Irina Rozovsky contends with questions of how land, identity, and conflict can be identified into two-dimensional form.
“If space is the field for memory, and if memory is the basis of our narrative self-invention, then we must live in some seam between inside and outside, some corridor between the place we make and the place that makes us.”
—Richard Powers, interview with The Believer magazine, February 2007
The American urban sociologist Robert Park, who coined the term “human ecology,” once wrote:
“The city is man’s most consistent and, on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in, more after his heart’s desire. The city is the world which man created; it is the world in which he is therefore condemned to live. Thus indirectly, without a clear sense of the nature of his task, in remaking the city, man has remade himself.”
According to Park, our personal and collective senses of self are expressed, produced, and refined by the material forms with which we organize our own space, thus making possible our relations with others. This is not to suggest that this organization is always consensual, or that its strictures are voluntarily assumed. Each of us, in some fundamental way, becomes the issue of these reciprocal processes wherein social and political forces organize the spaces in which we live. In the ongoing construction of community, these dynamics admit some, nurture others, and expel more.
For Irina Rozovsky, Israel has long been a part of her own lineage, memories, and sense of personal identity. This had been the case despite the fact that prior to 2008, she had never been there. For peoples of any diaspora, identity, memory, and place can be profoundly intertwined in the absence of the very earth in which those notions were formed. A Russian immigrant to the United States, Rozovsky traveled to Israel in 2008 without any intention of making a body of photographic work but swiftly found herself in the throes of a picture-making frenzy, the result of which is One to Nothing. These pictures emerged as a means to draw together the multiple strands of personal, racial, religious, and societal histories as they had informed her relationship with Israel. At the same time, they embraced the vast, insurmountable anachronism of this symbolically charged landscape that harbors an ancient and contentious history.
One to Nothing depicts these interweaving strands in two-dimensional form, traced backward from the flotsam and jetsam on which Rozovsky’s camera alights in odd corners around the periphery of things. Her images work from an angle against the current and far from the architecture of manifest national destiny or religious grandeur that so scars and illuminates the landscape. The fact that neither the Separation Wall nor the Wailing Wall feature in her work is not a function of evasion, but a rhetorical choice. By refusing to make images heavily freighted with the symbolic cargo of pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli politics, and by instead concentrating on the modest interstices of the most ordinary and unremarkable events, Rozovsky is able to articulate the perennial and decisive influence of violence and conflict sans ideology.
One to Nothing leads the mind toward the terrains of imagination and memory, principal battlegrounds in the continuance of this interminable conflict. Precisely because the book is rife with various references to religious iconography, and to the biblical echoes that Rozovsky so strongly felt while in Israel, it becomes clear on reflection that “narrative self-invention” is at the core of the intractable anachronism that is Israel: at once narrow and spacious, barren and fertile, dry and enfolded in water, ancient and suburban, sacred and deeply mundane.
I spoke with Rozovsky over several days about the making of the work, what went into it, how it unfolded, why it happened, and how it resolved itself.
–Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa for Guernica
Guernica: You elected to make a body of work in probably the most politically contentious region on the face of the Earth, a region whose bloody and turbulent history asks some stark moral questions of anyone familiar with it, and you’ve also elected not to evade making reference to that history and to those conflicts. Why?
I began shooting with a pressing urgency in the hopes that with photographs, I could hint at this complexity and embrace the incomprehensible scenario that Israel presented.
Irina Rozovsky: Some background information: I came to Israel at the end of 2008 with no plans to make a project, let alone a book. It was a long overdue introduction—in 1988, my family was supposed to emigrate to Israel from the USSR like many Jews at the time, but we never got there, almost by chance ending up in the U.S. In this way my trip felt like a type of return to an alternate past, which admittedly added a filter of mysticism to what I saw through my camera.
We are told this place is volatile and often cruel. It is the world’s Achilles Heel. From the safety of our living rooms, we watch the news, cast our judgments, and pick sides as in a sports match, but there is so much more at stake. When I found myself there, with the baggage of my ancestry in tow, things appeared vastly more tangled and layered than any one portrayal could possibly depict. I began shooting with a pressing urgency in the hopes that with photographs, I could hint at this complexity and embrace the incomprehensible scenario that Israel presented.
