Liz Sales: You initiated the project that lead to the publication Intermarried by posting a message on the board of your neighborhood online parent group, inviting couples who self-identify as ‘mixed couples’ to participate in your photography project. What does the term ‘mixed couple’ mean to you? How do you personally define intermarriage?
Yael Ben-Zion: For me the term ‘mixed couple’ doesn’t have a set meaning. It depends on cultural and historical circumstances and varies with time and place. It is also very personal. I started the project because I was interested in why people choose to marry someone who is not from the immediate social group, regardless of whether this group is religious, racial, ethnic or of any other kind. It was important to me that my subjects define themselves as ‘mixed’ rather than me imposing any definition upon them. For this reason in my post I left the definition of the term open.
LS: What strategies did you employ in order to help these couples feel at ease with you shooting them in their homes sharing intimate moments with one another and their children?
YBZ: After an initial contact by email or phone I would meet my subjects in their homes and have a long conversation with them, which included a bunch of personal questions, before I even took my camera out. Because of our mutual interest (I myself am intermarried) and my subjects’ openness, when we got to the stage of making images, all of us felt quite comfortable. My shooting style is not very intrusive so I assume that helped as well. And finally, I usually went back a few times and worked on more images, so our relationship kept evolving.
LS: How did you decide against straightforward portraiture or a conventional photojournalist approach?
YBZ: I don’t consider myself a photojournalist and in my work I do not attempt to convey any “objective truth”, whatever that term may mean. I create work that expresses my personal take on familiar and often politically or socially charged issues. In the case of Intermarried, I didn’t want to illustrate what ‘mixed couples’ look like but rather create a more complex and nuanced imagery which reflects on their subjective experiences.
LS: Most of the notes that accompany the images in Intermarried are drawn from a questionnaire you asked your subjects to fill out. What made you decide to work in this way? How did you come up with your questions? Which answers were most surprising? Which answers most resonated?
YBZ: In order for my subjects to feel comfortable, I did not record our conversations. Instead, following our first meeting, I sent them a questionnaire that I asked them to fill out in detail or loosely as they wanted, knowing that their answers may become part of the work. Because of the personal and sensitive nature of the issue, I wanted to have their responses expressed in their own words. The questionnaire consisted of pretty straightforward questions regarding my subjects’ life and experience and at the end asked them to share their general thoughts about intermarriage. The answers were usually related to the conversations we had and their most surprising aspect was often the circumstances that brought my subjects together as in the case of a Nepalese-Ethiopian couple. The answers that most resonated with me were those that either included very personal information or offered novel insights and they were the ones that ended up in the book.
LS: What is your shooting style?
YBZ: I usually use a medium-format film camera and basic lighting.
LS: With all the available options, what makes the book the perfect home for this project?
YBZ: When I started to put the work together, I realized that because of the intimate and layered story I wanted to tell, a book was the right choice for it. Thanks to my designer Jeanne Verdoux, I was able to combine images and text in a way that allows viewers to connect to the work on various levels. The images in the book are not sequenced by family but according to a loose narrative, based on both concept and form. It is almost like a riddle that requires the viewer/reader to go back and forth in order to get a fuller picture. I am aware that I am expecting a lot from my viewers but honestly think (and hope) that spending time with the book can be a rewarding experience.
LS: What did you learn about yourself and your own marriage by observing other families throughout the course of this project?
YBZ: I think that observing other families and hearing about their experiences made me more appreciative of the support my husband and I have received from our families. I also realized that although the experiences of each family were very different from each other, we had a lot in common.
LS: How do you see this work engaging with the current discourse around interracial and interfaith marriage?
YBZ: The main idea behind Intermarried is to create a platform for thinking and talking about issues that are very personal but have vast social and political implications. I think that the work gives an opportunity to talk about sensitive issues that most people usually don’t talk about with people they don’t know well, and encourage viewers to rethink their preconceptions about interfaith and interracial marriages and the connection between the two. Whenever I had a chance to show or talk about the work until now I was pleasantly surprised by how it prompted viewers or readers to share their own stories and to engage in a constructive dialog about these issues.