PRESS / Turning a Visual Project into a Book

Alina Bliumis blogs at jewishbookcouncil.org  / Part 3 / May 15, 2015

Earlier this week, Alina Bliumis wrote about the American-Russian-Jewish identity crisis and a photography series she shot, along with her partner and collaborator Jeff Bliumis, in Brighton Beach to explore this crisis as well asphotographing a portrait of the American Jewish community. Today she writes about turning these visual projects into a book. Alina is the co-author of the recently published book From Selfie to Groupie and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

After amassing a large collection of photographs exploring American Jewish identity and American Russian Jewish identity, the next step was to turn the visual project into a book n order to share all those wonderful voices (and images) that we gathered over the years with the public. Genesis Philanthropy Group stepped in to provide the necessary support to make publication possible. A year-long process started—we had to choose 240 images from 7,160 photographs and 1,910 people for the publication. We were working with editor Joshua Ellison and commissioned original essays from David Scheer and Anya Ulinich as well as a “survery” from Jenya Gorbatsevich.

In the publication, Joshua Ellison introducing the project and reflecting on some key themes. His essay reflects on this project’s timeliness and resonances with our culture of sharing and self-presentation: the age of the selfie. In the era of Facebook and Instagram, does a traditional approach to portraiture still satisfy us ethically and artistically? Or is it now our inalienable right as individuals/subjects to decide how we ought to be represented?

David Shneer, the acclaimed scholar and critic of Russian-Jewish culture, contributes vital context for readers, including the history and character of the Brighton Beach neighborhood and its significance to the Russian-Jewish experience in America. The essay recounts the Soviet and post-Soviet migration to the United States and connect that history to the images in the book.

Anya Ulinich’s brilliant essay “Where are you from?” pretty much sum up how many members of Russian-Jewish community often feel, and at the same time she also describes her family history, contributing her own personal reflections on identity and its complexities.

A research sociologist, Jenya Gorbatsevich creates a database of all 1,860 images to be used as raw data for a visual survey— synthesizing the quantitative methods of sociology with the expressive material of photographs. The analysis considers basic demographics, like age and gender, as well are more nuanced information like bodily gestures and word choices. Based on dozens of data points, the essay includes graphs and statistics, comparing our results with findings from the Pew Research Project’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans.

The publication is also includes a historical essay by Konrad Bercovici, “The Troubles of A Perfect Type” (published in 1919), giving us a humorous look on “importance of holding on to one's own unique identity.” He tells us a story that takes place on Lower East Side of New York City and the beginning of twentieth century.

At the same time, identity is still a topic of obsessive interest in the Jewish-American world. The demographics and values of the community are changing, provoking anxiety in many quarters and prompting a deep reckoning over what the future holds for Jews in America. In the book, even though a subject in a photograph expresses their own self identity, taken all together, the photo collection builds up a picture of a group identity.

From Selfie to Groupie is an artist project, case study, a sort of visual sociological research. Spanning eight years and 2,000 participants, it captures a glance of today’s Jewish Americans.

Find out more about this project and the companion book, From Selfie to Groupiehere. In NYC? You can participate in a pop-up version of this photography project at Jewish Book Council's May 19th Unpacking the Book event, "Soviet Roots, American Branches." Register here (it's free!).

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