Sylvia de Swaan was born in Czernowitz (Chernivtsi) in 1941. The worst time, if one were Jewish. Today she is a successful photographer in America. Sylvia has returned to take pictures – more than once. Images of trains, rails, her hometown, nightmares. Powerful images. In August 2013 she was in Czernowitz again and I was lucky enough to meet her. Once more we had many intensive conversations and experiences. A good reason for an interview a few monthes later, to see how her new works grow.
Christian Herrmann: Sylvia, pictures of family members play an important role in some of your works. You hold them in the foreground of the picture; in the background we see landscapes or architectural elements. What should we know about you to be able to understand your photos? What traces are you searching for?
Sylvia de Swaan: I have very few family photos, even less documentation and only hazy memories of the constant change and movement that was my early childhood. When I ventured on the first of my journeys through post communist Eastern Europe in 1990, it was to retrace routes my family – mother, sister and I – traversed as refugees, and I instinctively brought along a small ID photo that was once affixed to my refugee papers circa 1947, as a reference to the child I once was. At some point when crossing the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia I took it out of my wallet and held it, just as you describe, before the train window to mark my connection to these familiar but alien lands that I was passing through. At first I felt shy about doing it, because I knew that it probably looked silly to a passer by. But later when I developed the film and made prints, I realized how resonant those pictures were and it generated new ideas about how to represent the intangible and the bygone.
I’m a visual artist, a photographer, I’m not a genealogist or a historian. I work on long-term personal projects that explore areas of interest to me. I‘m interested in the intersection between truth and fiction, metaphoric representation of memory and the cinematic juxtaposition of still images. I pay attention to the news of the day and the environment around me. It was the fall of communism that opened the doorway to my past and turned my attention to my own personal history as subject matter for my work. In my journal I wrote, “how does one photograph an absence?” and it was to fill that absence that I entered the picture frame holding photos or other items of personal significance, like that model P38 bomber that I pretend to be flying over a railroad track in Poland, in a photo titled “The War Game 1994” – to replicate a recurrent nightmare from my childhood years. I created another version of “The War Game” in Czernowitz this summer. By the way, my technique is simple and strait forward, it’s more about ideas than technology. Everything you see in my pictures was also in front of my camera, no photoshop.
Christian Herrmann: You have by now been a number of times for extended trips in Eastern Europe, as well as your home town Czernowitz (Chernivtsi). Your early trips you’ve processed in a series entitled “Return”, a kind of journey into the past. Can you tell us about this experience?
Sylvia de Swaan: The road to Czernowitz has been a long and arduous process –, an odyssey of many circuitous trajectories, over many years, partly by circumstance and partly by intention. I don’t travel with the help an agent, I don’t look to make it easy for myself, it seemed fitting that a journey into my past be filled with obstacles and road blocks, endless eighteen hour train rides, unfriendly border guards and fear and fatigue – in a sense it is part of my creative process, it’s where I develop new ideas from one trip to the next. I think I told you elsewhere that I shed a river of tears over this project, but that it has also brought me much joy, many adventures, amazing places and wonderful people and a vehicle to express my visual idea – because in the end it’s also about photography and the decisions I make to create meaning.
I’m looking at my tattered birth certificate “Buletin De Nastere,” issued by the Kingdom of Romania. August 17, 1941. My mother must have been very brave to go to a registry in those days of turmoil and violence with a Jewish star pinned to her coat. My family name is misspelled, my mothers maiden name is misspelled, and it doesn’t list the city or municipality where I was born. Almost everything about my early childhood is vague, unknown, barely remembered. The train journeys I made in the 1990s were meant to replicate our endless transports as Displaced Persons, and my growing sense of awareness as we became refugees in the American sector near Munich and later immigrated to the United States.
Here is a journal entry from 1990 traveling the Baltic Express, Budapest to East Berlin:
“May 15, 1990. ….I tell him something about the purpose of my trip—that I am Jewish, that I was born in northern Romania in a city called Czernowitz, that I remember very little about my childhood, that it was only last Fall, when starting to do research for this project that I came to find out that Czernowitz is no longer Czernowitz. It is now called Chernovtsy and is in the Soviet Union. I won’t be going there this time, nor to Romania either. I have congenital phobias towards those places and no one awaits my return. Besides, on the news one hears about the victory of the National Salvation Front, violent street clashes, bloodied faces, broken bones. Allegations of electoral fraud have been brought against the Front and it is uncertain what will happen next. In the Ukraine too things seem unsettled, armed bandits supposedly roaming around the countryside, plundering and robbing. An Albanian in the dining car drunkenly yells out that the iron curtain hasn’t actually come down at all, only shifted east by a couple of longitudes or so.”
Christian Herrmann: You combine “Return” with the images of this summer. My first impression is that you are still on a search for traces, the past still plays an important role, but there is more of the present into the pictures. You’re somehow more familiar with today’s Czernowitz. Is this right?
