Street photography is the perfect medium to record the rapidly changing nature of our lives. It’s illuminating, educative and it triggers curiosity in the viewer about its subject. Suzanne Stein‘s photos of Williamsburg’s Satmar Hasidic Jewish community are the perfect example. Combined with her powerful writing, these photos open a window into the lives of our fellow New Yorkers from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Satmar Hasidic Jewish Community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn by Suzanne Stein
I have decided to go to Williamsburg today. It’s cold, very cold….28 degrees will be the high temperature. The last time I went, it was even colder, and the wind chill was 16 degrees. I had to abandon the day after only an hour, unable to operate my camera, my fingers numb and oddly painful, my feet almost completely useless, heavily weighted by the frigid air, my toes screaming in the state just before frostbite sets in.
What’s interesting to me is that many of the people in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Satmar Hasidic Jewish people that I love to photograph are not dressed for the frigid weather. Almost nobody wears gloves, or anything on their hands, preferring instead to cross arms over chest, hands stuffed into sleeves, hiding bare fingers from the cold air. Few heavy winter coats, no boots except for a few women wearing attractive, thin leather knee high boots that do nothing to protect the wearer from the weather. Nobody is bundled against the cold and most are dressed impeccably as if for a somber, public event with an elevated dress code. But they push through the day, accommodating the customs surrounding dress, and suffer the winter weather without bending to the protocols dictated by freezing winter temperatures.
That’s Williamsburg. At least, the Satmar Hasidic part of it.
Suzanne Stein’s Observations of the Life in Satmar Hasidic Jewish Williamsburg
When I first showed up in the neighborhood with a camera, I had only seen other people’s pictures. I wasn’t very interested, but I was curious. Most of the images I had seen were of the men and boys, with their payot or distinctive, curled sidelocks, characteristic black hats, fur shtreimels and formal black clothing. Men walking purposefully with their sons, or in groups heading to the synagogue. Very little of the vibrancy of the neighborhood was revealed in most of these basic street photographs of the neighborhood. I was not captivated by these images.
I wish I could return to those first few days of experiencing Williamsburg. I miss being surprised by the groups of children, playing throughout, running up side streets, riding bikes and scooters and old school, pedal-powered big wheels. I remember the novelty of seeing massive “stroller parking lots” outside of stores, with children waiting for their mothers to exit, or the crazy, frenetic crush of strollers inside supermarkets and toy stores during holidays. I miss the shock of seeing, for the first time, children behaving as adults, entrusted with the care of the youngest babies, pushing old fashioned carriages or modern strollers solemnly and seriously, completely trusted to watch over their siblings and navigate the bustling Brooklyn neighborhood on their own, without adult supervision. But as I write this, I must amend….because they are never without supervision, these wonderfully mature and astute children. Whether they are six or sixteen, the entire neighborhood watches out for itself, and these solitary children are never really solitary. They make for great pictures, seemingly on their own on the street, miniature adults in a big city, but in fact they are never outside of the tight, interwoven and complex web of eyes and ears and attention of the neighborhood, which alternates between a quiet reserve and a frantically alive, breakneck and determined pace. Purposeful young mothers, pushing baby carriages and ferrying groups of children, all similarly dressed, denoting a family group. They are almost never idle, always with significant effort expended for daily mundane activities, giving me a great challenge as a photographer to capture and record what I’m seeing without interference. For interfere i do, unfortunately. My first series of images in Williamsburg was devoted to this experience of intrusion, A Stranger in Williamsburg. What I had first regarded as throwaway images of people staring at me I soon realized was an unusual document detailing their feelings of separation from society. My presence was a visual disturbance bringing these feelings to the surface, creating a tension and observation of me as the Stranger/photographer as intense as my study of the people in the images.
On Street Photography and Being “The Stranger”
For me, Williamsburg is pure street photography. I interact very little, not because I don’t want to, but because I am a Stranger. There have been some great conversations with other women, managing to bridge the significant gap in cultural experience between us, but these have been few and fleeting. I wish it was different, because my status as an outsider can be hard to overcome. Some days children run when they see me, and I’m left to wonder if a parent warned them about the lady with a camera that is at times seen in the neighborhood. Most kids do not run, though, and most adults go about their business, either oblivious to me or accepting of my presence. But there are those that become very irritated and will closely question me, asking why am I here? What is so interesting? Or cast very hard looks my way, sending the hairs on the back of my neck into an uproar. Because it is at these times that I realize that I am regarded as a creepy stranger by some, and this is hard to tolerate for me. There are times that I have visited with the intention of creating a beautiful, classic photograph of the lovely realism on display in this classic, Hasidic city village that I so adore, only to be met with a wall of distrust so high and so fortified that I must desert the day, give it up completely, and head back to the J train and return to Manhattan. How do I tell them how engaging and brilliant they are, how beautifully and artistically they photograph? How to explain my feelings as a non-religious Jewish person that feels compelled to record the simultaneous modernity and antiquity expressed in this completely unique American neighborhood? How do I explain how important it is to make living documents of their lives as seen in daily life on the street?
Every Street Photographer’s Dream: Going Unnoticed, Being Invisible
I used to get offended when occasionally confronted by such deep distrust, or become very discouraged by the eyes that watched me so carefully from even the youngest children in strollers. But now I realize that it’s not personal, and that I am the one who has elected to show up and brazenly photograph people on their turf. I’ve taken it upon myself to arrive with a camera and every connotation that the device carries with it during a time of intense social media usage and scrutiny. Who am I to expect trust and compliance in an age of social media exploitation? I hope that someday I will be regarded less as a Stranger, and more as a fixture occasionally seen, like a lamppost or a fire hydrant that appears and reappears, completely harmless and accepted into the landscape that is daily life in Williamsburg. Until that day arrives, every day that I walk along Lee Avenue and turn onto Wallabout is a pleasure and a privilege.
We are incredibly excited and honored to introduce Suzanne Stein as a regular contributor. She is an artist, street photographer, and a great writer. Our next post will be an interview with her about the function and importance of street photography, her inspirations, future projects, and street photography equipment. You can follow her on Instagram, visit her website and sign up for our newsletter to get notified about our updates.
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