CINCINNATI — Sometimes things don’t work out as planned. They work out even better.
That was the first lesson Daniel Epstein learned when he began a photography project called Portraits in Faith.
“It actually started at a summer workshop in Maine where you have to have an idea and start shooting immediately,” Epstein said. “I thought it was going to be about clergy, and the first church I went to, I couldn’t find the minister. I could only find the janitor. Then I finally realized, oh...God put the janitor in front of me, not the minister.”
The janitor was wearing a God's billboard t-shirt, Epstein said, with the words: “Great wedding. Invite me to the marriage – God.”
“He had just gotten divorced, which made it more poignant,” Epstein said. “It just reminded me that service comes from all angles.”
Epstein, a former marketing director at Procter & Gamble Co. who traveled the world for his job, decided that day that his project would be about everyday people and their faith journeys.
Now 18 years, 450 portraits and 27 countries later, he has turned the project into a coffee table book called “Portraits in Faith.” The book encompasses 125 of Epstein’s black-and-white portraits and his reflections on the interviews he conducted with each person he photographed. He will release the book Dec. 4 at a launch party co-sponsored by his Portraits in Faith Foundation, which he formed to help raise money for his work, and the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial.
The timing couldn’t be better, Epstein said, with as divisive as the world has become in so many ways.
“I see myself as a healer, although not in the traditional sense,” Epstein said. “My goal is to help people see that there is no ‘other.’ Or as Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk said, ‘We are already one, but we know it not.’ My intent is to heal, and I believe that by receiving somebody’s story and not seeing someone as the ‘other,’ we can heal.”
Epstein knows the project has that power, he said, because it helped heal him.
Being brave enough to share the pain
“A psychiatrist in Boston once described me as a young man who wasn’t happy about much — and I wasn’t,” Epstein said. “I’m really profoundly grateful and hopeful and happy today, and I think this project has helped me feel more whole. You know, it helped me draft off of other people’s faith until I could develop one of my own.”
Being part of Epstein’s Portraits in Faith project was healing for recording artist Neshama Carlebach, too.
Carlebach said Epstein asked her to sit for an interview and portrait five or six years ago soon after she had gone through a separation.
“I was in a very vulnerable, tender place,” Carlebach said. “I’ve lived my life making choices that I hope will be inspiring or uplifting to others. That’s why I sing. That’s why I choose to do the work that I do, because I believe that song helps.”
Until Carlebach talked with Epstein, she said she didn't know her personal story of faith could inspire others.
“Daniel has been a friend to me who has always encouraged me to speak my heart and to share honestly,” Carlebach said. “He was the first person to say to me, ‘Your story is as impacting as your singing.’ And I don’t think I knew that.”
Carlebach said she is not sure if it was her participation in Portraits in Faith that taught her that or the friendship with Epstein that developed. Either way, she said, she gained a new respect for the importance of each person’s journey.
“I really believe that each step of that — even when it’s hard, even when it’s painful, even when we stumble, each step of that can resonate with somebody out there,” Carlebach said, “And if you’re brave enough to believe in sharing that, really you can help other people a lot.”
‘Looking for opportunities to connect’
Carlebach is scheduled to sing at the Dec. 4 book launch party and said she is excited to be part of the event performing songs in English and Hebrew.
“It will be an unplugged, acoustic performance,” she said. “My work is based in prayer, and my really deep belief that when we sing together, something happens to the wind.”
The program falls on the sixth night of Hanukkah, and organizers will light a menorah in celebration, said Marie Krulewitch-Browne. She is the project manager for Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial, a year-long celebration of the contributions that Jewish Cincinnatians have made over the last 200 years.
Krulewitch-Browne said the launch party for Epstein’s “Portraits in Faith” book will help underscore one of the bicentennial celebration’s goals of helping people see how everyone is connected despite their differences.
“The pandemic has been incredibly challenging” Krulewitch-Browne said. “And I think it’s fair to say people are looking for opportunities to connect.”
Epstein said he hopes the event and his book will help people better understand the important way in which everyone already is connected, too.
“When I say we are all one, it means the atheists, the agnostic. It means even those people who think this pathway of faith is B.S.,” Epstein said. “We’re either all one or we’re not all one.”
That’s another important lesson Epstein’s photography project has taught him, he said, and he has faith more people are willing to learn, too.
You can find more information about the Portraits of Faith Foundation and many of Daniel Epstein’s portraits online.
The Portraits in Faith event will be held at 6 p.m. Dec. 4 at the Summit Hotel. Information about the event and how to get tickets is available online, too.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.