Sylvia de Swaan: It is all a continuum. “Return” is a multi faceted work-in-progress. It is about memory, identity, displacement and roots. It’s about the lines of destiny that shape our lives and the tidal waves of history that can sweep it all away. The early part was comprised of images from six separate trips of varying length between 1990 and 2001. I interrupted the work in 2001 because of the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the immediate sense that a page in history had been turned; that the work I was making was no longer relevant. I was deeply depressed for a time – by a sense of disillusionment in the world around me, about my belief systems – but I also began another series of photos, titled “Sub-version” in response to the signs of the time – about terror, surveillance, shadowy threats and ominous rumors. So many things changed in the world around us since then.
Eventually I became involved again in the ambience of Eastern Europe by joining the CZ listserve that I discovered through Marianne Hirsch, and subsequently spending two weeks in Chernivtsi in 2008 en route to Russia. I met Cornel Fleming, Charles Rosner, Cora Schwartz, Dr. Bursuc, Zoya Danilovich and a few other people – and started getting ideas and inspiration to work on a sequel to my earlier body of work.
Christian Herrmann: This summer you were for several weeks in Czernowitz. What were your impressions? What was different this year compared to your first trip?
Sylvia de Swaan: This was my longest stay to date, so I had time to experience many more things than before. I was already familiar with streets and location from previous times and could observe many changes that have taken place. Chernivtsi has become a much more open, hospitable and cosmopolitan city from when I was there the first time in 1996 and 2008. The Jewish Museum – Mykola Kushnir and Anna Yamchuk – helped me a lot. Through them I rented an apartment, taught a photo workshop titled “Discovering History with the Camera,” and accompanied university students to nearby villages to interview local inhabitants, about their memories of the war and the Jewish people who once lived amongst them. Though I barely understand Ukrainian, the intensity of the exchanges were palpable, and visible in my photos. On Wednesdays at noon I made it a habit to go to Hesed Shushana for the meetings of Transnistria survivors, and though we had barely any language in common we managed to communicate on a deeper level. Towards the end they presented me with a box of chocolate to thank me for coming and acknowledge our commonality as Transnistria survivors. I did a series of portraits of them, which I made into a PowerPoint and presented it to them on my last visit.
In the last week I coincided with you and the wonderful SVIT Ukraine volunteers, which was the crowning glory of my stay – the adventure of hunting for the remnant of the “oldest Jewish cemetery” destroyed by the Soviets – up a steep incline above a textile factory, was pretty special; and getting to know the volunteers – fourteen young people, who came from Ukraine, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary, Holland and Japan – to learn about Jewish History while helping to clear segments of this vastly overgrown cemetery in the summer heat. And finally the magic realism of the tour to Jewish Cemeteries that you took us on – Vashkivtsi, Vishnytsia, Kosiv, Storozhynets – so amazingly beautiful, the ghost of old Jewish communities hovering there in the fog of the present.
In between I walked endlessly, exploring the city, taking pictures, getting to know people, talking to strangers…, sometimes examining every rock and cranny of a street, taking pictures of boiler plates that delineate the history of the city: Wien, Czernowitz, Cernauti, USSR, Chernivtsi, – urban archeology I called it. And by the end it all became so familiar to me that it started to feel strangely like home – that though I live far away, I belonged here too and will certainly come back again to make more work.
Christian Herrmann: What do you think you touch in people and what do they share with you about it?
Sylvia de Swaan: Maybe you should answer this question.
Christian Herrmann: I can only speak for myself, although I have observed that also other people react emotionally to your images. First I was fascinated by the pictures of trains and rails. I knew the pictures, even before I met you in person. I had to think of the millions who were deported during the dictatorships in Europe or became refugees. Until the entire continent was turned upside down. Trains were the main transportation system for this. We still roll on this rails. In your pictures you also show people who look very tired. I often feel this tiredness is characteristic for Eastern Europe. I see it when I ‘m there. I think it comes from an overdose of history.
I was very touched by one of your recent montages. A swarm of airplanes in front of a street view. They are old Junkers Ju 52 – transport aircraft that were the backbone of supply for the Wehrmacht. My father flew during the war as a radio operator in such an aircraft. The planes still follow you in your nightmares. For me the image is a bridge to understand what happened. Nothing that could leave me untouched and something I’m grateful for.
Sylvia, you’ve recently developed the last negatives of your summer trip. For the first time you have a complete overview of the results of several weeks of work. What will happen next? How will your new pictures find their audience?
Sylvia de Swaan: Editing is a complex process – I want to give it time. I’m actually in no hurry to show the work publicly right away. I’m thinking that I will “premiere” it as a slide talk at the National Conference of the Society for Photographic Education, because it was they who gave me the prize money that paid for my stay – and it’s a great opportunity to test it out before a peer group of professional photographers. I’m working on a PowerPoint layout, where I can arrange and rearrange, delete and add images to create a narrative flow. Meanwhile selections are being seen online and there has been considerable support and interest, not least from you who invited me to do this interview and Shula Klinger who is writing an article about me in a Vancouver paper. Over the winter I plan to write, enlarging notes I made in my journal and the short texts accompanying pictures I posted on facebook. In the end I will be looking for a publisher and more speaking opportunities and exhibitions too.