I was drawn to photographing the land itself: its age, the force of its real and mythic history, its surface both harsh and tantalizing, with conflict engrained in the sands. Perhaps in a futile way I looked at people destined for battles that have come to define them. It’s important to state that this work is not at all about the specific relations between Israelis and Palestinians, or any group that can be labeled and identified. It has to do with people in general—something about human nature that pulls us into perpetual conflict, from the epic, political, or societal to the personal or internal. All the world’s fighting, winning and losing are compressed and unmasked in this small stretch of land, and beneath it all is the light, beauty, and humanity that in this circumstance takes on a heightened meaning, which guided me like a compass. The book is filled with struggles of varying scales, pushing and pulling against the backdrop of a dusty eternity.
Guernica: The book alights on instants and then moves on with great facility and equanimity, which I suppose speaks to your conviction that you were not making photographs about specific relations or even specific sides. Did you find yourself hesitant in the making of the photographs at all? Did they come haltingly or in a flood?
Irina Rozovsky: I think the only truth in a photograph is its ability to reveal how the photographer feels about and relates to his/her subject. One to Nothing does not depict Israel itself, but my understanding and experience of it. During my first trip I felt like an antenna—I saw images everywhere all the time and with an exhilarating, eruptive newness. The images themselves reflect this type of innocent, nearly naïve, serendipitous discovery. I shot more in two weeks than I had in almost two years. When I returned a second time, I came with pictures in mind and sketched out on paper and spent entire afternoons in careful pursuit of single images. This batch of photographs look slow, as if the events they capture have been paused, left waiting or brooding. But regardless of how I worked, fast or slow, I felt an incredible force and urgency.
The book is structured around this sense of a maddened sweep through a landscape where time is both limited and irrelevant. There are bursts in the edit, in the form of clumsy confrontations between the momentary present and the ever-expanding past. In the pockets of the desert, for instance, nothing has changed; time seems vacated, and the idea of “now” is meaningless. But the desert is just a short drive outside of the city, which appears so quickly on the horizon that here is a sudden, perplexing time warp. I wanted the selection and sequence of images to show this tension of contrasting eras piling on top of each other.
Guernica: Your photographs are essentially elliptical, and so the cumulative effect of their sequencing is not the construction of an argument like Jones-Griffith in Vietnam Inc., or Epstein in American Power, but much closer to Fulford’s Raising Frogs for $$$: laying out linked but open sequences that build up a distinct world by allusion and rhythm, but not by the denotation of some literal set of facts and descriptions. I have the feeling that you couldn’t work systematically or according to the strictures of a script?
Irina Rozovsky: I do respect subtlety in lieu of concrete visual statements, and respond to images that imply, rather than insist. And you are right, I’m not systematic at all, which is oftentimes a problem. But in Israel the randomness that is inherent to my photography found its calling, and somehow expressed the nature and rules of the place itself. The only system I could detect there is that everyone is trying to get by however they can—things are out of control in a way that I really related to. The image of the yellow house that’s absurdly boarded up is important to me for these reasons. It is not like this due to someone’s laziness or disregard. Rather, it is a metaphor of someone’s effort to keep things from falling apart, doing whatever they can to the very last. It is a portrait of the edge of despair. This survival instinct under pressure, when you can’t afford to be too particular, is very close to me and I saw it throughout.
What was mind-blowing to me about Israel was seeing the semi-fictional, biblical visions that are engrained into our cultural heritage out there in front of me, lightly butting heads with the difficulties of present-day reality. It felt very much like a mirage, or a collage, and my natural response was to make images that are equally indirect, semi-abstract, often disjointed and reaching for symbolism. That said, One to Nothing comes from a heartfelt sincere place, and there are no tricks here. There is also no partisanship in the photos, no taking sides, nor any real acknowledgement of the sides involved. It’s an exercise in empathetic neutrality. Even when there is reference to God (the reaching hand, the car mechanic in the first pages with a jar of nuts and bolts), I am pained by his image and wonder about his despair.
Guernica: This may be stretching credulity a little in asking this, but having spent a little time looking at your biography I have the sense that you’ve become accustomed to being an outsider, or of occupying a position off to one side, and I have long suspected that this kind of disposition of being outside or at the margin is incredibly conducive to photography. What are your thoughts?
Irina Rozovsky: It’s hard for me to say where I’m “from” or know exactly where I belong, nor does it matter. In every aspect of life I prefer to be the tourist rather than the tour guide and find it easier to relate to a person or place in a “passing through” sort of way rather than a continued, repeated encounter. This is helpful to my photography as it allows me to evaporate into my surroundings a bit. I always seek to erase the separations and differences between myself and the person in front of my lens. The camera is a great equalizing force in my mind and a picture is like an invitation to dissolve into the other person, landscape, or moment for an instant.
