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Secular Lens, Religious Vision

Secular Lens, Religious Vision

Italian photographer’s view of religious women upended by project.

A woman from Sderot carries her 6-month-old baby while she picks grapes on a kibbutz. Photos by Federica Valabrega

A member of the Breslov sect dances at sunset near her home in Beit Meir, Israel.

Editor’s Note: For staff writer Steve Lipman’s story about the Gil Cohen-Magen’s photography of Mea Shearim and other haredi communities, click here.

Italian photographer Federica Valabrega always believed religious women were oppressed and unhappy.

A 29-year-old secular Jew originally from Rome, Valabrega rarely had any interactions with religious people, and while she was intrigued by their dress, the way they cover their hair, and the positions they assumed within their families, she saw religious women as subjugated and unfulfilled.

That assumption changed in 2009, when Valabrega moved to New York after finishing her photography studies at American University in Washington, D.C. Hitting the streets of Brooklyn one day, she found herself surrounded by remarkable personas — a plethora of women who considered themselves “religious” but who looked so different from each other, and more importantly, so content.

Valabrega spent the next four years exploring, getting lost in the various neighborhoods of New York before traveling to Israel and France to learn about the religious women dwelling there too. She met with thousands of religious women to understand their traditions and opinions, and she began to photograph them as a way to capture their stories, their faces, and the essence of what it means to be an observant religious woman.

“I had this idea of what a religious woman was, but I began to learn that they are all so different, and so beautiful,” Valabrega says on a recent spring afternoon in a coffee shop in Union Square. “I found myself almost envious of them, and their holiness attracted me. I started to photograph them to make their souls shine. I want to show their femininity and beauty in my photos, and to teach others that just because they are religious doesn’t mean they are as enclosed as a Torah scroll.”

Valabrega’s four-year photo project, which she titles “Bat Melech” (“Daughter of a King,” in Hebrew), turned into a thousand-image endeavor, and some 30 of her black-and-white images will be seen for the first time in the Ermanno Tedeschi Galleries in Rome, Milan, Turin and Tel Aviv this October. Valabrega is also working on a picture book to accompany the upcoming exhibit, and plans to visit other Jewish communities around the world, including those in Tunisia, Djerba and Russia.

Photographing religious woman was not always an easy endeavor for Valabrega. Sometimes she chased and other times she was chased. But often she would approach the women she encountered slowly, explaining her desire to learn about their community; once women felt comfortable enough, and learned to trust her, many of them agreed to have their portraits taken.

Valabrega prefers to photograph them in their own settings: often she’ll sit with a woman for hours, watching her pray, study or perform daily chores — learning just enough about her to be able to capture a single image that shows both her internal and external beauty.

Throughout the span of her project, Valabrega met characters she never imagined she’d speak to. In Israel, she met with settler women as dawn broke on a brisk morning to take their portraits as they picked apples. In the rolling hills of Northern Israel, she sat with one chasidic woman, arrayed in a white turban, and learned how to listen to the wind by moonlight. She sat in alleys in the Old City of Jerusalem, meeting with old Moroccan women and learning their family history, counting the wrinkles that came from roaming the desserts of the Middle East. At the Western Wall, she photographed a cane-toting woman who told her she came to pray every day for 25 straight years to beg God for children.

Valabrega said that as special as the Israeli women were, she also fell in love with the religious women of France. She photographed a chasidic-Yemenite wedding, experiencing her first Henna and getting closeups of the ornate costumes and headpieces. She had Shabbat meals with Sephardic and Mizrachi women, whom she calls the “fancier face of feminism,” as many of these women fled across the Mediterranean Sea to France to seek religious and educational freedom.

“I find that often people think the word religious is a synonym with boring, but upon my travels and taking photos of these woman, I learned just how different they all are,” Valabrega says. “I found that there’s a wild side to these religious woman. Even in the ones who don’t look approachable, there’s a free spirit they find through their observance.”

Valabrega noted that she’s made great strides in understanding the way the different communities within religious Judaism interact. When she first started her project, she was not able to distinguish the different sects, and many of them looked the same to her. Now, she said, she’s able to distinguish members of different communities by their dress and their conduct, by their head coverings and their accents. She’s also come to learn that while the rest of the world believes these women are unhappy and subjugated, she finds them powerful, capable, and complacent — and often the pillars of their home.

A haredi woman sits in the square above the Kotel.

Valabrega, herself a secular Jew, said encounters with all the different types of religious sects has inspired her to renew some sort of spiritual connection. The women she photographs have helped her find meaning, and she often finds herself believing she’s on a God-given mission to provide the world with this rare glimpse to the public of these women of God.

“The word beauty can be defined in so many ways, and I think these religious women give it its own meaning,” she says. “They are subtle, but sexy, interesting, but modest. It’s a balance that no other species in the world can maintain, yet these women hold their status easily.”

Valabrega said she shoots only in black and white to achieve an effect she calls “dramatic” and “spiritual.” Some women she encountered allowed her to photograph them only from behind, but Valabrega believes any angle could help unravel some of their mystery.

See more of Federica Valabrega’s photos at her website,

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