I had my two-month old daughter in my arms, I had no choice, but to recover
I had my two-month old daughter in my arms, I had no choice, but to recover
”I had my two-month old daughter in my arms, I had no choice, but to recover.” She took pictures of the holiday houses of the 60s, of little girls and of Budapest as no one else. And of her own serious illness without taboos and clichés, by opening up. Last time she processed the stories of Holocaust survivors with embarrassing detail and a loud success. An interview with Ildi Hermann (strictly Ildi), photographer. Márton Neményi In your latest exhibition Portraits of Hungarian Holocaust survivors living in New York could be seen and their detailed stories could be read. Is there still anything new to say about the Holocaust? It seems like there is, but it was not my purpose to say anything new about the Holocaust, but to show stories with pictures and texts that we have not known so far. I have never received too much feedback on any of my exhibitions, and what else could be the measure of success if not the fact that complete strangers contact me and tell me their own stories and tell me how important it is for them what I do. This feels immensely good. The exhibition was closed with a discussion; a storm had just hit and 30 degrees dropped to 20 degrees Celsius, and still there was a full house. Everyone was active and interested, they asked a myriad of questions. An elderly gentleman, for example stood up and asked whether the subjects also tell their stories to others, or do they feel it important at all to speak about it, because he knows a certain Auntie Magda in Chicago. ”Wait a minute”, I said; ”I know one, too”! Of course we talked about the same person. Auntie Magda is the only survivor who may know anything about my grandmother who was also a survivor, but since he does not live in New York, unfortunately we cannot meet. Although I talked to her on the phone more times, but I did not find out much. She remembered my grandmother and a few little details; the apartment they lived in and what tram they used to travel on, but she could not answer a lot of my questions. Another elderly gentleman asked about one of the interviewees, Auntie Pipi, he called me that he read about the exhibition in the papers and he thought she was his relative. We met and talked and it turned out that she indeed was his relative. At that time you stated that what also drove you was that your grandmother had died before you could have asked her about what happened. So has it filled the void a little that you could talk to the survivors? It is strange. If there was no void in me, maybe the exhibition would not have been born while I knew that I could not fill it. Still, it is a good feeling: I have done something. All these stories may have given me something that moved me forward, it did not make me feel like I have missed something. Personal connection is always important for you: once you process your own illness, another time your relationship with your daughter. Can you create by keeping a distance from the subject? I could, for example my works about the holiday houses or about Budapest were not built on personal memories. I made my series on my illness ten years ago, since then all my topics have been very close to me. Ten years ago for two summers you took photos of life scenes about holidaymakers that is about the holiday houses and the holidaymakers. How were you received? There is a catalogue from ’65 with beautiful graphics, holiday house designs that were created by top architects. At that time the way it worked was that everyone bought the design drawings they wanted and built the house for themselves. I wanted to find the houses in the catalogue, but there is no list or recording about the built houses. So off I went to the Island of Szentendre Island and when I saw an interesting holiday house, I buzzed the bell. However, there were very few left from the catalogue and it was difficult to find them so I started to take photos of other houses from the same era along with the people. Did they understand what you wanted? Not always. I took photos in two summers, in 2006 and 2007, mostly on the Island of Szentendre. By the end of the first summer they by and large knew who I was, the rumour spread that there is this completely crazy woman walking around here who is taking photos of the houses. A lot of people did not let me in, which I understand, of course. However, ten years ago there was not such a paranoid suspicion around photographers as now, people’s first thought was not that the photos would be misused. The did not say that If I did not get out they would call the police, but they said I should understand that they did not know me, and whether I was really the person I introduced myself to be, but maybe I was not. Such things even happened when I really just wanted to take photos of the house and not them. There was a point when I burst out crying. Although you must accept these cases and that is it – the photography project finally took off, came together and became successful. Now, related to the New York series I was asked whether there was anyone who did not want to do it. Not many, but there were one or two people and this time I did not want to convince anyone. If they do not want it, I will not force it. This only made sense if subjects wanted to