With regards to photographing in Israel, the crazy thing was that it was oddly familiar, like coming home in a big way, like ancestral, generational voices talking deep within me. In the U.S. there is a lot of focus on being an individual, owning your life, designing your future. The “you” comes before your family. In Israel it was reaffirming to realize my life is part of an ancient trajectory. It’s something very difficult to express but it made me see how tenuous one’s ties to a country are and that one’s sense of identity is engrained in a people.
The image of the tent on the beach says it best. Here was a family whose life was packed into the suitcases you see there. They had claimed a spot in the sand. As the tide grew closer, the entire family made the effort of moving a few feet back, re-establishing a home base, setting up camp again, and with the broom you see there, patting down the sand around them—as I imagined it, to erase the path they took. I watched this process reoccur a few times and the whole incident and its visual form took on a symbolic proportion—the family is each person’s idea of home.
Guernica: There’s a great deal of anachronism and mystery in these images. It feels in some ways like it must be analogous to your experience of being in and beginning to see this unfamiliar land. While I’m sure that you saw Temple Mount and The Wailing Wall, my strong suspicion is that you would rather concentrate your lens on the way a shadow fell on one of their bricks than make the grand frontal view. What is it that draws you to the miniature more fleeting aspects of a scene?
They are figures, like the forms on a Greek vase, depicting action shots, or more accurately inaction shots.
Irina Rozovsky: It’s true, most of these photographs were made in the periphery, in the wings rather than on stage. It seemed like these off-kilter, side-glance observations were more indicative of the larger picture. It was important not to reveal the place so you wonder where you are and feel vaguely familiar here, like somewhere you have already been. I’d like you to yield to a certain disorientation and let the rules of the place take hold. For instance, the photo of the ladder hanging slanted under the painting was made inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a few feet behind the spot where it’s said that Jesus was buried and resurrected. It was a dark, deserted corner, away from clamor of pilgrims waiting to touch the tomb itself. I was curious about what kind of stuff had been discarded in this semi-storage space but it was too dark to see so I took a picture with a flash to let the space clarify itself in the photo. I had no idea at the time that the painting depicted an injured Jesus swaddled and carried by many hands, which correlates in a strange way to the distorted ladder beneath the painting: pointing sideways rather than up to heaven, undoing the idea of the resurrection itself, ironically hanging in this of all places. It’s interesting to me to stretch these small, innocent moments seen in the fabric of everyday life into larger, monumental events that push beyond the current moment in time.
Guernica: That’s an intriguing point, the notion of not only embracing disorientation, but also of lending grandeur to routine moments in the flow of everyday life. I think there are a number of images in the book where there seem to be suspended questions—typically those that are portraits: a woman walking into the darkness of a passageway in a room you’ve illuminated by flash, an elderly man clambering up into a truck, a young girl fully dressed standing in the sea in waters that nearly reach her waist, a father and son (we imagine) stretched out by the sea, and so on… Could you talk about the way you use these specific images to allude to particular things that you’re building into the narrative?
This formal conflation was an important symbol to express a basic idea of codependence and balance—as the two sides confront each other, they begin to depend on this opposition to maintain a sense of identity and stability, and eventually meld into one.
Irina Rozovsky: Yes, that sounds pretty good to me. My images of people are not portraits. They are illustrations of human efforts, many of them in vain. (There are some existential questions that one collides with when passing through the belly button of civilization.) They are figures, like the forms on a Greek vase, depicting action shots, or more accurately inaction shots. They are so absorbed by their uneventful activity that they have no idea that they are being monumentalized. Also, the individual is most often stranded in the between, confronting gravity: suspended in midair but pulled to the ground. Nobody is doing anything with clarity or conviction—these are figures that personify the state of tension, limbo, desperation, and absurdity (like the Hassidic girl half-swimming fully clothed in the same waters that Jesus walked upon) that I felt in Israel and perhaps about life in general. I saw the title of the book not only as a score but a ratio of the individual to his/her surroundings.
