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Saturday, July 06, 2013

You May Touch a Stranger 

The photographer Richard Renaldi is a matchmaker for tense times, asking complete strangers to pose with their bodies touching, as if they were intimates. On a recent afternoon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it was not going well. He wanted to pose an Orthodox Jewish man with someone from outside the Orthodox community.

“It’s going to take all the cajoling I can do,” Mr. Renaldi, 45, said. “There’s a lot of barriers.”

There were, in fact, more barriers than he knew. After terse rejections from several people, a man named Abraham Weiss stopped to look at Mr. Renaldi’s large-format, 8-by-10 view camera. Mr. Renaldi made his best pitch.

Mr. Weiss seemed to go back and forth. He ran a photo printing business and understood the project, he told Mr. Renaldi. But he feared censure from his fellow ultra-Orthodox neighbors. “You have to understand the culture,” he said. If he posed for Mr. Renaldi, someone might see him, take a picture and post it on Twitter. “That could be bad for me,” he said. “Posing for it, that’s the problem. They don’t like imaging.”

As if on cue, a car slowed and the driver photographed Mr. Weiss with his cellphone. “You see,” Mr. Weiss said. He had one suggestion for Mr. Renaldi: “Try Crown Heights or Borough Park. They’re more open there.”

Mr. Renaldi has been working on his portrait series, which he calls “Touching Strangers,” since 2007, and plans to publish a book with Aperture next May. One of his goals, he said, is to get people to think past the divisions — ethnic, religious, socioeconomic — that often go unexamined in urban life. “For a lot of people, it’s an exercise for them to be able to push their own comfort level,” he said.

Some pairs embrace wholeheartedly; some even kiss, though none on the lips (so far). Others pose as if under duress.

Mr. Renaldi said he strove to show tenderness but understood why people liked the fraught pairings, like Alex and Carlos from 2007 (Slide 3). “The viewer gets to ask himself, ‘How would I react if a photographer asked me to do that?’ ” he said, adding that he had “a love/hate relationship with this picture and with Alex. Alex was out of there so fast I didn’t get his contact information to send him a print.”

In Williamsburg on this day, he was experiencing only refusal, a hazard of his chosen project. He has dealt with rejection before: “It took me three years to get a Muslim woman,” he said. But Mr. Weiss’s words, which another man seconded, were discouraging. In six years, Mr. Renaldi said, “I’ve only had one time when I couldn’t get a shot.”

Finally, he left for Crown Heights, where the first person he approached — a 24-year-old Yeshiva student from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement named Shalom Lasker — listened to him and said, in halting English: “No problem. Only men, right?”

And so it was. Mr. Renaldi gathered Jeff Desire, 27, who works in a fish market across the street, and directed the pose: hold here, lean here. Mr. Lasker gave a thumbs up. In 10 minutes they were done. “It’s exhilarating,” Mr. Renaldi said.

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http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/05/strangers-in-embrace/

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