talk. When did you start taking photos? My first photography experience was at the age of 17 at the summer camp of the Ghost Image Free School. But why did I go there…? I was probably simply bored and I needed some program for the summer. I am sorry, but there is no romantic line in this story at all that ”I got the first Pajtás camera from my father at this and that age and I immediately felt that this would be my life…”. Nobody in my family has anything to do with photography, but not to any other arts either. But the Ghost Picture camp was incredibly great. I got the feel for it. After that during college I was deliberately looking for photo courses that was how I got to Gabi Csoszó, who dreamt of a very well-functioning photo school and she has operated it ever since. It was quite important one and a half or two years. After the college I had to do something with myself. I went to a teacher training college not to become a teacher, but to learn Hungarian. I never felt confident enough to teach so I moved towards photography: I started doing reports for 168 Hours and a little bit for Hungarian Orange. Then Miklós Déri, photographer invited me to the Prime Minister’s Office. I took photos of Gyurcsány and his people for one and a half years, it was interesting and not the worst for experience either, but I still left it. I had enough of politics. I have been a freelancer ever since. Didn’t you want to build an art project on the Prime Minister at that time? Barna Burger who died this year managed to pull up half a lifetime of work on the current one. I did not have such ambitions. Moreover, I knew that I would not spend half a life there, plus at that time I was granted the József Pécsi Photography Grant from which in the first two years I made the ”Weekend” and in the last year I documented my illness, form which my ”NHL” (Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, malignant lymphatic tumour – the Editor’s note) series was born. In what stage were you diagnosed? If I remember well, it was early. After my daughter was born, I started coughing. For a while it was ok that I coughed here and there and I was not even bothered that it did not go away: I did not have fever, I did not feel I had the flu and my attention was not there anyways. I did not even care that I sweated a lot at night – I thought after giving birth there could be a thousand reasons for that. After a while, when the cough still did not go away, I felt that something was not right. I started to go to doctors, but most of them said that it must be because of giving birth and anyways I had postpartum depression. However, I knew that I was not depressed and that it was not at all ok that I had been coughing for one and a half months. I just wanted to someone to tell me what was wrong. At that time I was constantly going to doctors between two breastfeeding sessions.
Did the doctors made a mistake? That might be a too strong expression. Everyone is responsible for their own special area: the otorhinolaryngologist looked at my throat, the oral surgeon looked at my oral cavity, the internist at my organs and so on. Of course none of them found anything. Two months have passed this way. Then somehow we arrived at the lungs and they said there was some liquid in it and they drained it, but it did not get better. Finally somehow we got to Korányi where they did the biopsy then they said it was a malignant tumour. Puff. What that it? Yes, there they only said that much, they did not know more. That was the most terrible moment. I did not know anything about the whole thing, there was no one in my environment who would have answered me what that meant; I immediately thought that malignant illness equals cancer equals death. I had never thought before that I would have to survive anything. Finally we got to Kékgolyó Clinic where I got an extremely nice doctor who also came to the opening of my exhibition with a huge bouquet of flowers. Although I knew he was very busy, he had three seconds for me always on the phone ”Well, say it say it”, he said at those times. Fortunately he did not drive me into panic, after the diagnosis he immediately said that it is a quite well treatable disease. That was how it turned out, I got over it relatively quickly. Although my hair fell out, but I took the treatments quite well and I only spent two days in hospital altogether. I cannot remember the moment anymore when I decided to record my illness. Maybe there was no such moment. At the end I realised that photography was therapy, it was about distancing the illness from myself, as if it was not happening to me and that I should not only think about how long it would still last, how many more treatments would there be, what would happen to my hair and so on. These are your photos in such a way that most of them were not taken by you – or they were taken by you, but you were not the one to press the exposure button since you are also in the pictures. Some of them were made by me and some of them by my husband in such a way that I invented the setting, or told him what he should pay attention to. But fairly spontaneous pictures were also made. Nevertheless, we have not had an argument over copyright issues so far. Like photographers in general, you also hate being photographed. Still, here you opened up completely in your weakest moments. I indeed don not like