A window into a different religion, culture and heritage: Kehillah exhibition opens at Bradford Cathedral

From the 2nd November, Bradford Cathedral is hosting its next exhibition – under its Artspace strand – from local social-documentary photographer Nudrat Afza.

‘Kehillah’, a series of photographs that originally premiered in 2019, documents the Jewish faith people in Bradford and has previously been displayed in Salts Mill and Cartwright Hall, receiving attention and positive praise in the media, including The Guardian.

We spoke to Nudrat ahead of the exhibition to find out more about the exhibition and the inspiration behind it, but began by asking her more about her background.

I am self-taught social documentary photographer. I started taking pictures about 30 years ago by chance. This has not been continuously as I am a full-time carer for my 33 year old daughter. I love Bradford and ever since I can remember I have wanted to take pictures of the city’s people and places.

Why were you attracted to the medium of photography?

I have always been interested in photographs. I remember seeing images of Vietnam War in mid 1960s when I came to Britain from Pakistan; and many more incredibly powerful images.

When I started taking pictures, cameras weren’t as accessible as now; not everybody had a camera. It was a very expensive thing for people to do. I was using negative film cameras which I am still using now. My cameras have either been loaned or gifted to me. There is certainly an air of excitement when you use a camera and of course great anticipation of waiting to look at the positives.

I used to go on about how I’d love to take pictures but I didn’t have a camera and then someone said “Here’s a camera, see what you can do with it!” It started from there.

My very first pictures were taken from my doorstep; of people and buildings in Manningham, where I lived. An exhibition curator Barry Sheridan at Piece Hall Art Gallery saw the pictures and showcased them. That was my first solo exhibition.

You like your social documentation, and you capture diverse communities. Why is that important?

Britain is a diverse place. I am from and have lived within diverse communities and marginalized groups all my life. It’s inevitable that I focus on that subject matter. That’s where my passion, life experience and interests lie.

Could you tell us a little bit about ‘Kehillah’?

Some years ago, I gave an elderly friend called Lorle Michaelis a lift to Bradford’s Orthodox synagogue. As we arrived, she said it would be the synagogue’s last service.

I used to see Lorle with another mutual friend, Fay Kramrisch, every Tuesday at precisely eleven o’clock. Two absolutely delightful ladies. Lorle actually lived to be 100 years of age and had escaped Nazi Germany with her brother, both at a very young age.

Shortly afterwards I went to take pictures of the orthodox synagogue which was a modern 1970 ‘s building and later got permission to take pictures inside.

The empty rooms and furniture had poignancy. The images on the contact sheet had a haunting quality, which made me think about why people choose or are forced to move to live in other countries.

Years later, I thought about using these photos and juxtaposing them with portraits of Bradford’s Jewish community in their homes. I ended up photographing the Grade ll-listed Bradford Reform Synagogue, it’s members and supporters. The synagogue was renamed The Tree of Life after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

The President and Chairman of the Synagogue, the Late Mr Rudi Leavor, welcomed the idea: for me as a Muslim, it was very important to have his support and encouragement.

And what does the title ‘Kehillah’ mean?

I asked Suzi Cree a member of the synagogue if there was a Hebrew word that would conjure up a community or togetherness . It was Suzi that suggested Kehillah.

Kehillah is a Hebrew word meaning community and congregation.

The word Kehillah appealed to me because it had a feeling of a community belonging and unity, and people working together. That made me think about the Jewish people supporting themselves and other diverse communities supporting the Jewish community in Bradford.

It is an enormous honour and privilege to have the Kehillah exhibition here in Bradford Cathedral, home to a Christian congregation; a beautiful building with a long tradition of welcoming Bradford citizens of different faiths to come together in mutual respect.

When we honour and remember the life of Rudi Leavor on November 14th 2021 it is fitting that the congregation at his memorial service will see photographs of “his Kehillah” at the Tree of Life synagogue in the heart of Manningham, which he dedicated himself to, as a member and president.

You have previously exhibited at the Cathedral with your photos taken at Bradford City?

That was my daughter’s fault!

Some years ago two friends asked my daughter Khadijah, who has a life threatening condition and learning difficulties, to go to a Bradford City football match. As her full time carer I had to accompany her and finally I went to my first football match.

As we walked towards the ground I felt as if a magnet was pulling me, and I had no control over this feeling. The amber and claret uniformity of people and their sense of unity as they walked towards the football ground felt very moving and poignant. Some of the chants that supporters sang sounded like hymns.

I grew up near Valley Parade in Manningham but had never been to a football match. The sounds of the football crowd had often been the slightly threatening backdrop to my Saturday afternoons; we were warned to stay in.

Now it was my daughter who led me by the hand up the steps to our steeply banked seats. She was confident and had a sense of purpose as she guided me. Our usual roles were reversed. The atmosphere was amazing, people were friendly and it was a wonderful experience.

I expected it to be mostly men but there were all these fantastic, committed women and girls cheering for their team. It was during this time that the idea of taking photographs developed.

When I first went to a Bradford City match I couldn’t believe how many beautiful women and girls there were in the crowd. They were every bit as involved in the action as the men. I had to photograph them. I wanted to capture the beauty of the female football fans at Bradford and their enthusiasm and passion.

(Extract taken from The Bradford Review Issue Nine November 2015: New calendar captures raw emotions of female fans)

What do you hope people will get from seeing ‘Kehillah’?

My hope is that viewers will have a window into a different religion, culture and heritage, that they’ll be informed and be inspired by the Kehillah photographs.

I hope this highlights the similarities between people from different backgrounds.

The complete piece of work will be of interest to many, including religious scholars, local historians, sociologists, other researchers, artists and photography enthusiasts.

Finally, as we head towards Bradford 2025, what does it mean to you to be a Bradfordian?

Bradford is my home and I feel passionate about it. It would be absolutely fantastic for it to win the City Of Culture status which has the potential to bring huge economic opportunities to the city and would place Bradford on the world map for all the right reasons as a centre of inclusive creativity.

‘Kehillah’ can be seen in Bradford Cathedral from the 2nd – 21st November during its regular opening hours. You can find out more about Nudrat Afza at https://www.notjusthockney.info/nudrat-afza/

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