Behind the Image • Patrick Zachmann • Magnum Photos

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Theory & Practice

Behind the Image: Patrick Zachmann’s Inquest of Identity

Patrick Zachmann reflects on the interference of the unconscious on the photographic process

Patrick Zachmann

Patrick Zachmann Jews in France. Celebration for the 33rd anniversary of the State of Israel. Paris, France. 1981. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos

Early in his photographic career Patrick Zachmann spent seven years exploring the Jewish community, both in his native France and abroad. Documenting Jewish codes, ceremonies and rituals, Zachmann sought to discover a part of his identity that up until that point he had known very little about. This work would lead to his second book, Enquête d’identité ou Un juif à la recherche de sa memoire (Inquest of identity or a Jew searching for his memory), which was published in 1987.

Here, we speak to the Magnum photographer about a chance encounter on the periphery of an event he was photographing that would result in the cover image for the book.

What is happening in this photograph?

Well, a religious Jewish kid is looking at something outside the frame – I don’t care what he is looking at – with a very intense expression on his face. I think I saw some kind of fear in his gaze, as if something serious was happening out there. Meanwhile, an orthodox adult is concentrated on something else, maybe his wallet, looking for some coins to pay for something I guess. I like the composition of this image, the way it is making a V and leading toward the kid.

Where and how was this image made?

I spent seven years exploring the Jewish community when I was starting out as a photographer, it was as if I needed to know myself better and to understand my own identity before photographing the outside world and the “others”. I took this picture in Paris during an event organized by the Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish movement, to celebrate the 33rd anniversary of the state of Israel.

What was happening outside the frame?

It was crowded around me and I remember the space was narrow. It was the beginning of the event, people was arriving and converging on the main space.

The most interesting pictures are often found, not at the heart of the event but on the periphery.

If you hadn’t taken this shot, what would you have been doing instead at that precise moment?

I would have been attracted by another face or gaze, for sure. At that time, I was very much focused on people and on the subject I was studying. I was very close to the people I was shooting. Later, little by little, I integrated more of the environment, stepped back a bit and paid more attention to the aesthetics.

Tell us a secret about this image?

What I like in the photographic process is the interference of our unconscious. What made me go to this kid and photograph him? Everything happens fast during the act of shooting, but afterwards you have your whole life to try to understand your images and what hides behind them.

In this case, the face of that child reminded me, unconsciously, of the famous picture of the Jewish kid with his hands up, in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. He wore the same cap and had the same worried gaze.

We put this picture on the cover of my book Enquête d’identité ou Un juif à la recherche de sa memoire. The unexpected thing is that people often think it represents me when I was a child. Photography is ultimately a kind of self-portrait through photos of others.

The Behind the Image series uncovers untold stories that lie behind some of the most-well known images by Magnum photographers. See more here