I had a very interesting, and on a personal level, troubling, conversation concerning an image that I posted earlier this week.

The post was Etz Chaim.

As I had mentioned in that post, Etz Chaim is the Jewish interpretation of the Tree of Life, which is also the name given to the Torah.

Deciding on names for photos can be difficult at times.  For me, this one was pretty easy.  A tree of life infers that all life is interrelated, while being steadfast and renewable, consistently surviving what appears to be the death of dormancy to blossom again each spring.

That tree in the middle of the memorial spoke to me like that.

So I did some research, figuring that tying the tree of life into a Jewish motif would bring an appropriate name.

A day after posting, I received a message from a dear friend, who I’ve known via the interweb for many years.  A photographer who, in his decades of professional and personal photography knows the power of the image far better than I.

The message simply asked who had gave the name to that tree, which started the conversation.  And below is the e-mail that I received yesterday, which caught me completely by surprise.   And yes, the data is posted with his permission.

Saturday night, March 05, 2011; Jerusalem

Dear Bill,

I am a bit perplexed as to how to share with you my feelings on this subject. I know that you have sympathy and solidarity with our people, and I am sure that you gave that name with the very best intentions.  I don’t know if it were better for me to just shut up and not say anything, or to share with you my feelings… But the reason that I am writing to you anyway, and telling you of my feelings, is that if I had come across that picture anywhere, with that name, and did not know who it was who had produced it, I would imagine that the person who produced it hated us, and wished to ridicule us.

The tree in this picture, which as a whole is reminiscent of concentration camps and death houses, does not bear leaves. It is barren. It tells a message similar to that of the museum itself.

But as you mentioned in your comment to me, the name etz chaim, which means the ‘tree of life’ refers to the torah. The reason for that, is that we believe that our philosophy, and the rules of behavior according to the torah… from the ten commandments to the rules of harvest, and the keeping of the Sabbath, and the dietary laws… all of that gives meaning to life, and brings joy and happiness to those who live by it. So your picture seems to say to me, see where you’ve gotten with your wonderful torah?

I hope you’ll understand that I am telling you all of this in the spirit of friendship, and not as a complaint, and not asking you to write differently or to change anything. That is all within the realm of your own choices.

With best wishes, your friend,

Ridicule was the furthest thing from my mind when I took the image, when I processed it and when I posted it.  That thought had never occurred to me.

Rarely do I try to convey a deeper thought or message to my images.  For that reason I’d never be a good documentary photographer.

I just enjoy patterns, lines, shapes, details and fun moments in life.

It’s those things that make photography zen-like for me.

Mainly because I do too much mental heavy-lifting in other aspects of my life.  My photography lets me turn that off and feel what I’m seeing.

I’ve had conversations with other photographers where they try to dig deeply into the meaning of a photograph, ascribing symbolism to every line, shape and shade.  Concepts that may or may not be true.

To me, the imagery, whether it be mine or others, is visceral.

Either I feel it or I don’t.

And I felt this image.  A connection with the past while looking forward to the future through a tree.

But I am grateful for the opportunity to think about the image from a different angle.

I’ve learned a lot.  And hope to continue to do so.  Especially from you, Shimon.

Because the day I stop learning is the day I die.


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