Mo Gelber is a NYC-based street photographer, who gravitated towards the craft to soothe the pain he had been carrying for most of his life. When recounting his childhood he tells us, “I grew up in a dysfunctional home full of violence.” He continues, “my father would let out all his personal frustrations on me.” His suffering needed solace and it was street photography that was going to bridge the gap between the two. In a heartfelt, emotional story, Mo was bravely able to share his journey with us.
Every street photographer has a story to tell. In many ways, that narrative is displayed through the work they produce. Mo’s story starts with his abusive childhood experiences and his upbringing in what he describes as a “religious cult”. About the latter, he says, “We lived in an insular community. We weren’t allowed to watch television or read newspapers or secular books. We were expected to pray and read the bible all day.” He tells us, however, that it was clear early on that he knew something wasn’t right about his experience. “I never fit in. I asked too many questions. I was a class clown.”
“The streets were once my home, now the streets are my canvas.”
Going back to the age of 12, Mo tells us the harrowing story that involves his beloved pet parrot…
“When I was 12 years old I got a part-time job after school and saved money for a year and bought a pet parrot. You know how sometimes parrots mimic words and phrases they hear. My parrot used to say ‘stop hitting me’ and ‘you’re hurting me’. One day I heard my father coming down the hall toward my room so I blocked the door with furniture but it didn’t take him long to break through. He sat on my chest and was punching me and the parrot said ‘dad stop hitting me’. That should have been a moment of awakening for my father to realize how serious his anger problem was and to seek help and correct it. But instead, he went into a deeper rage. He took the parrot outside with its cage and ran it over with his car.”
“People in dissonance with their environment, that’s me feeling like I don’t fit in anywhere.”
Mo wanted to share with us how his involvement with a religious cult first came about…
“When I was a toddler, my family and extended family got swept in and joined a religious cult of ultra-orthodox messianic Jews. The community controlled everything everyone did. They demanded conformity. Everyone had to wear the exact same clothes. Individuality was suppressed. If someone wanted to do something as benign as painting their house, first they would have to write a letter to the big Rabbi and get his approval.”
Exploring his natural tendency to not conform, rather seeking to put a smile on the face of others, he recounts a more humorous story from his past.
“I used to make prank phone calls to the big Rabbi’s wife. She figured out who I was and instead of being angry at me she found it funny and invited me for lunch to her house. I went and she was very nice to me. It was a huge honor to be invited and when I told my schoolmates the next day they didn’t believe me…. if I only had a camera!”
Mo endured many years of living a life in fear of his father .“He would hit me with chairs, pepper spray me in the eyes, push my head through walls. He once tried to set me on fire.” He also lived in constant scrutiny from his community. “Someone started a rumor that a woman outside the community and I were romantically involved. We weren’t but that didn’t stop the harassment, physical threats, and vandalizing of my home.” Mo eventually picked up and left.
” I can be very introverted and sometimes it’s easier to make a statement through taking a photograph.”
With no formal education or place to call home, the next six years were extremely tough for Mo. “When I left the religious community, I had nowhere to go and had no secular education to give me the tools to survive. I ended up homeless and on drugs. I would hang around outside a wedding hall and ask the musicians and photographers to bring me a plate of food from the kitchen and in trade, I would help pack and carry their gear and load their vehicles. I asked a lot of questions and used the opportunity to learn a lot about music and photography equipment. It took me six years to get clean and quit using heroin.”
Thankfully that same strength that kept him going throughout his childhood soon prevailed. Mo was able to get into a position where he could turn his life around.
“I had wanderlust. For the next 15 years, I traveled around the world learning about other cultures and trying to find the place where I fit in. I would work for a year in New York and save all my money. I had a globe. I would spin it and wherever it would land I would go and stay there until I ran out of money and had to come back to New York and start over again. When I would tell my friends about all the exotic places I’ve seen, they wouldn’t believe me so I started traveling with a camera and I got good at photography.”
He first explored the idea of being a photojournalist, but admits he struggled to get a publication to even look at his photos. “I picked the wrong era, as nowadays many newspapers are firing their photographers and using photos they swindle from social media for their articles.” But that passion to create and heal did not die, and this is where street photography started to be his saving grace.
“I started doing street photography and I realized that good street photos can last for generations.”
On the topic of how practicing street photography became his way of healing the wounds of his troubled past, he explains…
“By my own design, I only work part-time in order to make just enough money to pay my bills so that I can have as much free time as possible to do street photography. I like creating art. I finally found a way to express myself. I can be very introverted and sometimes it’s easier to make a statement by taking a photograph. It can give the viewer an idea of who I am, where I’ve been, and how my eyes see the world. I am not the type of street photographer that looks for geometrical patterns or interesting shadows. I can do that too, but essentially I am a storyteller and I’m looking for frames that tell a story. I work in the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’. Even though I left the religious community, it is still a big part of me. I don’t grab my camera and leave my room in the morning until I first put a coin in a charity box because the big Rabbi once told me we have to start our day with acts of kindness.”
We were intrigued at why street photography, as opposed to say portrait and landscape, was the medium he connected to the most…
“Because I spent six years homeless in New York City, I have a connection to the street. Due to my experiences, I can often predict what’s about to happen and therefore I can get in the right position to get the photo. The streets were once my home, now the streets are my canvas. When I notice some common themes in my street photography, it forces me to self-introspection to figure out why my eye was attracted to something particular. And when I figure it out it leads to self-growth and healing.”
We wanted to know how deep this relationship with street photography was able to go, we asked for examples of the connections he has. He tells us, “If I photograph a bicycle it reminds me of how in my childhood I used one to escape my father and explore new neighborhoods. Dogs: they help me to connect to the love I was shown when I would feed the stray ones on the streets. A child in a state of disconnect with their parents: well, that represents perfectly how I grew up. People in dissonance with their environment: that’s me feeling like I don’t fit in anywhere. More positively: people doing something funny. I need to capture that as it represents how I’ve used my sense of humor as a survival tool throughout my life.”
Speaking about the mental improvements street photography has given him, he says, “I should also point out that having a few photos go viral gave me a boost in self-esteem. This makes me feel confident that my life and career are finally heading in the right direction.”
Since starting his street photography journey, Mo has found success in the form of people being interested in buying prints of his work. He hopes to eventually move on to having his photography exhibited in galleries, as well as continuing on his path of self-discovery and mending wounds.
Mo is much stronger now, and street photography has become the crux that keeps him going. With a comforting smile on his face, he states that without street photography he “…would definitely need to go to psychotherapy more than once a week.”