Heidi Harf is a documentary and family photographer based out of New York. For the past 15 years she has lived in Cali, Colombia, where she focused her photography on the people and communities of her “adoptive country.” Heidi has won numerous DFA awards, and in the following interview she shares insights into how she has approached photography subjects, gained access and pushed herself to pursue the stories that she has felt compelled to explore.
Molly Menschel: Can you introduce yourself and talk about how you got into photography?
Heidi Harf: I think I was around 10 when my dad bought me a polaroid camera. It was fascinating to take a photo and watch it develop in front of my eyes. I was hooked. My second camera, and first film camera was a gift for my Bat Mitzvah at the age of 12 from my father’s cousin who is a photographer. I was hooked ever since. But rather than having a camera, it was images that I loved and the stories. My mother would make elaborate collages in our family albums. She would cut the images out and glue them on top of each other, page after page. I fell in love with images and stories. I began making my own albums too.
What are you most inspired to shoot?
Hmm, I look at the work of so many photographers and I think, man, I wish I took that image, and maybe I will attempt to take it too. But, I cannot plan ahead, I get inspired when I see the scene unfolding in front of me. I think I am most inspired by my subjects in front of me, their stories, what is behind the, can we say, so called veil that we hide behind.
In some of your projects or stories that you’ve been commissioned for, you’ve come into a community as an outsider to take pictures. How do you navigate telling the story of someone whose experience may be so different from your own?
It is not easy. First I have to gain the trust of the individual or community. In some places I was not allowed to make photos until I met the “leader.” I follow the rules. The last thing I want to do is upset anyone and have a door closed on me. I ask questions and I explain my intentions. I also believe that my projects are a collaboration, and the only way to do that is to open up about myself as well. As the subject begins to share personal stuff about themselves, I ask questions, I listen. Everyone wants to be heard, and I give them a place to be heard. And when the moment is right, I also offer personal information about myself. It comes naturally to me.
With your story about the Emerging Jews of Colombia, do you have a personal connection to this story?
Absolutely. I am Jewish, and a cultural Jew. I also was welcomed into the small traditional Jewish community of my adoptive country Colombia. So I was curious. Why would someone want to do this? The Jewish community in Cali is very closed and not welcoming to converts, and there were many reactions to these new emerging Jews, the biggest question, were they real Jews. I was curious. I wanted to know more, what were their intentions? How could they be such firm believers in an adoptive religion? I was born Jewish, and did not believe the way they did. Also Colombia is a very Catholic country, images of Catholicism are everywhere, and I encountered many people who had never met a Jew before. So I wanted to know who were these people, where did they come from, and why were they doing this. I also wanted to know how they were being received by other Jews and their own family.
How did you initially approach or become involved in the community? How did you gain trust and access?
I inserted myself… hahah.. I had actually started a project documenting the traditional Jewish community, it is a young community. Made up of immigrants from Syria, Morocco, and a second wave of immigration of Jews fleeing Europe. However, many of the children and grandchildren of these immigrants left Cali, so the community was shrinking. I wanted to tell the stories of these immigrant. While working on this project I began to notice many converts trying to gain access to our traditional Jewish community. I began asking questions. Then… one day, I read an announcement in the newspaper. The Jewish community of Cali was receiving their first Torah. I was like, “What.. What community is this, I don’t know them.” I made a few phone calls and finally showed up at the event. Not only were they receiving their first Torah, it was a mass conversion too. My eyes were falling out of my head, and my brain was filling with questions. I had my camera in my bag and found the person in charge. I introduced myself and told them about my project with the traditional Jewish community. I told them I would share photos with them, and after discussing with several people, they allowed me to photograph the event. This turned into a very long term project, I had to have several meetings with several people to continue having access, and at a certain point they closed the door on me. Fortunately I had made friends and was still welcome in their homes.
And it’s going to be a documentary film! How did this project get from being a collection of photographs sitting on your computer to a documentary film?
OMG, yes it is. Soooo exciting. I always knew it was a story, a fascinating one, after its publication in The Washington Post, I became an expert on the subject. It was translated into Spanish, I was being interviewed on podcasts and the radio in Colombia. A friend of mine who has a production company said he wanted to make a film out of it. He got in touch with a producer, the producer loved the story, we are putting together a team, and now we are raising money for phase one. We believe that this is a story of identity, that everyone can relate to, and it is taking place in a very interesting city that is so dynamic and unexpected.
