Image of the week...John Kobal Award

Staring at the 6 prints the day they needed to be couriered to the National Portrait Gallery, as always I reached out for advice from anyone standing within 3 meters. Much debate was had over if to enter the portrait of the beautiful young girl with red hair. Would the cliche of twins and red haired youths be a barrier? Would the judges bare this in mind when choosing their selection? After a vote I opted to keep it in. When news came a few months ago I had received the prize I was shocked and of course chuffed.  After handing Chayla a hand print and telling her family the news they were pleased but to my disappointment in her true nature Chayla was very shy. Many people have asked me about the picture..the same three questions continue to arise...who is she? is it part of a series? How did the image happen?

chayla - laura pannack
chayla - laura pannack

In a nutshell I ve been doing this project on hassidic Jewish women for about 3 years now. It's a work in progress that looks at tradition and subtle symbolic references in some of the images relate to rituals and beliefs. It would have been easy to roam around Stamford Hill and photograph the wonderful visual spectacle of a densely populated hassidic area. However ,doing this would be disrespectful and in my mind ignorant. I always want my pictures to be a collaboration. This is not always possible and in no way  shuns documentary imagery. Capturing a decisive moment and observing with a skilful eye are impressive skills, but if and when possible I just feel better when I know I have the consent and involvement of my subjects.

This time consuming and frustrating route tests my tenacity, self belief and patience but ultimately allows me into a different level of what I am photographing. I want to get to know these women and their families, learn about their daily lives and understand their rituals and beliefs. Being open, honest and listening are all imperative factors. I don't pretend to know about Jewish tradition and daily life and can only grow on my own experiences and learn from those who offer support.  Stamford Hill is often presented in a negative light, which is a shame as I have witnessed a great sense of community, an importance on family and neighbours and have met many strong and impressive women.

I have been fortunate to meet some incredibly understanding families and Chayla's mother has become a friend of mine. Raising 11 children in her early thirties is an impressive activity and the strong bond between all family members is warming. This image was taken in her family's Synogogue. I haven't seem many portraits taken in a Shul and thought it would be a perfect setting where my subjects would feel at ease and in control. Chayla made me feel nervous as her silence created immense tension. I wanted her to feel comfortable and her elusive and mature character is one than continues to intrigue me. She is intelligent, adult and extremely quiet, photographing her was an honour.

I am so grateful for the award and the prize money is only a small fraction of what I have spent on this project as I shoot all on film and polaroid. It's brilliant to have the financial support in order to continue shooting.

My sincere thanks to all of the judges and the hundreds of kind comments of congratulations and support.

OAO xx