On Meditating Behind the Camera

Former JDC photographer Roy Mittelman tells all

A search in the JDC Archives Photo Collection will yield a plethora of images from around the world spanning over a century, but one thing these records can’t always convey are the intimate stories behind these photographs. That’s why we took the time to sit down with photographer Roy Mittelman to hear the tales behind the iconic captures he took during his work for JDC in post-Communist Eastern Europe and beyond in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

A young girl runs in the sanctuary of the Patronato Synagogue during a JDC-sponsored communal holiday celebration. Havana, Cuba, 1995. Photographer: Roy Mittelman. JDC Archives

While he currently works as a full-time professor of Jewish Studies at the City College of New York, Roy recounted that taking photographs at events was initially a part-time gig to supplement his job as an adjunct professor at City College. One day, while riding the #5 bus on Riverside Drive, he happened to sit behind two women and heard a fateful conversation. One woman exclaimed that she hated her photographer and wished she could find someone new, to which Roy interjected, “I have a portfolio!” She happened to be the Director of Communications at Teachers College, Columbia University, and that was the beginning of his decade-long position with them. He loved every minute of it.

Landing the job with JDC was similar happenstance. While working for UJA Federation of New York, Roy was recommended to the Director of Communications at JDC. It was a mutually warm experience. He loved working for the Joint. He started with the organization in the early 1990s and traveled with JDC on roughly three trips a year for 1-2 weeks at a time. Many trips took him to the Former Soviet Union (FSU), as well as Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Hungary, where he documented Jewish renewal and welfare assistance. He remembers packing a large camera bag and a suitcase with food, as he didn’t know what sustenance would await him at the next destination. Engrained in his memory is the eerie experience of being the only man staying in large, cavernous hotels in cities such as what was then known as Dnepropetrovsk (now Dnipro) and Odessa. Once, in Odessa, he brought a small hot pot in order to make instant soup and unfortunately blew out the electric circuit for his whole wing of the hotel. Naturally, he was very embarrassed, but it paled in comparison to the time he was blocked on a quest to photograph a home in Kosovo for fear of landmines.

One November, he was welcomed to Dnipro, Ukraine, by a snowstorm. At least three feet accumulated on the ground, dampening his plans to visit a JDC-supported soup kitchen the next day, but lo and behold, a car idled outside his hotel in the early morning, waiting to take Roy on his mission. Instead of using windshield wiper fluid, vodka was poured to clear the car windows of ice, and off they went! At the soup kitchen, 100 eighty-year-olds were already waiting in line to be fed and photographed.

Passover seder. Kosovo, early 2000s. Photographer: Roy Mittelman. JDC Archives

His travels also took him to Kosovo, where he documented the first Passover openly celebrated by the Jewish community there since World War II. On the flight from Vienna to Kosovo, he was told not to discuss his plans with anyone. At the seder, no one knew kiddush, the blessing over the wine, so it was Roy who held his heavy Nikon in one hand and a glass of wine in the other while reciting the Hebrew blessing. Sometimes, multitasking was required while documenting. It was an historic moment, and he was proud to be participating as the 40th at the seder, and not as an outsider. In fact, the special ID that he received at the airport for this UN mission proudly hangs in his office to this day.  

Though that day he was an active participant, by rule Roy tries not to interact with his subjects. He prefers his captures to be spontaneous and thus likes to stay low key and invisible.

Ethiopian Jewish students play a game. Kiryat Gat, Israel, December 1998. Photographer: Roy Mittelman. JDC Archives

“A good photographer blends in and I think a good photographer listens with his or her eyes…just for that moment and that moment will come…it’s like meditation. If you are still and quiet, these moments will come to you, rather than you having to go out hunting for them.”

Behind the camera, Mittelman witnessed many meaningful moments. One of his favorite photos is a young girl eating matzah at a Passover seder in Budapest. He is enamored with the look in her eyes, and though it is not a complex photo by his standards, even he agrees it is a powerful picture.

A young girl eating matzah at a Passover celebration with the Balint Jewish Community Center. Budapest, Hungary, c. 1995. Photographer: Roy Mittelman. JDC Archives

Another moment that stands out in his memory is a gathering of older folks at a JDC-supported JCC in the FSU. People were singing a hypnotic melody, which Mittleman recorded. He took a photo of a woman singing a song from her childhood with her hands extended upward. The dance of her hands and the people around her appeared poetic in his mind. He loves that image.

In general, Roy loves photographing individuals below and above a certain age, because they are unapologetically themselves and “do the dance just for the dance.” Some of his favorite images that he took while on assignment for JDC include a color photo of students at their desks in a Jewish school in Djerba and a photo of a child blowing the shofar with a wild look on his face.

Left: Jewish students in class; right: blowing the shofar. Djerba, Tunisia, September 2000. Photographer: Roy Mittelman. JDC Archives

For Mittelman, photography is spiritual. He finds holiness in it.  

“The Hebrew word for ‘holy’ back in biblical times meant that which is withdrawn, separated from everything else…time or space. That spot becomes special. I look at photography as a spiritual enterprise. My way of trying to find holiness. And separating it from the rest of the flow, and in doing so making that moment holy.“ 

He likens the rolling of film in his camera to the rolling of his own personal torah scroll. Indeed, he felt very connected to Judaism while photographing for JDC. 

Children wearing matching t-shirts sing together at the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation/JDC International Summer Camp in Szarvas. Szarvas, Hungary, 1995. Photographer: Roy Mittelman. JDC Archives

“One of the definitions I most love about Judaism is six words: Judaism is a celebration of life…and I never felt closer to that sense of celebration seeing what the Joint was doing in living rooms in Sofia and in synagogues in Bucharest and in old age homes in Casablanca. It was all a celebration of life. I felt so incredibly privileged to be a part of it for as long as I did.” 

A group of girls perform Israeli folk dances at the Moscow Hillel, Moscow, Russia, 1998. Photographer: Roy Mittelman. JDC Archives

Having taken 20,000 photos for the Joint, Mittelman believes that working with JDC honed his skills and made him a better photographer. The missions he went on made him more sensitive to being in very different situations, while giving him the ability to blend in with different cultural contexts. But one thing has always stayed the same for Roy, “I just love taking photographs.”  

Paris, 2019. Photographer: Roy Mittelman

Now spending several months in Paris yearly, Roy takes 1,000 photos a week of street scenes and finds it helpful to explore the contemporary world of photography on Instagram. Inspired by the French humanist tradition of seeing life, he regularly updates his own Instagram page. Take a look and understand why photography is the “great abiding love of [his] life.”  

This story has been shared with Roy Mittelman’s permission.