Shira Lankin is a photographer and writer whose work explores the lives of Jewish women–oftentimes, women open up to her about their traumas, insecurities, and joys.
Lankin recently founded The Layers Project, which raises awareness about issues like infertility, chronic illness, and mental health. On the site, Lankin writes that the project is “an opportunity to help other people begin to embrace the nuance and complexity in their lives.” Recently, for instance, she focused in on infertility, a project we wrote about here.
Besides being a photographer and writer, Lankin is also a social worker and mom who writes about her own struggles with chronic illness at her blog–illustrating just how vulnerable she is willing to be as a way to help others. In one post, Lankin writes about her illness, saying, she “learned to identify as someone who was “sick,” and went on to write:
“I continued asking, “Why me,” but instead of asking while choking back bitterness, I began to ask with open curiosity. I began searching for answers that would lift me up higher, instead of depressing my spirit. I opened my eyes and honestly looked around not through the prism of envy but through the lens of of empathy. I stopped seeing the world through the binary of able bodies and broken ones, but through the bigger question of “what are we meant to be doing here altogether?” When I stopped asking how could I adapt to living a good life with personal hardships, I realized that perhaps everyone else was also asking that question to themselves.
Opening up and beginning to talk in an honest way was like smashing open the isolation cell where I was living. Since I started this blog, so many people have wrote to me about their struggles- reached out and shared personal details of what makes life hard for them. This experience has just confirmed for me – that no one is living a “perfect” life, because life isn’t meant to be perfect.”
It’s easy to see how Lankin is inspiring to the community around her–which is why I was thrilled to be able to speak with Lankin about the project and her own personal struggles:
Was there something specific that prompted you to start The Layer Project? If so, what was it?
I was sick with chronic illness for several years and kept it a secret. I was afraid of being different, afraid that I had failed to keep up with what was expected of me by communal standards.
After a while, the burden of keeping the secret and pretending that everything was ok, became too much. I wrote a blog called Emuna Balaylot (Faith in the Evenings) and starting talking about what it was like to be sick. The response was so helpful to me. People were warm, supportive and even reached out with me to share their own struggles.
When I got better, I wanted to give other women the opportunity to talk out loud about what made their life hard, for the purpose of breaking down stigma and creating a community of healing. That is how The Layers Project was born.
You have a blog where you talk about dealing with chronic illness, being honest, weight and more. What is something you wish more people, especially friends and family, said to you?
What was really hard about being sick with an invisible chronic illness, was that I felt that people couldn’t see what I was going through. I felt like I had a highly active inner life that wrestled with pain and patience and that waited for blessings.
I wish that people could have said to me, “I see that there is more to you that what I see on the surface.” I think any kind of acknowledgment of how much I was hurting would have helped me feel less alone. A lot of it was my fault though, I wasn’t being honest about what was happening to me and people can’t read minds. When I finally reached out and starting talking about struggling, it helped me heal by finally connecting to others.
What was your favorite children’s book or young adult novel growing up?
Who didn’t love “Harry Potter,” right?
There is nothing more important when you’re growing up than to have an archetypal story of good and evil to help you understand the world. Only once you understand the basics can you move on to nuance.
What TV show have you binge watched?
I love comedies. Give me any NBC comedy I’m a happy camper. Strong female leads like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are always my preference. I love watching them juggle challenges and come out on top.
Who are you, in one sentence? What’s an important thing for you to teach your kids?
I am a person who seeks connection to herself, other people and God. The most important thing I want to teach my kids, is that the meaning we choose to make in our lives can determine the outcome of experiences. Faith can make a hard life still beautiful and worth living.
Biggest pet peeve:
I really dislike when people are fake. I wasn’t raised that way, and I find it very annoying. Most of the time I would probably rather not have a conversation at all if I would have to be fake. I actually discovered later in life that fakeness can be an acquired skill set and my husband tells me it’s called being appropriate.
If you were a Jewish food, what would you be?
Definitely a potato kugel. It’s earthy, salty and sticks with you. I also make a killer potato kugel, which helps.
Is it hard for you to interview, for instance, moms talking about their infertility struggles? I imagine it may cathartic too, in many ways.
I’m actually a clinically trained social worker (MSW) so it’s second nature to interview women and talk to them about what is challenging in their lives. I think one of the beautiful things about the project, is that it doesn’t matter if you are experiencing the specific issue that the woman being profiled is dealing with.
The way they explain to us how they deal with pain or joy, makes us think about our own experiences. Their example of resilience reflects back on our own lives and gives us inspiration, hope or food for thought. Every time I interview a woman, no matter the topic, it makes me stop and think about my own life and in that way it’s cathartic for me.
What was an interview experience with someone in your series that you’ll never forget?
I interviewed a woman named Brooke a few weeks ago, whose special needs daughter, Batya, had passed when she was two years old. I am sure I am not the only one who read that series and who will never forget that experience.
What really impacted me the most, was how Brooke during her time with Batya, through her loss and continuing today, is capable to still find joy and fully embrace life. I think it’s because she is a person who loves so much and so deeply, that even through grief she just runs on love.
What surprised, or continues to, surprise you when photographing people, especially in a vulnerable context?
Many women are so unaccustomed to being photographed alone. They don’t know what to do with their faces, or hands. You can see their discomfort in their posture or their smile. The nature of our photography is definitely meant to highlight vulnerability, or strength–and there is an intimate aspect to sharing even facial expression with others.
I am not surprised anymore, but I do get frustrated only because I wish they could see themselves and how beautiful they are, through my eyes. They eventually do get to see themselves the way I see them through the photographs. It’s really important to establish a level of trust, often I tell them before our photo sessions, “Don’t worry, I got you!”
What does the term feminism mean for you, especially as a mother?
For me, feminism represents respect and the equal opportunity to create and self actualize in whatever form we choose. All humans have unique talents, personalities and aptitudes. As a mother to my 7-year-old daughter, I wish for her the opportunity to continue to grow and fulfill all her potential in a space that welcomes all her contributions. I want her to feel valued, inspired and free.
Check out some of her photographs below: