In late 2008 photographer Irina Rozovsky (1981, Moscow) traveled through Israel with three cousins in a rental car. What began as a two-week journey resulted in a photographic turning point, yielding a complicated and surprising body of images. Later she returned to look further at an Israel we do not see in the news. GUP had the chance to talk to Irina about her series 'One to Nothing' (see online portfolio).
What was the starting point for you to photograph in Israel?
I went to Israel at the end of 2008. I brought my camera and some film but had no specific intentions or agenda, just a serendipitous vacation. But immediately when I got there I realized this would be one of the most important experiences for me. I couldn’t put the camera down the whole time - it felt like a photographic explosion, and I had an urgent, pressing desire to show the complexity of the place through images. One year later, I decided to go back and continue to make pictures. So it began as a surprise, with no expectations, and developed into something serious and deliberate.
When you went there the second time, did you have an idea in mind what it was that you wanted to achieve? Or was there anything that you wanted to avoid, such as certain prejudices?
I knew some things about Israel before coming, but was more enchanted by its history than its present day, because it seems everything that happens today is a result of its overarching past. So I came with this mythological, nearly fictional idea of Israel and everything I was seeing seemed to echo with and embody the past in a big way, like the original origin. Also, my family was supposed to immigrate to Israel but instead we came to the US. The possibility of an alternate life that could have grown there, made me feel very at home, very familiar.
How did you work when you where there? You seem to have explored everything very intuitively and in a personal manner.
The first trip, I really photographed non-stop. I was travelling with three other people, so I worked very fast and always on the go. This worked because it let me cast a broad net. The second trip, I went alone and at my own pace, which turned out to be very slow and usually in circles, setting destinations where I would arrive after sunset, in the dark. But this allowed me to look more carefully and I ended up with shots I wouldn’t have otherwise. The best process for me is to have an idea in mind and while trying to pursue it, be swept aside by something that turns out to be more interesting and surprising. It’s a good combination of planning and chance. The shot of the sheep is an example. I was racing the sun to make it somewhere before dark. There was a shepherd leading a gaggle of sheep on the side of the road, directly from Biblical times. I jumped out of the car and ran in front of them for a long while, changing the course but landing an image I couldn’t have planned or predicted.
The way you photograph people is very interesting. At the beginning of your journey you seem to approach them more from the position of a stranger, mostly from a certain distance. But by the end you seem to engage with them more directly and even collaborate with them.
My cousin Mark is in many of the images. I was drawn to photograph him because he is so present and engaged in the moment and in his surroundings. But of course it’s not obvious that we know each other, that’s internal information. I like how a photo can flip a close friend into a stranger, just as it can portray empathy for a stranger whose face I can‘t even see. So I think the distinctions between relations are diminished and everyone is portrayed as a kind of familiar stranger in my photographs, no matter who they are in reality. Also, there are very few faces - most people are looking away from the camera because these are not portraits, but more so ideas about people that can represent anyone.
There is a slight sense of absurdity and humour in many of your images. Is that something that you introduced deliberately?
It’s probably wrong for me to say that many things felt ‘funny’ in Israel, because it is a place that is so conflicted and tense. But nevertheless, I think there is actually a heartfelt humour that permeates this territory. I think the imagery that depicts places that are struck by war or other grave situations, is often one-sided and misleads us to think that no one there is laughing. But I think there is almost a heightened sense of humour that is developed like a kind of survival tactic, or defense. When things get real tough or serious, all you can do is laugh. But I certainly hope my photographs do not seem mocking by any means. I feel a very deep affection for this place and somehow it seems to naturally express itself through a lighthearted absurdity.
Which role does the lighting and the choice of colours play for you? Do they reflect on your feeling of the place? Or do they refer to mythological things?
For me the facts are not the point. They exist very far below the surface. What’s heightened is the awareness of the place or the essence that is a result of the facts. And you know, there is nothing like light and colour that can communicate this. I like the pictures to be warm, so you can feel the heat of the place, with the dust of the desert, fogging the view.
How do you think about the nature of your series? It is certainly not classical reportage or documentary, but also not simply a travel diary, as your work is likewise informed by a personal as well as a mythological and political background.
I hope the work does not fall into a romantic, impressionistic vision of the land. There is a real exigency in the air in Israel that I wanted to respect and allude to, without being obvious. Yet at the same time this is not news or reportage. In fact, I was really looking for the possibility to create a body of work that can elegantly bridge different genres, without quite belonging to a single one. There are elements of documentary but with an exaggerated poetic license. I dread the category Travel Photography because anyone can go somewhere exotic with a camera. But there is certainly a voyage going on here, I can’t deny that. A trip through a complicated place that is impossible to define. Maybe the photographs can escape definition too.