Guernica: There are some distinct and repeating figures in your book (couples, barriers, inside/outside, land from water/water from land, emergence/dilapidation). To what extent do you think you brought a way of seeing with you, and in what ways did you discover one while you were there? How do these repeating figures look to you now in terms of the question of preconceptions and discoveries? I’m thinking, for instance, of the two young women, one covered in mud emerging from the earth by the sea, and the other fully clothed in waters that reach nearly up to her waist, with a puzzling and indeterminately focused look on her face…
Irina Rozovsky: I was interested in this doubling, coupling, two-into-one way of seeing, like the wrestlers on the cover. This formal conflation was an important symbol to express a basic idea of codependence and balance—as the two sides confront each other, they begin to depend on this opposition to maintain a sense of identity and stability, and eventually meld into one. You can’t have a wrestling match by yourself. It’s a tugging and pulling that finds peace in the completed shape of the donkey on the back cover, who perhaps eons ago was himself composed of two stubborn embattled sides who eventually became this one impassive (likeable) animal.
Yes, the girl is coming out of the land, emerging or being born, and it’s both remarkable and painful. Later I thought, she’s returning to the land, the cycle in reverse. With the triangular ceiling as well, it’s unclear if it’s falling or hanging on, suspended in some sort of fight with no end and no beginning, something that is so common here that it’s no longer perceived as violent: it’s like a flower losing a petal.
Guernica: One to Nothing begins in the sea and then moves onto land before heading back out towards water and ending in a pair of photographs that almost evaporate, as though the whole sequence of images is transfigured and made into air, or as though what had preceded these two photographs has now ascended into the heavens. You also make numerous biblical references or allusions in the work, so I’m wondering whether you could talk a little about these motifs and allusions, and how they interact in the overall movement of the book.
Irina Rozovsky: The original version of One to Nothing more closely mirrored Genesis and Exodus, which reflects how much I was thinking about the Bible when I was there, not only because that history stares you blankly in the face, but because it seems to me like the tree trunk from which many gnarled branches grow, the foundation. You asked earlier about visual forms and many of the images talk about the conflation of two bodies that could just as easily be a split between them. The idea of Judaism and Christianity originating from the same place and growing to contradict each other is a motivating question here.
But the Mark Twain quote from The Innocents Abroad that begins One to Nothing says it best—there is an uncanny realization that the land that stretches out in front of you is the very same place where a God once stood and looked upon the very same things you are seeing. It’s so simple and profound that it flattens your life and its dramas into a dust speck on an endless time line.
Guernica: What gives you a sense of resolution for the book? You had to elect to finish at a certain point, with an image that would be freighted with cargo of all those that had preceded it. You begin the book with distance and light, and you end with distance and light in those two contrasting bookends. How do you feel that these closing images give it a sense of resolution? Or to put it another way, what do you hope that we as readers might leave with?
Irina Rozovsky: In fact, the very first image in the book (not counting the images on the cover) was originally the very last one. I like the idea of the book being read backwards in the same way as it’s read front to back. (In Hebrew, you flip the other way.) It’s a way to get back to the beginning when there was nothing—the man running like a speck down the mountain could be the last man on earth, but could just as well be the first. And in the last photo there is a release (as opposed to resolution). It’s a chance to start over, a clean start, one of the first days. There was light. The history of mankind, with all its troubles, is just another story. I don’t know a better way to say it than what Chris Killip writes at the beginning of In Flagrante: The book is a fiction about metaphor.
If readers could leave with half of what you responded to, I’d be thrilled. But, two short anecdotes: 1) A curator of a Jewish institution who was recently looking at the work didn’t approve of the project on the basis that Israel here was unrecognizable, and went as far as suspecting that I had made some images in the Hamptons and Upstate New York. 2) A Haitian security guard who worked at the entrance of the photo lab I frequented when I was producing the work once asked what I was working on. When I told him I had made photographs in Israel he was awestruck and exclaimed: “If I told anyone at home that I know someone who’s been to the birthplace of Jesus, they wouldn’t believe me.”
Here are two sides of the same coin that I attempt to flip in One to Nothing. On the one hand is Israel as a larger-than-life, mythological, intangible place that lives in our minds, whose exact image we struggle to conjure but hold very dear. On the other hand is Israel as a defined, real place—a small country delineated on a map like any other country, with a terrain that is similar to other terrains, and people who are living a common day-to-day. It is in the space between these two polarities that the reader has room to roam and visit, to believe and to doubt.
Irina Rozovsky is a Moscow-born, Brooklyn-based photographer whose work has been exhibited and published in the U.S. and abroad. Her new book One to Nothing (Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg) was released in 2011 and named as one of the best photo books of the year by Alec Soth and photo-eye Magazine. Irina teaches photography at the International Center of Photography, New York.
Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is the editor of The Great Leap Sideways, a website primarily concerned with an attentive exploration of contemporary photography.