it, but I like it when good photos are taken of me so there is some contradiction here. Still, I managed to let myself go here, I thought that I would look terrible in the photos anyway so I did my best not to worry about my appearance. What’s more, it was easier to take the photos, face them and talk about them. During the creation process I felt that I had to go through with this, but when I first saw them on the wall, it was a very strange feeling. It does not shatter me anymore if I look at them, I am rather surprised that I really went out to the street like that? Did it help, or did it scare you that your daughter was born at that time? The two-month old baby was there in my arms, I had no choice, but to recover. Years later there was a series made about the children of your friends, acquaintances and of course, about yours, this is ”Daughters”. You do not show them at all as parents usually show their children. At the same time, they still seem intimate and private photos. Because I did not only take the photos as a parent, and not at times when parents usually take photos of their children. I do not think that only birthdays, holidays, or there was the season not long ago for ”The first day at school” type of pictures , so I do not think these are the only moments in life that are worth capturing and nor do I think that we need to shout ”Smile!” to poor children when they see a camera. I also took family photos that go against these patterns. It was important to shoot on film this way I did not take a thousand photos and we did not keep checking them after each exposure. Have you learned anything new from the girls? Of course, it was all a game together. In the beginning they ran there and said ”Come on, show us!”, and I always said that I could not show it, because it was on film. It turned out that they also had a definite picture of themselves in their minds, which they wanted to show and of course check. My daughter, Rozi, for example, has hardly allowed me to take photos of her since that time. If she does, it is only if she dictates, she invents what she would do, what face she would make and where I should stand. ”All right, you can take one”, she says; ”One?! One is not enough. Let’s make it three”, I say. We usually agree to take one in her way and one my way. There are no smiley pictures in the series. As we do not constantly smile in life either. There is nothing more absurd than the smile is frozen on the children’s faces already at a young age, because it has been fixed so much. But now that you are saying it I don’t like smiling in photos either. If you had a son, would you also have made the series about the children? I think. Why not? The title then would be ”Sons”. Has nobody rubbed it under your nose that ”you are using” your family as art material? For the same reason back in the day there was a huge scandal from Sally Mann’s album entitled ”Immediate Family”. But those photos are so beautiful! I immersed myself in the topic, I also mention it in my thesis and ”Daughters” has become my thesis photo series at MOME. It is scary what she has been accused of while it is completely obvious that the photos are totally innocent. It is rather the world that is going into the wrong direction; if you post a photo of your children, you immediately must think not to show too much. I tried to believe that as long as I, as a mother do not hurt my children by showing their pictures, I’m not doing anything wrong. These photos were not taken to be put on the Internet anyways, but to be placed into an exhibition space and there I hope perspectives are different. Otherwise actually there was a nude photo made of Rozi, which I decided not to include in the end. Do you learn from criticism? I’m trying, but it is hard from me to take it. Of course I’m glad for the ones that make sense and I try to consider. In 2002 for one year I took pictures of Budapest for a book. The texts were already given so I knew where I had to go. So I went and went back, paid attention and took photos. It came together nicely, I was proud of the pictures, this was my first real series. Then I took them for a portfolio review to Bratislava where I could consult with renown, experienced professionals, curators. Suddenly, someone asked my why I did it. I was just sitting there and did not know what to say. I had no idea, I really did not think about it I just went by the feeling. The curator talked about consciousness and that there must be an intention, a concept. I was listening devastated. Then of course I learned from it: I have become more conscious with the years. I surely tried to preserve the instinctiveness and spontaneity that I started with and I couldn’t do it any other way, I think. Facebook, Instagram? I didn’t have smartphone for a long time and of course everyone thought I was stupid for that, but I resisted, I simply didn’t want to be tapping it on the tram and I was fine without it. It drives me nuts when others are tapping on it especially while we are talking. I was afraid I would be tapping away, too. Then in New York my phone died and I had to buy one. Of course I keep tapping it and I drive myself crazy, too. I did not even install Facebook on it, but I installed Instagram. The only reason I’m really glad for the phone is that I can take photos with it. I really enjoy it, it’s a great game without stakes.