Modesto native points camera at Hasidim, survivors

The first time Cliff Lester found himself in the middle of a crowd of dancing Chabadnicks, his rabbi jabbed him in the ribs and said, “Nu, Cliff? Take out your camera!”

Lester, a photographer born and raised in Modesto, had never considered pursuing fine art photography until he was introduced to his local Chabad community at age 45. Now 61, he is a full-time photography professor at Cypress College, near Long Beach, and travels the world shooting the inner circles of Chabad life and elderly Holocaust survivors.

“Tova,” Cliff Lester photograph from Holocaust survivor series

Lester will be in Modesto on Sunday, Nov. 6, to discuss his photographic works, in conjunction with a performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Gallo Center for the Arts.

The son of two Holocaust survivors and longtime Modesto residents, Lester grew up attending the town’s Congregation Beth Shalom. His mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Amsterdam in 1947, was a childhood friend of Anne Frank’s, and was mentioned in her famous diary.

Trying to decide between majoring in pre-med or business as an undergraduate, he settled on photography, a decision that took him to Santa Barbara to study at the Brooks Institute of Photography. With a concentration in advertising photography, Lester went on to start his own studio, which he ran for 20 years, working for clients such as Johnny Rockets, Denny’s and the NFL.

In 2000, an ice cream client invited him to join a lunchtime Chabad study session. Lester surprised himself by enjoying it.

“It was the last place I ever thought I’d go to study and I was very intimidated,” says Lester. “But it got me thinking about all the ways I could do more to be connected to Judaism in my life. I liked that.”

It wasn’t until the two watched a Chabad telethon together that Lester realized what he really wanted to do: photograph Chabadniks. He asked his local Chabad rabbi if he could join him at the next telethon, a televised fundraiser held every year in the Los Angeles area, and was immediately invited. His rabbi liked his photographs so much that he was extended a permanent invitation to photograph the annual event.

“Next thing I know, we’re flying to Crown Heights to photograph at 770,” said Lester, referring to 770 Eastern Parkway, the international headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and synagogue of the late Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. “Everywhere I travel, he has a rabbi waiting for me, to show me around. I’ve been going to places I’ve never dreamed I’d be, and learning about my faith at a deep level. I have thousands and thousands of pictures of Hasidic dudes all around the world. ”

Cliff Lester with some of his photographs

Around this time, Lester got a call from Cypress College asking if he would teach an introductory lighting class. Over the next three years he taught as a visiting professor at a number of colleges in his area, and in 2002, the full-time position opened up at Cypress.

The death of his mother in 2004 caused Lester to turn his camera lens to Holocaust survivors.

“Every time I would talk about the Holocaust, I felt a connection to my mom. To keeping her memory alive,” said Lester about his motivation to seek out survivors for his photography project.

“Their message is much broader than just for the Jewish people — what happened to them shouldn’t happen to any human being ever again. These photographs help spread that message.”

He says he decided to photograph the survivors as simple portraits against white backgrounds, in the style of famed portrait photographer Richard Avedon, so that the lines of their faces would tell their story.

“Some of the people I photographed are upset that I make them look too wrinkly,” said Lester. “I edit kind of harshly because it’s necessary. It’s what grabs people’s attention. It’s what tells the story.”

Since beginning his Holocaust survivors project, Lester’s photographs have been acquired by the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library at Chapman University, and are on exhibit at the Student Center Gallery at Cypress College. Last spring, he organized Cypress College’s first Yom HaShoah memorial service around the photography exhibit.

 Over the summer, Lester traveled to Berlin with his father and brother to photograph the town that his father had been forced to leave in 1939.

Ultimately, he says his goal is to make “the nicest Holocaust survivor book out there, with words and photographs all about accepting one another.”

“My closest connection to Judaism as a kid was going with my father’s father to services,” said Lester. “Just joining the old guys for Shabbat services on Saturday mornings. That is something that has been in my core — when I spend time with these kinds of people, I feel right at home.”

Cliff Lester
will speak on Sunday, Nov. 6 at 4:45 p.m. at the Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I Street, Modesto, immediately following the sold-out performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Other performances of the play are on Nov. 4-5.

Hannah Rubin

Hannah Rubin is a writer at J. She can be reached at [email protected].