Yael Ben-Zion: Intermarried

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday January 15, 2014

Beatrice Rippy married Carroll Hollister in New York in 1959, one year after Mildred and Richard Loving got married in Washington, D.C. to avoid the anti-miscegenation statues of their home state, Virginia. New York is one of the nine states in the US that never enacted anti-miscegenation laws.
—Yael Ben-Zion

This statement in Yael Ben-Zion’s new book, Intermarried (Keher 2014) is a powerful reminder of how much the world has changed since the Civil Rights era. After looking through the book, which includes essays by Amy Chua and Maurice Berger, I arranged for an email Q&A with Yael. This is what she wrote:

Q: How did you arrive at intermarriage as a subject for a long term-project?

A: In 2009 a friend forwarded me a TV ad produced by the State of Israel that targeted Jews who were “lost” to intermarriage. While uncommonly explicit in its message, the underlying sentiment behind this ad is not uncommon. Being intermarried myself, this made me think of the many challenges faced by couples who choose to share their lives regardless of their different origins, ethnicities, races or religions. 

Left: Family, from Intermarried (Kehrer, 2014). Right: Frames, from Intermarried (Kehrer, 2014). Photos © and courtesy Yael Ben-Zion. 

Where did you find your subjects/collaborators?

I posted an announcement on the message board of an online parent group in Washington Heights, where I live, inviting couples who define themselves as “mixed couples” to participate in my project. The vast majority of the couples who took part in the project are people who responded to my post.

With a more secular society today, and more liberal attitudes about cultural/racial/religious differences having altered the social landscape in recent decades, have you found intermarriage to be less of a taboo now than in the past?

Yes, and I assume this is true mostly in a city like New York. One response that I often receive when I show the work is how in the fifties and sixties the term "intermarriage" was mainly used in the context of protestant/catholic relationships, so things have definitely changed. Yet, a lot of the couples I photographed chose to live in New York and in our neighborhood because they feel more comfortable here than in other places in the US. If a cereal commercial that features an interracial couple still makes people uncomfortable in 2013 (I refer to the Cheerios ad that came out last year), it means that we still have a long way to go.

What was the most unusual situation you encountered in your search for subjects/collaborators?

When I think of it, each of the subjects/collaborators shared with me something that I found surprising, be it their background (one of the couples is Nepalese and Ethiopian and they don't know of any other such "mix"), the reactions they received from their families (which in some cases amounted to ostracism) or the role religion plays in their relationship (sometimes unifying, sometimes dividing and sometimes avoided all together). In fact, there weren't any "usual" couples and the work attempts to underline this fact through the images and accompanying texts. 


Left: Book jacket. Right: Indian wedding, from Intermarried (Kehrer, 2014). Photos © and courtesy Yael Ben-Zion. 

The book is beautifully designed; I particularly liked the typography for the title.

As for the combination of the images and texts, Jeanne Verdoux, the designer of the book, who is also one of my subjects/collaborators, created a layout that enables a play between the two while keeping the work image-driven. She also captured the essence of the book with her design of the title.

What are you working on now?

I have been collaborating with the sculptor Peter Bulow in a project about Holocaust survivors and I've been working on a few other projects that are still not ready to get out to the world.

Intermarried is currently on view at La Galeria at Boricua College (4th floor), 3755 Broadway, NY, NY. An artist reception and book signing takes place this Friday, January 17, 6-8 pm. Save the date: Artist talk, moderator by the curator, Gabriel de Guzman, February 3, 6-8 pm. Information. Read a recent Q&A with Yael in the New York Times Sunday Review.

Yael Ben-Zion was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Israel. She is a graduate of the International Center of Photography's General Studies Program. Prior to taking up photography, Yael had a diverse legal career which included pursuing LL.M. and J.S.D. degrees at the Yale Law School. It was at Yale that she took her first formal photography class. Yael's work has been exhibited in the United States and in Europe. In 2007, her photograph Crash was selected for the cover of AP 23. Yael’s first monograph, 5683 Miles Away (Kehrer, 2010), was selected as one of photo-eye’s Best Books of 2010 and for the PDN Photo Annual 2011. It was also a nominee for the German Photo Book Award 2011. Intermarried, her second monograph, has recently been published by Kehrer. She lives and works in New York.