Interview: Loli Kantor
Conducted February 2015
Issue No. 7 – March 2015
Loli Kantor is a documentary and fine art photographer whose work focuses on community and the human condition.
Born in Paris, France and raised in Tel Aviv, Israel, Kantor’s most recent work centers on Jewish life and culture in Central and Eastern Europe. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, she brings a deeply personal interest and unique sensibility to this body of work. The images and stories of her most recent explorations comprise a new book entitled Beyond The Forest: Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe, 2004-2012, published in late 2014 by the University of Texas Press.
Kantor’s photographs have been exhibited widely across the United States and internationally in China, Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Her works are in private and museum collections, including, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin; Lishui Museum of Photography in China; Lviv National Museum in Ukraine. She is a lecturer and participates in book signings, panel discussions and gallery talks for audiences large and small. She has garnered noteable awards and recognition and has participated in recent interviews published in the New Yorker and aired on National Public Radio, among others. Kantor photographs both in film and digital. She is a skilled printer in traditional gelatin silver and platinum/palladium. For more information, please go to www.lolikantor.com.
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BUFFALO ALMANCK: Susan Sontag once pinpointed her viewing the first published photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau as the key moment in the development of her understanding of pain in photography. Holocaust photography as a whole appears indelibly etched in public memory. What role did these traumatic photographs play in the development of “Beyond the Forest?”
LOLI KANTOR: Growing up in Israel and being surrounded by survivors – family, friends’ parents and many of my teachers – we were shown these photographs at a very young age “to never forget.” These traumatic images indirectly informed my work in many instances, such as during my work in Babi Yar, the location of the infamous shooting massacre during the Holocaust, or Bronitzia forest in Western Ukraine where Drohobych Jews were murdered, including some relatives of people I have come to know. When I stood silently within these places, I could visualize the actual events from those traumatic photographs, which remain in my consciousness even now, fifty years after I first saw them. I believe that my subconscious is what shaped “ Beyond The Forest.”
Those same images also informed my choices in using black and white and color photography. About three years into my travels I began using color in my photographs. Consciously and unconsciously I wanted to not repeat those black and white images I remembered seeing. By photographing in color, I was going beyond those black and white images, ‘beyond the forest’ to celebrate the presence, rebirth and life in color.
BA: What distinctions have you noticed in the ways various post-Holocaust generations come to understand their trauma? Do you think your identity as a second-generation survivor specifically informed your project in a manner by which a third-generation survivor might not come to identify?
LK: Yes, of course. The second-generation is different than the third-generation in several ways. We, as second-generation Holocaust survivors are directly engaged. I inherited some of the ambivalence of talking about my experiences, around my own personal loss. When I was young, I didn’t think about it much. But as I grew older, I realized that I wanted to spend a part of my life dealing with this direct loss and finding out more details about what had happened to my grandparents and their families who vanished. I believe that in general people my age are now thinking more about what it means to be a second-generation Holocaust survivor and the impact it has on our lives.
I decided to ask my children Danna Heller, Tammy Kantor and Yoni Ben- Meshulam this question about the third-generation identity and to gather their thoughts. You will see three quite different, yet also similar narratives from their perspective on the subject. They are certainly affected but less directly so.
Yoni ( b. 1980 ) wrote that he generally feels detached from the Holocaust but realizes that there is a significant void in the family tree. He wrote that, “In contrast with my Yemenite family’s teeming and tight network – not without its own traumas, but most definitely thriving – my Polish side has few relations, mostly composed of third and fourth-degree family members who found one another in the aftermath. To me, these relationships are somewhat foggy, lacking context, and further weakened by large distances. Family members are spread between Europe, Israel and the United States, making it difficult to maintain close relations.”
Tammy (b. 1979) says that her sense of loss was greater after visiting Poland and Russia, where there are still survivors and there is still very much a sense of mourning for not only the Jews who died during the war, but also the many Romas and Russians who were murdered. There is a constant awareness of what was and what could have been. “In my own family, my mother’s constant search for, curiosity about and revelations of who her parents were and their families who perished brings in me an awareness and gratitude of being born into privilege and freedom. I am left only to wonder how second and first generations found inner resources and strength to survive the aftermath and do the best they can to survive again in the present amidst the gruesome past.”
Yoni Danna and Tammy grew up in both Israel and the United States. Yoni wrote about the stark differences in the way the two countries teach children about the Holocaust. In Israel, the education is ongoing and about a shared trauma. He says that in the US the Holocaust is a short lesson plan in history class. It is treated as something from the distant past, which happened to other people. He writes that, “Overall, I think I learned more about the global context for the war from my US education, and more about the Holocaust from my Israeli education.”
Similarly, Danna who (b. 1975) said that she always had less of sentimental/dramatic post-trauma from the Holocaust and a more distant way of looking at it. “I can’t quite explain it, maybe because I’m also half Yemenite and am a fusion of Eastern European & Middle Eastern narrative. Yes, it is dramatic, and yes, it is traumatic, and I have a major personal connection. But something in me always looked also at the bigger picture of it all, not only a Jewish-centered-focused approach”.
