How Photographer Zack Balber's Portraits of Bear Jews Helped Him Find Religion

When we first encountered Zack Balber's work, he was exhibiting photos of hookers at the Spinello Gallery. He'd arranged to split sales with their pimps after paying the streetwalkers $10 for a "date" to pose for him.

"Tamim," his first solo show at Fredric Snitzer Gallery, opens on October 5. Balber's subjects do not look like the squeaky-clean Bear Jews typically drafted for the Bislamach Brigade of the Israeli Defense Forces. In fact, a portrait depicts a notorious E-thug who mocked Miami-Dade cops on YouTube, making national news and earning him time in the slammer.

The 27-year-old Balber spoke to us about his own Bear Jew brotherhood, how attending school in Pittsburgh made him forsake his heritage, and the spiritual reawakening inspired by his project.

​New Times: What does "tamim" mean in Hebrew?
Zack Balber: Tamim in Hebrew means, pure, unblemished, whole, perfect, which is what these men are to me, perfectly imperfect, proud, unashamed, vulnerable, scared, confident, and insecure. One of the images entitled Efraim is of my spiritual mentor my rabbi, if you will.

We were discussing the images and he said I am not ashamed of being fat, gay, or Jewish, he said I look proud, which he does, and radiates a happiness and fulfillment that one gets as a byproduct of walking a spiritual path. To me they are all Tamim, effortlessly themselves, the good and the bad.

How long have you been working on this series?
I started thinking of this series while I was still in my undergraduate program at New World School of the Arts. The best answer I can give you is that G-d has probably been working on this series in me for a long time, I just finally had enough courage to step up to the plate, and confront myself through the images of these men, the knights of my round table. So, I have been given breadcrumbs of this series for about the past two and a half years.

Tony has "Feel My Pain" tattooed across his collarbone and tears boasting jail time. Joshua inked Hannibal Lecter's scowling mug over his liver. Ye,t you cracked that façade, capturing a sense of their vulnerabilities. Where and how did you find these subjects and how did you earn their trust?
The men in the images were all around me metaphorically speaking. One flew down from Pittsburgh and some of the guys I had to search for. The trust factor has been a work in progress for a long time. These men spoke for me, I am one of the Bear Jews but in order to stay alive and out of jail I had to learn to become vulnerable myself. As I grew up, and my perspective on life shifted as a result of Dade County Court Systems, and Judge Rosnick managing my life for me, I was introduced to a lot of the men who years later became the subjects of this body of work.

​How difficult was it to convince these fellows to sit for a portrait and don the yarmulke you wore for your own Bar Mitzvah?
It was not difficult to get any of the men to sit for the photographs. The camera in some instances became the outsider, during the shoot, because neither of us was familiar with the disconnected vulnerability that the camera offered. The Yarmulke in Judaism is used as a constant reminder that there is something BIGGER than you, a G-d if you will.

Chasing down some of the men, I started to think about what I was actually capturing images of, was it tattooed Jews...no, was it strange-looking Jews.... no. Searching for the Yarmulke shots became cathartic, I was the teacher to most of these men and some have decided to walk along a different path. So in each image I believe I captured these men in their own way publicly acknowledging G-d, even if they were not conscious of it.

You once said "that religion is far more than skin deep and that a connection with G-d can always be reignited." Can you elaborate on how that notion struck you and what's changed in your life as a result of it?
A connection with G-d can always be reignited if you are willing to open the Where's Waldo? book and look for it. Sometimes G-d is easy to find like Waldo and sometimes you get so distracted with "the world and its things" that Waldo becomes a figment of your imagination.

I grew up in Pittsburgh where I was one of a few white Jews to be bussed into East Hills Elementary school, which is in the middle of the projects. We couldn't go out on the playground some times because there were dead people from shootings the night before. Fighting became a regular thing to me, and I learned from an early age that being white wasn't cool, so I became the wigger, baggy jeans, iron fists and denying my heritage.

So the Jews I was hanging around were tough, some ended up in prison, drug dealers or the like. I was never proud to be a Jew growing up. I would let people assume Irish or whatever because I knew that I didn't have the "Jewish look." As I got older it became more and more evident that I have an undeniable connection with Jews as much as I tried to fight against it. Now, I stand as one of my subjects Tamim, because I no longer have to hide to fit in.

Now that you're suiting up for your first solo at Snitzer. Have you laid that "rebel without a pause" side of your nature to rest?
The rebel with a cause will never die within me; I actually have been working on the sister show to the men. I'm not sure how to express the women especially being a young, good looking man; I can't get away from being the chauvinistic pig. People have a hard time understanding that I can be a Bear Jew and a sensitive mush within 2 second intervals. The saint and the sinner, the tough and mush, just as it is expressed with the men, but it's men, so I am clear to talk about it without any preconceived notions, but the women......like Garry Winogrand's series "Women are Beautiful" I'm just looking for the right cover up to talk dirty while everyone else toasts champagne glasses.

"Tamim" opens Wednesday, October 5th from 6 to 9 p.m. and is on view through November 5th at Fredric Snitzer Gallery (2247 NW First Pl., Miami). Admission is free. Call 305-448-8976 or visit snitzer.com.

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