Temporality of Traumas: Yishay Garbasz’s Time Drag through Images

Yishay Garbasz, In My Mother's Footsteps, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and the Ronald Feldman Fine Art, NY.

Göksu Kunak

In the aftermath of disasters, time exists in several temporalities—as a decaying façade or as a piece of rusting steel. Not only buildings but also traumatized bodies experience the same thing by being transformed into ruins. After all, bodies, objects, and spaces all carry traumas, which resonate in muscles, cells, and DNAs, as well as in concrete, wood, abandoned houses, and schools.

Artist Yishay Garbasz has been coping with trauma and its effects in time as a result of personal discoveries. Yet no violence or sadness can be observed in the first encounter with the artist’s work. The photographer’s first book Becoming (2010) is a flipbook—exhibited as a life-size zoetrope—, documenting her own transformation throughout 28 weeks when she underwent sex change. In a conversation with Sunaura Taylor, Judith Butler mentions a young man who was killed because of his distinct swish: hips moving side to side. [1] The subject generated by power has to perform in a certain way; a basic act such as walking may create danger for the heteronormative society. In Becoming, Garbasz stands passively—however, the transformation of a body raises the problematic of classification of sexes. This passive body raises the question: what does a body aim to say? [2] As Butler points out in the same conversation: “If one doesn’t have recognition for one’s gender presentation or one’s gender identification, then there’s a certain kind of suffering.” As a resistance to normalization, inevitably, Garbasz alludes to various types of traumas generated in the process of subjectification of power.

When I met Garbasz the first time, she was working on her upcoming photo book Ritual and Reality. I was asked to record her words and transcribe them. Garbasz is dyslexic and she learned how to write at a later age, in college. That might be one of the reasons why the artist decided to use photography instead of words and create books with images. For the second book, Garbasz approached another traumatic experience: her own family history to discover missing links of her past, as she knew nothing about her grandparents—she had been rarely exposed to their past or identity. Garbasz’s father, in his deathbed, asked his wife Salla to write about her life story. The narrative in the memoir delineates Salla’s childhood in Germany and the Netherlands during the 1930s and her subsequent imprisonment in Westerbork, Terezin, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, and Bergen-Belsen, which encouraged Garbasz, along with a large format camera, to go embark on a journey. As a sort of therapy to overcome the inherited trauma, Garbasz visited the places Salla mentions in her memoir and looked for energies and traces of her mother. Only two weeks before Salla’s death in Israel, the artist published her book In My Mother’s Footsteps (2009).

Yishay Garbasz, In My Mother's Footsteps, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and the Ronald Feldman Fine Art, NY.
Yishay Garbasz, In My Mother’s Footsteps, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and the Ronald Feldman Fine Art, NY.

Turning the pages of Garbasz’s book, I observe an uncanny silence in the images. I read the excerpts of Salla’s memoir accompanying the images and ponder on what is not apparent in the text and the images: What kind of violence had happened? The road Salla walked during the death march, captured in the photo Marinebad 2005, is now part of a calm and sleek, white European city. Abandoned places, such as the underground concentration camp in the photo Christianstadt 2005, are reminiscent of dystopic sci-fi movies, particularly the zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, where the characters of the film travel to the savage places by following a belief to find the place that will fulfill the innermost desires.

Contemplating on pain and traumas, I recall Georges Bataille’s meditation technique by looking at a photograph of a Chinese torture scene: “I didn’t choose God as an object of my meditations, but, humanly, a young Chinese. . . shown in photos as covered with blood while the executioner tortures him. I was connected to this unhappy being in ties of horror and friendship.” [3] In the terrifying images, bodies are hung alive and the limbs are cut in a ceremony. Here, the violence is crystal clear, unlike in Garbasz’s images. Bataille believes that an image of pain has the capacity to communicate with a certain past and connect with the victim. In the encounter with an image, we have the tendency to drag that moment into our now—that is how we find meaning. At odds with such an approach, by looking at the image for a long duration, Bataille meditates to feel the moment of what we call a violent act. In a similar fashion, Garbasz looks for traces of Salla’s past, whether on Linienstrasse of Berlin—her birthplace in 1929—or in a random garden where the ashes of the artist’s grandparents remain scattered, which becomes a tool for her to embrace her own fears. Reminiscent of Bataille’s meditation, Garbasz’s journey allows her to overcome such fears and connect to her mother’s victimization and sadness. The artist channels a time: “My mother had lost parts of her soul in those places and I needed to return to each one to collect them.” [4] This is how her journey turns into a long duration performance where she documents places by following the order of Salla’s memoir and rewrites a story through images, years after its existence. By choosing to take a bulky camera, the artist “forces herself to slow down.” [5] The journey is not only about going back to a certain place and documenting, moreover to experience every step with a certain awareness. The photos depicting dusty rooftops or remains of a barrack intervene and excavate a past that is about to disappear throughout the years.

