The Layers Project Blends Photographs and Words to Create Touching Portraits
In 2015, Shira (Lankin) Sheps ’09S began a blog, “Emuna Balaylot” [Faith in the Evenings], as a way to come to terms with a five-year chronic illness. She began by writing, “I am starting this blog because after years of quiet illness, I have wrestled with rage, self-pity, sadness and loss. What I have left is an awareness that this is a test that God decided I needed to become the best version of myself. Being stripped of confidence, I have uncovered gentleness. In removing fear, I have found bravery. Deprived of assurances, I discovered faith.”
Eventually, she was able to find relief from her condition, and it literally left her a changed person. “When I was sick, I still retained a lot of creative energy, but for the most part, I did not have the strength to do anything creative. I would sit quietly and watch the shadows of the sunlight streaming in through the window.” In these contemplative moments, and in the respites she had from her illness, “I was still grateful to be alive, and I appreciated those small moments of beauty. When I got better, I was so full of creative energy that I just wanted to capture it all.”
And so she has, in many different ways. While continuing her blog, she has also begun a successful career as a photographer who is “passionate about capturing precious moments and ensuring that memories can be shared.” In addition, she has founded The Layers Project, a photojournalism and interview-based project that endeavors “to give other Jewish women the opportunity to talk out loud about what made their lives hard, for the purpose of breaking down stigma and creating a community of healing.”
Before coming to Stern College for Women, she attended yeshiva day schools; Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School in South River, New Jersey; and Midreshet Moriah for seminary in Jerusalem. Stern College gave her the opportunity not only “to continue learning Torah as a dual curriculum but also, as a frum [observant] woman, to find growth opportunities that met my unique needs as an observant Jew.”
But most importantly for her, Stern College gave her a warm and supportive community who accompanied her on the path of her life’s journey. “Everywhere I looked, I saw the faces of friends who I loved spending time with as we planned our futures and dreamed about what life would be like, where we would go, what we would accomplish.” YU gave her the space and the resources where she could be “a religious person whose participation would not be hindered by my observance and the confidence to engage with my professional life in that manner.”
She also had the great good fortune to meet her husband, Scott Sheps ’08YC, while at Stern College. He was a year ahead of her at Yeshiva College, and they were married in 2008. They have a 7-year-old daughter, Ayelet Emuna, and a 4-year-old son, Dovid Betzalel.
Sheps went to the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and received her MSW there. She recalls that she experienced a “huge culture shock” when she arrived. But because of the way she was able to discover herself in the safe space of Stern College, she was able to embrace the differences of the people around her and was ready to find her own way in the world.
“With The Layers Project, I was looking to create an experience that combined the power of looking into someone’s eyes face-to-face while hearing her tell her story at the same time, which is why I use both writing and photography in the Project,” Sheps said. She added that “I put it online so that more people have this experience of listening to people being honest, and hopefully so it would educate people on the issues we tackle. I really hoped that it would allow people to feel less alone.”
The stories on The Layers Project are profiles of what Sheps calls “real Jewish women of all kinds willing to share their complicated, messy, beautiful lives, and where we get to learn about what makes each woman unique.” When Sheps interviews them, “we discuss challenges and triumphs. The space between how they see themselves, and how the world sees them. The blessings and the moments we say, ‘this too shall pass.’” She then pairs the photographs of the woman being interviewed with the text to round out the experience.
But the stories are not only stories about individual lives and individual triumphs. They are also stories to remind the world about the importance of Jewish women and the roles they play in their personal and communal lives. “I felt it was important to provide a space online that focused on showcasing pictures of Jewish women,” she explained. “So much of the Orthodox media are erasing images of women, because they deem that our faces are not tzanua [modest]. I think that is a corruption of Jewish values, so I am striving to do the opposite with their faces and their stories so that instead of Jewish women disappearing, they become three-dimensional characters that are beautifully human and worthy.”
This is, in fact, what she wants people to take away after they’ve read the stories and viewed the photographs. “I want the visitors to know that we can work together to break down stigmas in our communities and let people get the support they need, as opposed to feeling ashamed for feeling different or other. I want people to make connections for the purpose of healing, engage with others with open interest and empathy as opposed to judgment. You never know what people are dealing with, and I think when you walk away from reading a profile in The Layers Project, that point really hits home.”