Walking Into Conflict: Trans Woman and Visual Artist Yishay Garbasz on Chronicling Trauma

05/01/2015 01:42 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

"My job is not to document a story, or see right or wrong -- you must step out of the way and allow the picture to enter the camera," explains British-Israeli and Berlin-based artist, Yishay Garbansz. Her latest show is the solo exhibition "Severed Connection: Do what I say or they will kill you" at the Ronald Feldman Gallery running from May 9 - June 13 in NYC, which chronicles three sites of hot conflict and resounding trauma produced by fear of the other.

Shooting Conflict Zones
Garbasz spent the last 10 years traveling and photographing the DMZ as well as on the South Korean island Baengnyeongdo bordering North Korea, the entire length of the barrier from both sides in Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine, Fukoshima, Japan and lastly the Peace Lines of Northern Ireland and other local spots like the "Murder Triangle." The images were created using a cumbersome large-format camera that must be hoisted onto a tripod before backloading a single negative. Amazingly, Garbasz dragged this kit along with her through check-points, minefields and radioactive wastelands to prevent herself from cheating and taking more images than necessary. Besides the expense, the bulky camera's extensive set-up forces her to soak up the landscapes, wait patiently for the shot and resolve with her entire sensorium where the image lies; all this before assembling her gear for the shot. Only then will she step to the side and press once.

Capturing Trauma
The affective intensity of working at the scene of trauma is central to Garbasz' practice. "Be afraid," she tells me, then methodically "let the fear wash over you and the camera and hope that it stays, let it churn and be with it." Her bearing witness and being open to ordinary people caught up in conflict is important because it allows her to be a witness "in a way that others were not there for me." This project follows on from her acclaimed book In My Mother's Footsteps (2009) that chronicles her movement as a young girl between Jewish Gettos, concentration camps and on a death march that her mother took through Germany from 1942-45. The desire to stand in the footsteps of others is powerful, and perilous. In the exhibition, blue footsteps, like those guiding tourists in South Korea to the 'correct' spot to take a picture, draw us into Garbasz' perspective nestled amongst blood splattered buildings, bombs and radioactive waste. The resulting images are equally soaked in desperate color, evocative and haunting; they shatter our sense of life and death as separate worlds.

De-Humanization and Crowd Control
Growing up in Israel, the daughter of survivors and even as an officer in the Israeli army has its indelible impact, not least the sensitivity to how a people and individual persons can become simply enemy targets. Garbasz' new work-in-development will focus on how soldiers and police officers eliminate the hesitation to kill another human through target practice. The show "Severed Connection" already consists of a body of work that is trying to pause this dehumanizing drilling practice by slowing us down to really look at how fear of the other is produced. By focusing on militarized spaces that use a 'single dimension line of defense' (wall, barrier, limit line) the artist critiques the demarcation of Us and Them. In terms of military tactics, Garbasz says these types of defense between neighboring states are historically weak and unsustainable because there is not enough distance to maintain a single line. Nevertheless, they are powerful spaces for maintaining control over your own people because of the constant tension and flare-ups that reinforce the fear of the (enemy) other. Thus, her images of, for example, tranquil scenes of rice fields that end at landmine fields remind us these are no ordinary landscapes but places that radiate fear in the social, national and global imaginary.

A Jewish Woman of Trans Experience
Though being a trans lesbian does not define these works, Garbasz has also chronicled her physical transition in Becoming (2010) a flipbook and a life-size scale model of a zoetrope with 28 images of her nude body taken over 28 weeks. Her own experiences of being ordinary, poor and, nevertheless, made into an image of the enemy other grants her "a trans sensitivity to being" for people who endure conflict and the micro and macro forms of trauma. Becoming a visually marked woman, congruent to her self-identity, also granted her a form of femme invisibility that allowed her access to wander past borders, and into restricted areas. For example, she made friends with laboring women on the island who took her through a field of landmines to where they harvest the best seaweed -- Garbazs following precisely in their footsteps. Or in Fukoshima, she could have been arrested for a possible breach of security for filming the accident site, but she apologized profusely in Japanese in a 'girly' way. Being invisible to power, and perceived as incompetent sometimes helps. Being femme, which she loves, also enables her simply to do her job: to get up, go out and see. Being poor and without a car meant too that she would simply walk with her rolling suitcase carrying the hefty camera, to most eyes a non-threatening pedestrian, a nobody.

These works on display demonstrate that Yishay Garbasz has a commitment to look anew at others and their trauma. Each time she risks this relationship, from scratch, to fall in love with the thing that she most fears. There is no calculating your own risk in becoming fully open and exposed to the work. Simply go, step in and follow her footsteps. And watch out for the razor wire.

Yishay Garbansz is represented by the Ronald Feldman Gallery.
Ronald Feldman Fine Arts 31 Mercer St New York

Eliza Steinbock (Assistant Professor, Department of Film & Literary Studies, Leiden University Center for the Arts in Society) writes on contemporary philosophies of the body, visual culture and transfeminist issues. Recent publications include essays in the Journal of Homosexuality, Photography and Culture and TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. For more information, please see