Has the community been receptive to the idea of having a film made about them? With photography, it seems possible to remain unbiased or non-judgmental in the way you portray a subject or a community. Do you think this is going to be the same with a film? What kind of responsibility do you feel to portray an accurate, unbiased picture of a religious group of people?
After the article was published the larger community saw that my intentions were honest. Fortunately I have made close friends and from the beginning they knew of my intentions. We are not looking at the community as a whole in this film, I am not going to give it all away, but we are following one couple on their journey as they navigate the politics to become recognized as Jews and make their way to Israel. We have to be very careful that we remain unbiased, we are trying to tell a larger story through this one couple and their journey.
Your story about Eboni is so moving, so touching. Can you tell me more about it?
I will share some text from my website – In October of 2015 I was asked by Casa Colombia, a local foundation that helps provide medical care to people most in need, to spend a week with the team documenting their visit and work. The foundation asked me to follow some of the children during their surgeries, and document their progress. These images would be used for their fundraising.
This is how I met Julia and Ebony.
I won’t lie, I felt some shock when I first saw her. She had palms for a hand, but no fingers. She was barefoot, and I saw that she had about 10 toes on each foot, and those numerous toes were turned inward about 90 degrees making it almost impossible to stand.
This was Ebony. She was born with bilateral polydactyly of the feet (extra toes on both feet), syndactyly of the hands (fused fingers), scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine) and a dislocated hip. In spite of what you might think, Ebony was not at all shy. She was singing, and making everyone in the corridor smile. Everyone stared at her, but it was because she demanded their attention with her vibrant personality. I fell in love with her, everyone did.
After working on the project for 3.5 years, I realized it had nothing do to about Ebony’s handicaps, even though that’s how it began. This story has everything to do about a loving and strong relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter. I want both Julia and Ebony to have a recollection of their relationship.
This project is an opportunity for me to share my love of photography, my joy for life, and a way to communicate the selflessness and love of the individuals from the Casa Colombia and the US doctors who come here to treat people like Ebony. While these images are moving to many and have been well-received, this story belongs to Ebony and Julia, and they are my most important critics.
What led you to begin to photograph Cali’s street workers, especially when your initial feeling about them wasn’t 100% positive?
I was inspired by Irving Penn’s Street Workers. For me the street workers, or informal workers reminded me so much of his photographs. They are also the forgotten class of Cali. They are ignored and do not enter into the census of workers, etc. The first place I set up the studio was my neighborhood, so many of the first models were people who I had seen before, bought things from before. They do not want pity, but I pitied them. Martha, I have heard Martha’s voice every day for the past 18 years that I have been in Cali. It was only natural that I would photograph her. I even spent one full day walking the streets with her while she sold her avocados. Photographing them was also an opportunity for me to understand their hardships better and their goals in life. At the end of the day we all have the same goals, a meal to eat, a roof over our head and opportunities for our children, and we all want to be heard. I gave them a place to talk, and I listened. It was a humbling and beautiful experience for me.
I love that you had this idea, and had the motivation and follow-through to set up a studio setting and pull strangers off the street to have their portraits taken. How did people respond? Did you need to explain to the workers what your motive was or why you wanted to take the pictures?
Like with everything, I was met with many different reactions. Some people said no, others were excited, some were on the fence. I never forced them and I gave them a photo the next day. This is where my being a foreigner came in handy, many of the subjects assumed that I was only visiting, and that was very exciting for them. Some I did not correct, I just went with it. I am always afraid of rejection, so it was hard approaching people on the street to ask them. I would always purchase something from them too. I hope they did not feel obligated to sit for a photo with me.
Are there things that scare you photographically? Either certain subjects, or an aspect of the process of doing documentary work? How do you push through these fears?
Everything scares me!!! Just kidding, I think starting any project is scary, getting the access is scary. Because I am (was, not anymore) scared of rejection, and being misinterpreted regarding my intentions. But today, after my 180, I am so much more confident than ever. Now the challenge is finding the next project.
From being an outside observer for a while of your photographic practice, I’ve always felt respect and admiration for how you are able to act on your ideas or get started with photographing things that you’re interested in. Do you have to push yourself through any personal discomfort in the process? How do you motivate yourself to begin projects?
It’s always a push. It’s like going to the gym, I really hate getting there, sometimes I enjoy the work out, but I love the results. So with these projects, it was a challenge, I was afraid, but I knew I had to do it, and once I was actively shooting, there was no turning back. It was like, I set my mind to do this, and now I have to finish it. It gets easier with time. But the first step is the hardest step. I like the Grateful Dead, and the song Uncle Toms Band… “The first steps are the hardest steps, don’t you worry anymore”. I sing that to myself a lot.. hahaha.