Yishay Garbasz, Abandoned home and car, Kumagawa, Okuma-machi, Futaba, Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone (Ritual and Reality series), 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
Yishay Garbasz, Abandoned home and car, Kumagawa, Okuma-machi, Futaba, Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone (Ritual and Reality series), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and the Ronald Feldman Fine Art, NY.

Garbasz’s upcoming book, Ritual and Reality, depicts the life in Japan after the Fukushima disaster. In her studio, the photographs she took in Japan were hung all over the place—images of damaged houses, industrial areas, a golf driving range, a hospital, and a pile of objects in an empty field. Similar to In My Mother’s Footsteps, there is no one around in these images and the narration resembles a memoir. In a disturbingly white hospital waiting room, white blankets are scattered around, hospital beds are aligned, and some medical materials in boxes are placed in an order—probably the expiration date is already over. An eerie feeling lingers in the air. A car is parked near a cute blue house. And nature takes over: There are wild plants in a small garden or bushes in a golf area, instead of perfectly cut grasses.

Storytelling and Portraying Ruins

Is it possible to portray disasters and their aftermaths through photography without exploiting the condition of survivors or serving neoliberal markets? In Making sense of disaster: the cultural studies of disaster, researchers Peer Illner and Isak Winkel Holm analyze how disasters change the social from the perspective of cultural studies. The writers point out the tendency “to view of the aesthetics of a disaster as a kind of ‘anaesthesia’, a harmful way of being unaware of the social production of disaster.” [6] Illner and Holm emphasize what they name as “emergency regime” and governance around the social production of disasters. Writing novels, composing music or making movies also have the potential to create a common sensibility and “determine what we see and how we act in a world ravaged by disaster at an ever-increasing rate.”

Yishay Garbasz, Fire drill ritual, Tokyo International Forum, Tokyo (Ritual and Reality series), 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
Yishay Garbasz, Fire drill ritual, Tokyo International Forum, Tokyo (Ritual and Reality series), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and the Ronald Feldman Fine Art, NY.

At first glance, Garbasz’s imagery calls to mind the idea of ruin porn. [7] The fact that the images don’t show any people around arouses a similar feeling of visiting an urban decay. Examples of ruin porn or ruins photography beautify contemporary archeological sites: untamed and savage buildings commemorate a certain story and generate excitement. Therefore, post-apocalyptical imagination that is fantasied in ruin porn has the potential to transform itself into tourism or a boom in the market of national flags as in the cases of Chernobyl and 9/11—the neoliberal tendency of turning any kind of material, even traumas, into a market value. How artists and writers inscribe ruins and traumas may lead to an upper class market’s aesthetics or, on the contrary, provide a core for healing. In that manner, where does Yishay Garbasz’s series Ritual and Reality stand?

Fukushima has been a well-known name since 2011. It immediately recalls the largest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Despite the numbers that the authorities provide in regard to the level of radioactivity and health problems in the region, Garbasz’s observations introduce us to the aftermath of a disaster in everyday lives that is being kept as secret by the authorities. In Ritual and Reality, each image has a caption that gives information about the place through Garbasz’s observations, which is reminiscent of In My Mother’s Footsteps. These lines are crucial to perceive her images. Even their titles are explanatory of situations that are taken place in the region. In her studio, following the same order with the book, the photographer recalls her journey along with a Geiger counter and a hazmat suit to wander around the streets of Takaku, Oto, Ishinomaki, Tokio various prefactures around… She photographed the reactor and learned more about how TEPCO and the authorities disregard the dangers of radioactivity and the unbearable life of evacuees and factory workers.

Yishay Garbasz, Greenhouse for ornamental growing, Rte 256, Harada, Okuma-machi, Futaba, Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone (Ritual and Reality series), 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
Yishay Garbasz, Greenhouse for ornamental growing, Rte 256, Harada, Okuma-machi, Futaba, Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone (Ritual and Reality series), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and the Ronald Feldman Fine Art, NY.

Photographs from kasetsus—the Japanese word for temporary dorm-like accommodations—for evacuees of Fukushima illustrate the loneliness and emptiness of souls after a man-made disaster. In the photo No. 2 Takaku Kasetsu (temporary evacuee dorm) in Chuodai, Iwaki City, Iwaki (2013), few pots with colorful flowers alongside the gray blocks of containers installed repetitively remind the urge of beautification, our rituals to turn a space into a personal place. Survivors want to take  their lives back into their hands, despite big Geiger counters on the streets—as in the photo Permanent radiation counter at Kumamachi elementary school, Okuma Kumagawa, Okuma-machi, Furaba, Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone (2013). Luckily, not long ago, some could return to their hometowns with memories of the loss. The damages of flood that took away their loved ones are still discerned on buildings and powerful enough to prompt personal (her/his)stories. Wallpapers are torn, exterior and interior wall materials are torn apart or bent and roof structures are corroded—as in the image 2 Chome-9-11 Chūō Ishinomaki-shi, Miyagi-ken. In another photo, we see a pile of some material and big brown bags reminiscent of a military zone. The title is: Storage of nuclear contaminated materials, Route 6, Fukushima (former Exclusion Zone opened in April 2013) (2013). Stories are crucial to truly interpret the photographer’s intention in the images. Just by looking at them, we might not be capable of telling what they are. However, once one pays close attention to the title, say, the story behind, Garbazs’s images are altered.

