Like all good photographers I appreciate the importance of personal work, as it’s where you get to do what you want. When I first became freelance and assignments were slow to come in, I decided to start working within my local community as it was diverse, visual, interesting and I didn’t have to travel far to capture good images. I’d been working for about a year with various Orthodox Jewish people photographing the festivals and events, when I heard there was a big ‘Rebbe’ in town. He was the Chassidic Skver Rebbe visiting from New York and the highlight of his visit was blessing the fruits for Tu Bishvat. I went to visit one of my main contacts, a local baker, who said it was going to be very difficult for me to get into this celebration, but he would see what he could do. After various phone calls with several Cohens and Leibovitzs, I was given a time and location, but no promises of what would happen from there.
After a 2-minute walk to the end of my road I arrived at a small synagogue door and met with my contact who said that Skvers wouldn’t like to be photographed so I’d only be allowed 5 minutes inside. Not being Jewish I was ushered upstairs to the gallery where all the women also sit. I knew as I entered the room that this was a very special occasion as every gap in the gallery was taken and women were bunched up like sardines trying to get a peek of the Rebbe. The only chance I had to see what was happening was to stand on a table.
Balancing on tiptoes I managed to get my camera over the screen and a room of about 1000 men, all dressed in black came into view. The anticipation was incredible as all eyes in the synagogue were on the Rebbe. I knew the shot I had to get was him blessing and eating the first fruit and this was the result. This image has encouraged me to pursue my personal work; it won the reportage category of the Observer seeds of change and is now part of a book I have been working on for the past 2 years about life in the Orthodox Jewish Community.
Seeing one of my images used in the Observer as a double page spread was very satisfying, I only wished they had remembered a by-line, especially as they got to use it for free.
Andy became a professional photographer in 1994 with a local newspaper in Newbury during the by-pass battle. After a degree in documentary photography at the University of Wales College Newport he joined Network photographers as a picture editor, working with some of the world’s most renowned photographers. In 2003 he became a full time freelancer and has since worked for publications and organisations such as: The Sunday Times magazine, The British Medical Journal, ActionAid UK and Oxfam. His work has been recognised in various competitions, most recently he was selected for the AOP document award and the Observer seeds of change.
See more work by Andy Aitchison