ISRAEL ROLY NETIV: ON FLAGS
Taly Cohen Garbuz in conversation with Israel Roly Netiv, November 2007
Taly Cohen Garbuz: Roly, you called your book Derekh Degel (Heb. "The Way of a Flag"). Is it also a path that you have covered?
Roly Netiv: Indeed, I have come a long way during the work on the project. Originally I was preoccupied with an ostensibly "anthropological" phenomenon, but arrived at unexpected places. I can say that it is an honest, highly personal work. It also contains a more accurate understanding of the possibilities inherent in the medium of photography.
Taly: You present landscape photographs containing flags, and yet there is a sense of a deeper inner experience hiding behind the flag images.
Roly: Something happened to me in the process. I think it had to do, among other things, with the responses I received from artists who are "second generation" - children of Holocaust survivors. They made me realize that I was, in fact, dealing with my own memory and private anxieties. I started asking myself why I was the only one who sees the tattered flags waving everywhere. Why no one else seems bothered. All of a sudden I wasn't scared to regard my torn flags as an exact metaphor for our life here, as I experience it. In previous works I made efforts to "distance the testimony," so to speak. I did not address anxieties. It is hard to be a Holocaust survivor constantly struggling to survive. You must lead a life that will guarantee your survival. I was aided by escape; by erasing the memories, concealing the anxieties.
Taly: Still, you took pictures, you exhibited works.
Roly: True, but I was a man of countless screens. For example, years ago I exhibited at the Museum of Art, Ein Harod, and at Tel Aviv Museum of Art a project entitled A Woman I Loved. It was a beautiful exhibition of nude photographs. Emanuel Bar Kadma did a favorable color story in the press, but I wasn't there. I created layers of screens. I created the photographs for that exhibition within a very short period of time. That was my mode of work: lengthy periods without ever touching the camera, followed by an eruption of impulsive, impatient and hasty photography, and once again - a long pause. In the series "Flags" for the first time, I work over a long period, and it is a tremendous change. There is a process here, a great deal of trial and error, an ongoing dialogue with the photographs, and much consideration for others' responses.
Taly: The responses come from a group of people to whom you e-mail photographs. It is an interesting phenomenon: a work spawned by interaction.
Roly: There was a two-way work process here with a group of people whose opinions I value. It is a mode of work made possible by the Internet, which I regard as a true asset. Sometimes I get approval, and sometimes the responses are akin to a revelation to me, a type of enlightenment that leads to consideration of new channels. Responses that guide me and call me to order. I have realized that such a discourse is right for me. I send a photograph; I don't have to confront someone face to face. This way a much more honest and profound dialogue is initiated.
Taly: When a man decides to take up photography, sometimes it turns out, in retrospect, that the choice was not entirely accidental. Something in your world view, or private history, leads you to photography.
Roly: My encounter with photography was entirely incidental. I worked as a guide in a children's institute. My wages were meager, and to increase my income I started developing photographs in the bathroom, with an old enlarger. Later I enrolled in a medical, scientific and technical photography course in the Technion's external studies program, because they didn't require certificates from earlier formal studies, which I had not acquired. Later on, when I worked in the Natural Sciences Department at Oranim Academic College, the director of the Art Teachers' Training Institute, Gil Moses, offered me to teach photography. It took some daring and improper impudence on my part to accept the offer. I found myself, a photographer who wasn't an artist, working alongside respected artists such as Arie Navon, Michael Gross, Yaacov Dorchin, and others. The situation forced me to connect to art. I read texts, I listened to others, I learned to quote, and I gradually made these things my own. I even found advantages in my starting point. Unlike others, I could operate without restrictions. There was also a disadvantage - I operated out of context, my knowledge was lacking and replete with gaps.
Taly: You found yourself in new territory, with a new language.
Roly: Yes. There were two things about photography that made me fall for it. I still think that photography does not require innate talent. Photography is a language which may be acquired. I realized that if I work hard, I could learn the codes and make photography my own language. In those years photographer Joseph Cohen immigrated to Israel. The encounter with him exposed me to the academic facet of photography. Cohen came from the United States. He had studied with Minor White. We became acquainted when I invited him to teach at Ohel Sara, which later became the Max Stern Academic College Emek Yezreel. He was the one who reached out and "helped me cross the road." In his home I was exposed to a rare, rich collection of photography books, mainly American photography. He was one of the most generous people I have ever met. After that, I learned to walk by myself.
