Kovi Konowiecki puts Orthodoxy in the frame

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Kovi Konowiecki puts Orthodoxy in the frame

Footballer-turned-photographer's mesmerising portraits of Orthodox Jews have gone on display at the National Portrait Gallery

Fiona Green is a features writer

Kovi Konowiecki's photographs from the Bei Mir Bistu Shein series are now on display at the National Portrait Gallery
Kovi Konowiecki's photographs from the Bei Mir Bistu Shein series are now on display at the National Portrait Gallery

He was once used to donning his kit and shooting goals – but these days Kovi Konowiecki is more well-known for shooting prize-winning portraits.

So how exactly did the professional footballer turned photographer end up exhibiting at the National Portrait Gallery in London?

Two years ago Kovi Konowiecki packed away his boots for Hapoel Kfar Saba FC and left Israel to pursue his passion for photography.

The transformation from sportsman to artist has reaped rewards, as the American-Jewish talent was recently named as third place winner in this year’s prestigious Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.

Two of his stunning images are now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery and were taken as part of his study of an Orthodox-Jewish family, Bei Mir Bistu Shein, which translates from the Yiddish as “to me you are beautiful”.

Aged 15, Konowiecki moved from his native Long Beach, California to Munich, Germany, where he played for a youth team.

From then on, most of Konowiecki’s life was immersed in sport, but he began finding his desire to take photographs exceeded his need to train.

It was this realisation that led Konowiecki, now 24, to study photography and he recently graduated with a Masters from the University of the Arts in London.

“I decided that photography was this passion I couldn’t suppress anymore, so I started taking photographs for fun and then it turned into something much bigger than that”, explains Konowiecki, a bright, articulate Californian, who admits he finds places like Bromley more inspiring than where he resides in Shoreditch.

self-portrait-by-kovi-konowieckiFor his project, Bei Mir Bistu Shein, Konowiecki took his idea of capturing a series of family portraits to the only orthodox family he knew – the rabbi of his childhood synagogue in Long Beach – who gave him permission to photograph him, his children and grandchildren.

He even put him in touch with his extended family in London and Israel.

“I have these very intimate portraits of the same family that are represented by three different parts of the world,” says Konowiecki.

“This project was a way for me to dig a little deeper into my own identity, reconnect and get a better understanding.”

The keen photographer was raised within a secular Jewish family, but he reveals that his Israeli-born mother made sure Judaism was a part of his everyday life. Meeting with these orthodox families allowed Konowiecki a glimpse into a life that he describes as “luminal”.

He explains: “The orthodox are very much part of modern life. They use cell phones, ride the underground and shop in supermarkets just like everyone else, but at the same time they have this ancient and archaic way about them in the way they dress and their customs.”

For Konowiecki, the hardest challenge of the project was trying to convince the families to take part, but he reveals: “Once I was in the circle it was easy and they knew to trust me. It really is a reflection of my own Jewish identity and wanting to represent the Jewish diaspora by showing the same families scattered across the world.”

Poring over old family photographs and films, Konwiecki struck upon the idea of incorporating a floral background, to give his work a painting-like quality, as well as capture the mysticism and history of his subjects.

“All my grandparents were Holocaust survivors, originating from eastern European shtetels, so my idea was to create that shtetel environment and feel by using these mystical floral backgrounds.”

His intention was to “celebrate of the beauty of these families” and the result is a series of portraits that are both mesmerising and illuminating.

In the final portrait of the series, Konowiecki himself is the subject, though as he reveals, it is a self-portrait that had not been initially planned and shows him wearing a Shtreimal handed to him by one of his subjects after he had finished shooting.

Konowiecki believed it was a fitting end to the collection: “This was a way for me to bring this full circle.”

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016 is on at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London until 26 February, 2017. Details: npg.org.uk/photoprize

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