On the one hand, demolished hospitals exist as memorials, where people still work in radioactive areas. On the other hand, in another photo of Garbasz from Tokyo, a few kilometers away, there is a Prada store with the best air-conditioning system: chic, glittering, all in extremes. Life continues in another town, where workers are in hazmat suits. Garbasz mentions the hours she spent there, while taking photos with such an outfit. It was hard to drink water or pee—basic acts of a functioning body. In one photo, we see Nuclear Café, where water is no more boiled for tea. In another, there is a sign: “Bright future with nuclear energy” (Futaba, Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone, 2013). A longing for better future, the thirst of speed, and energy of capitalism keep ignoring the danger and eliminate the existence of survivors. Their bodies have no representation and significance anymore, unless they’re workers of energy.

Yishay Garbasz, In My Mother's Footsteps, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and the Ronald Feldman Fine Art, NY.
Yishay Garbasz, In My Mother’s Footsteps, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and the Ronald Feldman Fine Art, NY.

Considering the trauma as an organic entity, more than just aestheticizing a ruin, the artist’s dawdling journey depicts a post-trauma—reminiscent of the photos of Salla’s past. As mentioned before, Garbasz’s images might not tell much to the audience without a narrative and one might interpret this as a weakness. However, instead of words, Garbasz uses photography as a medium of storytelling. Reminiscent of a stone in an archeological site or, say, a concrete building in an abandoned city, traumas are decaying bodies that have the capacity to metamorphose according to the needs of the day. The memory of traumas puts one in a dilapidated condition; its existence depends on yours. Part of the body resonates a past—undergoes the traumatic experience repetitively, whereas the other part continues to experience a now. Yet, recalling requiems of various cultures, story telling could function as a remedy. Similarly, whether personal like In My Mother’s Footsteps or collective as in Ritual and Reality, Garbasz urges to create books ad writes short stories of/with images, while traumas keep residing in bodies like a parasite.


[1] Butler, J and Taylor, S. (2013). Interdependence, https://paulojorgevieira.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/aqui.pdf.

[2] For more information: Abrams, K. (2011-2012). Performing Interdependence: Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor in the Examined Life. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 2, pg. 72-89.

[3] Quoted by Brook, T., Bourgon, J., Blue G. (2008). Death by a Thousand Cuts. USA: Harvard University Press, pg. 240.

[4] Shangler, J. (2009). In Salla’s Footsteps, through Yishay’s Lens. In My Mother’s Footsteps. Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, pg. 8.

[5] Yishay Garbasz Official Website, http://www.yishay.com/footsteps.html.

[6] Illner, P and Holm, I. W. (2016). Making sense of disaster: the cultural studies of disaster. Disaster Research: Multidisciplinary and international perspectives. Ed. R. Dahlberg, O. Rubin, M. T Vendelo. US: Routledge.

[7] For more information: Mullins, P. (August 2012). The Politics and Archeology of “Ruin Porn”. Archeology and Material Culture, https://paulmullins.wordpress.com/2012/08/.

Edited by Özge Ersoy

Göksu Kunak is a writer based in Berlin. They received a BA degree in Interior Architecture and Environmental Design from Bilkent University. Before Berlin, they worked as a Research and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Art History at Hacettepe University where they has their MA as well. Besides working as an editorial correspondent for Ibraaz and in the editorial team of quarterly interview magazine mono.kultur, Göksu has been contributing to several magazines and blogs such as frieze d/e, Ibraaz, Paper Journal, Freunde von Freunden, Berlin Art Link, sleek, e-skop, crap=good, Istanbul’74. Between 2012-2014, they has worked as a writer and project developer as a part of Apartment Project Berlin. They will start their PhD soon on queer chronopolitics in relation to performance art and contemporary dance. Göksu’s short stories and poems can be read at the literary blog leopardskinandlimes and goksukunak.tumblr.com.

Yishay Garbasz finds significance in numbers, often using them to frame aspects of her personal history, memory, and imagination. Garbasz, who also is transgender, previously explored issues of identity during her sexual reassignment surgery, documenting her body in the process. “I’m a very tactile and kinesthetic thinker, this is how I enter things, I enter the world through a very personal space, through my heart.” She is the author of Becoming: A Gender Flipbook and In My Mother’s Footsteps, in which she documented the path of her mother’s path to a Nazi extermination camp, counting the number of steps and photographing her progress periodically, and branded her arm with her mother’s prison camp identification number. These numbers constitute abstracted markers of real-world experiences that Garbasz translates back into materiality through her performances and documentary photographs.