If you could name your deepest insecurity—thunder thighs, explosive temper, big nose, ratty clothes—would you have it scrawled in black marker on your forehead and allow yourself to be photographed for a public exhibition?
Mati Engel, 22, decided she wanted to do just that after seeing the What I Be Project photography exhibit last February at Princeton University. Engel, an Orthodox Jew who graduated this month from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, spent months raising funds to bring the photographer to Yeshiva University; many observant Jews on campus struggle with unique insecurities, Engel said, in an effort to reconcile their religious values with hurtful realities that may go against them.
Plenty of Yeshiva University students stepped up to be photographed this week, though their images won’t be displayed on the main campus in Washington Heights but instead will be seen in a private Brooklyn gallery next month after the university declined to host the exhibit.
Dasha Sominski, 20, posed with the words “I was NOT sleeping” written across her face for a photo called “I am Not My Molestation.” Previously, she had not shared with anyone before her sisters and best friend that she had been abused as a young girl when she had been living in Russia.
“It brought me a sense of empowerment,” Sominiski, a senior at Stern College, told me, about doing the photograph which was posted online this week. “It feels so good, knowing that it’s out there. It’s had a therpeutic effect on me.”
Ben Faulding, 30, decided to pose with the word “shvartze”—a derogatory Yiddush word to describe blacks—on his forehead because he often hears the word directed at him in the ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn community where he lives. The observant Jew has a black father and a white Jewish mother.
“As a religious person in my community, at first I felt insecure about bringing this project to my school,” Engel said. “What would my peers, my teacher, the rabbis think about this? We put a value on modesty and privacy, but we also place a value on truth—and that’s what I’m hoping this will achieve.”
She hasn’t yet determined which of her insecurities will garner the testimonial in the photo, but she ticked off ones chosen by other students after their 45-minute interview with photographer Steve Rosenfield.
One student named Jane wrote “too Jewish, not Jewish enough” to illustrate the pressure of being Orthodox in a modern world. A young man named Scott wrote “convert” on his arm, and another from a gay household wrote, “moms two, dad, zero.”
I asked Karen Ruskin, a psychotherapist based in Sharon, whether participating in this sort of public exhibition could actually help people deal with and move past their insecurities.
It could have a net upside or a net downside, Ruskin told me, depending on the person and how friends and loved ones react to the revelation.
“Exposing a secret or insecurity that’s been weighing on you can help you admit and acknowledge it,” Ruskin said, “rather than continue in a state of denial. Also, the negative label is written on and then it’s wiped off after the shoot—and the act of erasing it can be therapeutic.”
Getting a positive reception for the effort can make a person feel uplifted and validated, Ruskin added. Sominiski said she was approached by several students in her dorm who responded positively to her photo, which made her feel even better about doing it.
The downside, though, is that people may not always respond kindly. “There’s the emotional smasher who will make you feel worse,” Ruskin said, “and you have to be prepared for that. If you aren’t sure you want this exposed for everyone to see, this is not the project for you—since you can’t take it back once it’s out there.”
Rosenfield described his interview with each subject before the shoot as a sort of therapy session. “But I’m not a therapist,” said the California photographer who grew up in Brockton; he worked in Boston as a computer network administrator until 2005. In his nearly four years putting on these exhibitions at colleges, high schools, and yoga studios across the country—though not yet in Boston—Rosenfield hasn’t seen too many regrets among his models.
“My goal is to create compassion in people,” he said, “to show that we’re not alone, that we all struggle with things. It’s created an incredible dialogue at these schools on how hurtful it is to judge.”