BA: You have said that you “could ‘feel’ the places” you photographed. Can you articulate what you mean by that?
LK: By “feeling the place” I mean relating to the place, the people, the food and some of the customs, feeling a connection, a cultural connection if you will. I also mean experiencing a deep emotional reaction to many of the places that had been destroyed by the Nazis and the subsequent Soviet regime. Being the granddaughter and niece and cousin of at least three-dozen Holocaust victims makes the impact more visceral.
BA: We are continually fascinated by the opposition structured between rural and urban photographic settings. How would you describe the photographic differences in your images of rural Jewish communities and urban Jewish communities?
LK: Most of the rural images seem as though time stood still. I believe that they would look similar had they been taken in mid 20th century. These communities have very limited resources and most of them are aided by humanitarian organizations. The furniture is simple, the synagogue and its benches are worn, and most people have a weary expression. On the other hand, some of the urban community centers, besides some stylistic differences, could resemble a place in Western Europe or the United States. There is more color and, although modest, homes have more substantial décor, and the overall lifestyle is more progressive. The rural communities interested me greatly because of the unique timeless feel, the evidence of survival in harsh conditions with very few material things and the fact that some of these communities will disappear in the near future as the last of the survivors pass on and the younger generation moves to larger cities or abroad.
BA: Predictable question: Who were the photographers you thought about the most through the creation of “Beyond the Forest?”
LK: The first person who comes to mind is my mentor Peter Feresten, a documentary photographer who among other subjects photographed significant historical places and events in the African American community of Fort Worth. Peter showed great interest in my work and specifically this work in Ukraine. He died in 2006 during the early stages of the project.
Another (predictable) influence is Roman Vishniac, who documented the Jews of Eastern Europe before the Holocaust in many of the same places that I traveled to as well. There are too many… but I will mention here Joseph Kudelka, André Kertész and documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose work I love and have been inspired by since my early years as a photographer.
BA: What is the relationship between “Beyond the Forest” and your past projects, especially concerning your series of theater and dancers?
LK: My affinity for performance and visual arts led me to artists and revivalists who are largely shaping Jewish cultural renaissance in Eastern Europe today. For example: The Polish Writer and fine artist Bruno Shultz who was shot and killed in 1942. Schulz has been celebrated in Lublin and in his hometown of Drohobych with the Bruno Schulz festival which I participated in several times; The singer and musician Alfred Schreyer, also from Drohobych, and one of the very last living students of Bruno Schulz. Mr. Schreyer has been especially gracious with me, sharing his music, his stories and allowing me to photograph him extensively.
The NN Theatre Center in Lublin was founded by an actor and is a unique Jewish living museum and cultural research center. The Hesed Arie Jewish Home in Lviv, and the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow were also venues that I found, and was inspired by. Performers, actors, artists, and history lovers run these places (many are not Jewish). They are people interested in community and trying to preserve and nurture a Jewish cultural renaissance. Naturally I was drawn to these places and people.
Compositionally, there is generally a theatrical element to my work.
BA: What similarities and differences have you observed between European Jewish communities and the lifestyles of the American Jewry? Have you noticed any particular connections or disconnects in your home state of Texas?
LK: Both European and American Jewish communities are trying to preserve their traditions. In Eastern Europe the obstacles are poverty and anti-Semitism, coupled with the fact than many have not practiced Judaism and have had to learn basic holiday rituals etc. The small Jewish population tries to maintain their cultural identity even if they do not or are not able to follow the Jewish rules, such as kashrut. For example, those are salami and cheese sandwiches in my photograph “Kiddush Food, Sukkoth in Bershad” (2007). Those sandwiches were served in the synagogue on a Friday night. In the Jewish religion, there is no mixing of the two, and especially not during a service in a synagogue. I found this heart-warming and admirable.
American Jews struggle to maintain their faith in face of materialism and secularism. Preserving Jewish identity is not about poverty, lack of knowledge and anti-Semitism, but overcoming apathy and the lure of a popular culture that often cynically disdains religious traditions in favor of atheism or a personal spirituality.
BA: What piece of advice would you like to share with emerging photographers?
LK: It is a wonderful feeling to start having your work recognized. There will be ups and downs, thrills and disappointments. So here is what I want to share with you:
Make sure that you are passionate about your subject, and stay open-minded to possibilities. If you work on a subject that you strongly care about, you can persevere having to look at your work, even when you are tired and discouraged.
If it is a documentary project, try not to plan too much and keep your eyes open for the stories and images, which will present themselves and unfold in unpredictable and captivating ways. Work hard. Work hard.
For me, editing is the most challenging and the hardest part of the process of developing a strong portfolio/story/body of work. My own work has evolved through multiple edits for shows and presentations which helped me develop my current project. I also consulted in colleagues and mentors and in the process.
I believe that having a good edit of your work is where you will actually find the story you want to tell.