Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fencing with the Photographer

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’m sitting in services, listening to the guest cantor singing a melody with which I’m unfamiliar. There are two girls becoming bat mitzvah today. As usual on such occasions, there are photographers in the back, outside the sanctuary, peaking through the movable partition to the social hall, preserving memories of the event for the girls and their families.

When I look up to my left, I see a man with a camera on a large tripod. He is standing inside the sanctuary, right in front of the closed main doors. How did he get there? He certainly wasn’t there when I walked in and took my seat.

The rabbi is standing at the front of the congregation, while the cantor continues to sing. I go up to the rabbi to whisper in his ear, “Do you want me to move that photographer?” He replies, “That would be good.”

I walk over to the photographer, and say, “I’m sorry, we don’t allow photos to be taken in the sanctuary during services.” There is no question in my mind that he will say, “I’m sorry,” and he will move his camera outside.

Instead, he says, “She told me I could be here.” I ask, “Who?” and he looks toward another photographer, standing in the back. I say, “I talked to the rabbi, and I’m sorry, but you will have to move outside the sanctuary.” He says, “Oh,” but his body language tells me he has no intention of going anywhere.

I stand my ground and look at him. After a moment, he gestures at the woman in the back. She starts to come forward, but I walk back to her instead. I don’t want to cause a scene inside the sanctuary in the middle of the service.

Once again I say, “I’m sorry, but we don’t allow cameras in the sanctuary.” She angrily responds, “That must be new. I’ve seen cameras in here other times.”

Now, I’ve only missed a handful of Saturday morning services in the last three or four years, and I can assure you, the only other time I’ve seen a photographer inside the sanctuary during services, the rabbi came up to me and asked me to ask him to move outside. Which he promptly did.

I don’t mention this to the woman in front of me now. I say, simply, “It’s not a new rule. I’m sorry, but he will have to move.”

I am wearing a badge with my name, the synagogue name and logo, and “Board of Directors” on it. I consider drawing her attention to the badge, but I don’t want to do that.

I love being at the synagogue. I adore the warm feeling of spirituality and community I get here, and I want to help others feel it, too. I wear the badge because it says, “If you have any questions – if you need to find the restroom or a kippah, or you want to know something about our customs here, you can ask me.” I don’t want it to say, “I’m the photography police. Respect my authority.”

The photographer gestures to the other one, still standing with his tripod and camera in front of the closed main doors. “Can we open the doors?” she asks, suggesting he can then just move his camera back a few feet and continue shooting through the open doorway.

“No,” I say, “We’re having a worship service here. We have to…” and that’s where I stop. She stares at me while I gaze back at her.

My mind casts around for the right words, but I can’t find them. How can I explain this is a holy ceremony taking place in a holy space? How can I get her to understand it is Shabbat, and the rabbi and the cantor are trying to create a special place in time, an island away from the distractions of work and school and the sights and sounds of the secular world? How can I tell her all we’re asking for is a short time to spend with nothing but the divine?

I can’t find the words. I’m not capable of conveying to her, in this moment, why the camera needs to move; why we won’t just swing open the doors for her convenience.

I repeat, “We’re having a service here. He needs to move.”

She says, “How can he take the camera outside if we can’t open the doors?” I don’t know whether she’s being sarcastic.

I give her the benefit of the doubt, and tell her I will hold the door open for him. She goes to talk with him, he picks up his things, and repositions himself elsewhere.

Perhaps it is over for them, but it is not over for me. I don’t often get angry, but I am angry now.

I’m not sure why I’m so angry. Maybe it’s because what should have been a painless one- or two-sentence transaction has turned into a needlessly lengthy ordeal.

Maybe it’s because she wasn’t respecting the sanctity of our sanctuary and the service, or the needs of the congregation. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t respecting me.

Most likely, it’s because I feel I have failed myself. Today, on Shabbat, a day which normally helps me to remember the kind of person I want to be in the world, I have not been that person.

Instead of being warm and welcoming, I have been argumentative authoritarian. I have insisted that someone obey my words without adequately expressing why doing so is in the best interest of others. I have created anger and frustration, and I feel powerless to heal it.

In this week’s Torah portion we read, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” or “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Some say the word "justice" is repeated to remind us to pursue justice in a just way.

I don’t think I have done anything unjust. I sincerely wish I had been able to do it in a better way.


  1. Sigh. You and I are in complete agreement regarding the inappropriateness of the photographers and their attitude. I admire your struggle to find what about the situation was in your control. May the very question help you to find the gift inside this negative experience.

  2. Thanks, I appreciate your kind words!

  3. susan, this was a beautifully written piece. i felt like i was right there with you! you described your feelings and thoughts behind them eloquently and the connections that you made to shabbat and the torah portion are seamless. well done, lady. well done, indeed!

  4. Thanks! One of the congregants, after reading this, informed me the photographer being there made her think of work, which of course she doesn't want to do on Shabbat, so I'm glad he finally moved even though it wasn't a pleasant experience.

  5. i just wanted to punch both of them in the nose, which i guess is pretty un-shabbat-like of me. none of your anger came across, whereas i was clearly speaking through gritted teeth. i can safely bet that i am pretty much always angrier than you, shabbat or no.

    thanks for your help.