Rena Pearl: Portraits of Holocaust Survivors

Rena Pearl is a London-based freelance professional photographer and has been for 28 years. She has won a number of awards, and a selection of her work is displayed in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery, and the Jewish Museum, in London. Her main focus is portrait, PR, corporate and editorial photography throughout the UK. She will also undertake other areas of work including personal injury photography. She recently started working on a project that focuses on portraits of Holocaust survivors. We interviewed her about this project and learned why and how she went about photographing these courageous people.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about the project?

A: The project consists of a series of close-up portraits of Holocaust survivors, not just camp survivors, but anyone who suffered Nazi persecution.

Q: How did you get involved in the project?

A: Since writing a 20,000 word thesis on the Holocaust for my degree (many years ago), I have been particularly interested in its survivors. How could anyone go through such horror, come out alive and still get on with their lives? The work is from an ongoing project ‘Remember: Holocaust Survivors’.  All the images are close-up portraits of people who survived the Nazi persecution, and not just those who were in concentration camps. Those who did survive are getting older and fewer.

What happened to them must be remembered and lodged firmly in the public mind set to help prevent future prejudice and intolerance. This should help all of us be more tolerant, understanding and accepting of each others’ differences – whether religious, ethnic, gender, or sexuality. Photography is one way of doing this. We may all know something of the Nazi atrocities, however, there is also wonderful bravery and, perhaps most astonishing, the ability to recover and create a new life after the War. In 2015, it will be seventy years since the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945, and I hope to exhibit seventy portraits of survivors.

Q: Due to the sensitivity of this project was it hard to approach some of your subjects?

A: I wouldn’t say hard, but obviously extra care had to be taken, and each person was different. I contacted a few Jewish organisations dealing with Holocaust Survivors, explained what I wanted to do and, more importantly for them, why I was doing it. I had photographed survivors before and this helped as I could show them what I had done. Two organisations included in their mailings a letter I had written inviting people to contact me, if they should be interested in being part of my project or knowing more about it. I also spent time listening and talking with the survivors on the phone beforehand. When I was with them, a few did become tearful telling me about what had happened to them, or their parents, but I never pushed them. After I had photographed a few of the survivors, they made suggestions as to who else I should photograph. Then they put me in contact with them, some even calling them on my behalf.

Q: Which camera and lens did you use, and why?

A: That’s easy to answer. The moment I thought about doing the project, I knew that I wanted to use my Leica M9 APO-Summicron-M 75mm f/2 lens. The camera is small and I wanted to work close to my subjects, without them feeling intimidated or that I was ‘in their face’. Not one person ever said that I was too close, and most of the time I was within three feet of them. By using the 75 mm lens, it allowed me to get very close, tightly framing the head if I wanted to. I don’t like to crop my images. I also wanted a shallow depth of field to focus on the eyes, to invite the viewer to read their minds and delve into the depths of their eyes. This lens allowed me to do that. Using a Leica M also had an unexpected added bonus: a few of the survivors saw I was using a Leica camera and this reminded them of their fathers, since many of them had owned Leica cameras. They were surprised to see that it was digital.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Leica products?

A: Quality, feel, look and ease of handling (especially these days). I feel as if I’ve created the image. The lens quality is superb and shows every detail. Not the kindest on old faces!

Q: How long have you been using Leica cameras?

A: I first used an M5 in 1984. It belonged to a press photographer that I knew. From that moment on, I was hooked.

Q: What does the future hold for you?

A: Winning the lottery and buying the M Monochrom and the new APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 lens. That’s my dream. I’m doing a corporate shoot for a firm of lawyers for their web site and brochure, where I’ll use my Leica M9 using ambient light. I’m also starting a new project next month, something that is out of my comfort zone: Urban Landscape. I’m going up to the Victorian Mill Town of Todmorden in West Yorkshire to document what I see. I was inspired to go up there after seeing some work from a degree student I was coaching in black and white printing. Most likely I will shoot using my M7 with black and white film – unless of course I do get a M Monochrom.

Thank you, Rena.

-Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Rena and view her work, visit her website at www.renapearl.com.