Seated on a sofa in his sparsely furnished Sacramento apartment, Steve Rosenfield hardly seems a provocateur.
A photographer of b’nai mitzvahs, weddings and other lifecycle events, the 38-year-old wears his dreadlocks coiled in a bun, Bob Marley-style, and exudes a sense of being comfortable with himself and others.
That calmness may be the key that disarms strangers who have known him for less than an hour, making them trust him enough to display their deepest, most soul-churning anxieties — in writing, on their bodies — to his camera.
They are participants in Rosenfield’s “What I Be Project,” an ongoing endeavor that is displayed on social media and on college campuses across the country. Rosenfield was set to take “What I Be” to New York’s Yeshiva University in January — until the modern Orthodox institution pulled the plug just ahead of the scheduled opening.
Which only intensified media attention.
In canceling the photo project and exhibition, Yeshiva told Israel’s Haaretz that it was protecting “student sensitivities.” In a statement, the university said that while it supported “the artistic exploration of diverse ideas by its students,” after “close review and much discussion of this event with the student organizers, and taking the sensitivities of all of our students into consideration,” it decided not to host the exhibit.
Rosenfield talks about the Y.U. kerfuffle without rancor. “Institutions have to be careful about their image,” he says.
At the same time, “They wanted to censor the project, which isn’t really how it works,” says Rosenfield, who is Jewish by birth but describes himself as “spiritual “ rather than religious.
The lack of outside censorship, or self-censorship, is one of the driving forces of Rosenfield’s soul-baring photographic project. Typically, subjects spend 45 minutes or so chatting with the photographer prior to the shoot.
At that point, Rosenfield asks each of his subjects to complete the sentence: “I am not my …” In other words, they are not the flaws, real or imagined, that would cause others to judge them.
The results are remarkable both for candor and emotional courage. One young man has “faggot” spelled out across his face. A young woman has written “Yes I’m black” on the palms of her hands. Another pulls down the neckline of her blouse to reveal “I was a man” written across her sternum.
There are plenty of Jewish subjects. Ben Faulding, a 30-year-old biracial Chassidic Jew from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has “schvartze” scrawled across his forehead. The Yiddish derogatory term for black expresses Faulding’s fears that he isn’t fully accepted by the Jewish community.
Faulding’s portrait can be found in “Jews of New York,” a section containing 88 photos and one of many categories of images on the “What I Be Project” website (www.whatibeproject.com).
On the website, Rosenfield explains that he started the project “to help everyone accept diversity with an open mind and heart and empower those who feel they suffer for something they may see as a flaw.”
Freedom is central to Rosenfield’s biography. Rather than going to college after he grew up in Boston and completed high school, he entered the work force as a computer technician for a Boston law firm, where he worked for 11 years.
He was dissatisfied, however. “I was making good money but I was really unhappy with who I was,” he recalls. “I was not one to share my feelings.”
The pivotal moment occurred while Rosenfield was rock climbing. Alone, clinging to the side of a cliff, he experienced a change in attitude. “I became more open about my feelings,” he says. “I felt closer to my family.”
He quit his job, and the admitted non-reader tucked into books like Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” which had been recommended by his sister. With money in the bank, he could devote himself to rock climbing and travel.
Rosenfield picked up photography almost casually, taking cues from both friends and professional photographers during travels in Europe. He says he’s disinterested in photography as fine art, and doesn’t follow the big names in the field.
“I wouldn’t spend $30 on a photographic print,” he says. To Rosenfield, photography is a means to an end, which, he says, is “intimacy with other people.”
Nowadays, Rosenfield travels frequently, pausing in Sacramento every so often to shoot a wedding or bar mitzvah to pay the bills, then dashing off to other parts of the country to shoot the latest installments of “What I Be.”
And although Rosenfield says he does not intend to act as a therapist, he is pleased when he hears back from his subjects that the experience was cathartic, even life changing. One woman photographed two years earlier contacted him, saying that the experience was a turning point in her life.
This kind of feelback is more gratifying, Rosenfield says, than compliments on his photographic skills. Going through life with an emotional burden “is like holding a chair up in front of you and telling somebody to hug you,” he says, adding: “This project helps you to put the chair down, so people can get to you.”