1971 and was noted for her portraits of marginalized people. Arbus captured transgender individuals, dwarves, circus performers, and giants — including “Jewish Giant” Eddie Carmel. At the same time, Harris doesn’t like to be told that she is copying Arbus’s work or style. “Arbus did do some shots of swingers, but I am not emulating her,” Harris said.

Finding that there far fewer interesting things going on in the world because everyone’s attention is on their smartphones, Harris expects to shoot less documentary work going forward.

Self-portrait with Mum, Fantasyland Hotel, West Edmonton Mall, West Edmonton, Alberta, June 2011 (Naomi Harris)

Building on a piece she did for the Guardian in which she faked her own wedding (an investigation of a trend in Japan of young single women getting dressed up as brides and staging a bridal photo shoot), Harris plans to turn her camera on herself more often going forward. Planned projects along these lines include a solo canoe trip across Canada and the photographer’s offering herself as a bridesmaid to couples marrying in Las Vegas.

Harris, who has visited Israel a handful of times, attributes the sense of humor and pathos she brings to her photographs to her Jewish upbringing. It’s taught her to laugh instead of cry, especially when bad things are happening in the world.

“Not everything has to be horrible in life. I’m leaving it to others to document things with seriousness,” Harris said.

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