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Toby Cohen and his flying succah

Photographer suspends disbelief — and much else — to raise the profile of the Chasidim

    Leap of faith: Chasidim greet the new dawn at Masada
    Leap of faith: Chasidim greet the new dawn at Masada

    The pictures of photographer Toby Cohen seem to capture impossible moments.

    In one, three Chasidim leap off Masada. In another, a flying succah delicately hovers above an Israeli forest and yet another recreates Fiddler on the Roof.

    The former paparazzo, used to taking split-second shots, has reinvented himself as a photographic artist, creating extraordinary scenes against grand Israeli landscapes.

    But Mr Cohen, 30, who is currently exhibiting the pictures at an exhibition, Cherubims and Angels, at the Engel Gallery in Tel Aviv, insists it takes a lot of ingenuity, planning and chutzpah to make a succah fly.

    He experimented by hanging it from a crane before deciding to build a scaffold in the countryside near Safed.

    Working for three days in the rain, and after an encounter with bemused locals and policemen, he built the scaffolding and balanced the sukkah on it. He then used Photoshop to erase the scaffolding in the images, but was keen for his subjects in the succah to experience flying in one.

    He took numerous photos and stitched the best parts of the scenery together electronically to create the final effects. He used the same technique to make his subjects appear to fly, taking them from different angles and piecing together the final effect. He refuses to take the pictures on solid ground and insert them on to the background.

    He said: “It’s no longer about capturing moments, which is what I was always taught photography was about. What I’m doing now is directing scenes: they are carefully directed and planned.

    “They have to be as real as possible, I wanted the people in the succah to know they were flying.”

    Born in London, Mr Cohen studied A-level photography and marketing in Bristol but ended up forging a career as a paparazzo, snapping celebrities for the Daily Express and the News of the World. Now, having lived in Israel for more than two years, he says the country gave him his artistic awakening. “Israel inspires me. The pictures are there to illustrate the connection between people and the land of Israel. That was what I set out to do,” he said.

    The sense of fun in Mr Cohen’s pictures has resonated with both secular and religious Israelis. He said: “Regardless of whether they are religious or not, people always love my pictures. They’re fun, and mysterious. It’s a completely new, open way of looking at the Chasidim.”

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