In your personal project, dreams of my father, you talk about how you’re breaking free from a pattern that started with your father. Do you feel like the freedom that you are experiencing currently in your personal life has affected or will affect the way that you photograph? How much have your life circumstances affected the way that you perceive and photograph the world around you?
100%. I can step back and look at my life from another angle. I am seeing things that I chose not to see, that I sugar coated, that I blindly accepted. And now that I have broken free I feel the happiness, I feel liberated, and all those feelings that I never wanted to acknowledge, that I buried or ignored, I am not afraid to address them. And now that I am feeling, I am shooting with so much more intention.
Are there personal things that show up in your work or that you would like to explore with your photography?
Oh man, that is a tough one. I think 8 months ago I would not have been able to answer that. But today, I can. My life took a 180, and I realized that I have been suppressing many feelings, sugar coating my life. I have begun to reflect on who I was, who I am and what I am capable of. And now that I can acknowledge it, I am able to actually photograph it. I am able to find meaning in my photography because I can honestly say, “I feel”, and I know where the feelings are coming from.
Do you find that you shoot differently when you’re shooting your own family?
I take more risks with my own family.
What do you see as your purpose as a photographer? What do you feel that you specifically have to say with your art?
I think the question is what is my purpose in life, I have been thinking about that a lot. I do know that one of my purposes is to bring out the best in everyone. To leave this earth a better place. It sounds so cliche, but I really believe it. And maybe it is through my photography I can help other people have a voice, be seen and acknowledged and ultimately accepted. I struggle to call myself an artist. I feel that I am just me, and it is my photography that is my voice in a way… I never thought I was very good with words. (Funny, because since my husband walked out on me, I have not stopped writing.) Maybe I was just so emotionally and mentally abused for so many years I had no faith in myself, my self confidence was destroyed. I think I can tell the story of people who want to belong, all my life I wanted to belong. I was telling other people’s stories because I was not sure where I belonged. Today I know where I belong, so maybe I need to be telling my own story. With photos, and words.
Do you ever feel like you’re in a rut? How do you move through this and get to the other side of it?
Often, during the pandemic I was in the biggest rut. I started making collages with still lifes that I shot. Now I am free, out of my green prison, so now it is the real challenge, what will I photograph next. What will be my next story. I have some ideas. For me, I just have to start, and once I begin hopefully something will come out of it.
My perception of you is that you have a lot of humility in your work and you don’t hold onto it too tightly. How do you stay in that space of being receptive, always open to learning new things, even when you’ve been so successful as a photographer?
First of all I am so very humbled that you see me as a successful photographer. In the beginning I took critique personally, but it is not a reflection of me, it is a reflection of my work. If I wanted to get better, I would have to listen to it. I am very lucky to be a part of a community of extremely talented individuals who are not going to sugar coat an image, they will tell me what is strong, and how to make it stronger. I want to grow. So it is very important to listen. I also find it a challenge, and I love challenges. The next day I may be back out making the same pictures to try and get it right. I also hate social media, I am a stalker, but I hardly post, because I had too much of my ego tied up in the response of others. I am working very hard to separate my ego from my identity. Not to take things personally. I know that not all my images will resonate with everyone. Right now, I am trying to make images that make me proud, so as much as I want of my peers, I am okay without it, that’s why I am not posting much. And the biggest compliment is if someone who is not into photography or my genre of photography can relate to my work.
When I see your family work, I can often recognize it as yours. How have you personally gotten to the place of confidently knowing who you are as an artist and photographer?
I think it is very recent. I think the Washington Post article was a huge validation for me. For the six years that I worked on that project, I was told (by my ex-husband) that no one cares, why was I wasting my time, etc. I think when I could verbalize why I was photographing something, why it was important to me, then the confidence followed. I was doing it for me.
If you could have access to photograph anything at all, what would it be?
I am thinking, thinking… ummmm… I wish I could spend a month in my daughter’s dorm and photograph life at her boarding school. Doubt it would go over well with anyone!!! I would like to document several nights out with my homosexual friends. I want to photograph my upcoming divorcee girls weekend. Girls gone wild!! I want to photograph myself….. Coming of age again… becoming myself.
You can view all of Heidi’s projects on her website.
Emerging Jews of Colombia was featured in The Washington Post, text and photos by Heidi.