I am fascinated by the view regarding photography as an intuitive act which skirts thought processes. I take pictures without accounting for myself, and without much planning and contemplation. Only later, facing the screen, do I realize what I took and why. A photograph must tell me something about myself, about the medium and the subject matter which had been unfamiliar to me. Otherwise it is pointless. In this, I think I am quoting and concurring with things said by an important American curator before me.
Taly: You mentioned anxiety earlier, hiding behind screens.
Roly: My entire life I repressed the story of my parents. I didn't want to deal with the memory. It started cracking about ten years ago, when my fourth son, Matan, turned 13, and had to prepare a "roots project" for school. I couldn't tell him anything about the family. I had no idea. At the last moment, I managed to locate, with my uncle, my father's brother - an ultra-Orthodox Jew from B'nei Brak - old photographs of my mother and father from the 1930s inside an old shoebox. Ever since, my parents found a place in my life which they had never had before. After finding the photographs I reached other sources of information which gradually made up the jigsaw puzzle. Pieces were missing, but I found out many new details. We were left, my brother and me, with many unsolved riddles. We still don't have the full sequence of events; there is no one to tell us. My father was taken to Auschwitz in 1942, and must have been murdered that same year. My mother turned herself in to the Germans in 1943 and survived the inferno, but she was never herself again. She gave us away to strangers, in the hope that they would take care of us.
At the end of the war, she found us. It was a traumatic experience. They brought us to a large warehouse in a train station. There were lots of children from all sorts of institutions, orphanages, and hiding places. Trains crowded with refugees released from the displaced persons camps came there to look for their children. One tattered, beaten, disheveled and squalid woman identified me as her son because I looked very much like my father. So our mother came back to us, a miserable, broken woman who couldn't raise us. Our entire childhood and youth were spent in Belgium, and even after we immigrated to Israel in 1949, we stayed in institutions and orphanages. I kept running away, until at 15 I ran away for the last time, and never went back. I lived off odd jobs, and at 18 I reported to the IDF recruiting center and said: Here I am.
After emigrating from Belgium where we were born and raised, I never saw my mother again. She was not a present figure in my life. Her passing in 1980 left me quite indifferent. One Holocaust Remembrance Day they broadcast a film with General Yossi Peled, who spent a short time with me in the same children's institution, and even immigrated with me to Israel. The film followed his journey, with his son, first to Belgium, where he had spent the war years, hidden by a warm and loving Christian family. From there they continued to Poland, where Peled's father was born, and where he also perished in Auschwitz. In one scene he describes the experience of meeting his mother after the war. She showed up at the house of the family that hid him during the war, and uprooted him from what he experienced as a paradise into her hell. He never forgave her for the miserable life she gave him. The director asks him how he feels about it today, and he says: "I'm not angry with myself, because I behaved as a child is expected to behave; I was angry with her, and hated her. Today, if I could apologize, I would apologize for one thing - that I was unable to realize, at the time, that all that kept her alive in the camps was that, every night when she went to bed, she thought and dreamt of the moment she would be with her children again. This was probably what gave her the power to cling to life." His words hit me. All of a sudden I realized what I had done to my mother. It was like a bolt of lightning. You have no idea what hides in your soul, until it suddenly surfaces. You realize that you have gone past it so many times, and failed to see. I needed that trigger. Today, more than anything, I feel grief and compassion for her.
Taly: You started photographing flags; you went into the public sphere.
Roly: When I started the project, I repeated an exercise in which I was well-versed. I formulated a rationale and claimed anthropological observation of a phenomenon. In effect, I tried to justify to myself, something I had done for very different reasons. I think that my flags are a metaphor for my anxieties, for vanished dreams. I feel as though my world is collapsing. I am no longer certain of anything. The torn flags are not a criticism of society. I come from a place of hurt. Crumbling flags which were once hoisted with great pride and all so quickly turned into rags, and everyone goes about his business, as in the last days of Pompeii. The flags project was a type of mourning journey.
My photographs are not a statement about the Israeli flag, but an expression of what many people here feel. This flag once defined our hope. A powerful sight that I remember from our journey to Israel is the two great smokestacks of the ship Galila on which we sailed. Each had a large flag with the Star of David painted on it. For us, it symbolized all the hopes - our flag, not the Belgian flag. These smokestacks were the ship's identifying mark. When they sold it, I thought it was an unthinkable thing to do.
Taly: The flag photographs call to mind the squalor of the reunion with your mother.
Roly: Yes, misery is ever present in my fears. I have great difficulties accepting it. It scares me to no end. It seems to me like something from which one cannot escape.