Nearly true but not truth, almost life-like and real but utterly false: There’s nothing neutral in how Rachel Roze one of the well-known contemporary photography artists uses her camera. Like any photograph, one of hers may appear like a document, one that seems willing, to tell the truth, but in reality, is put on. Another may seem unreal and strange but, when looked at for a while and taken in, seems closer to life than any photojournalist’s reportage.
As though caught in the charms of an impostor, you believe wholeheartedly in what you feel but know something is off. Working in a space between truth-telling and narrative gives her photos room to breathe. Here, a photo of a statue can hover between a casual snapshot and a deliberate staging. Was it her intention to make the statue’s eyes, lightened in a burst of flash, seem alive and knowing? Even the spidery way it holds its crucifix registers between two states: is this a motherly embrace or an intentional letting go?
“I think people should take everything with a grain of salt,” she says, “Rights and wrongs are blurred when it comes to art.” There are other photographs like this one in her We Were in Sicily series but most are simple captures: There are landscapes of Sicilian alleyways cut between dawn or dusk, kind portraits of young, carefree children, and blunt scenes of intimacy. Roze never reveals what’s romance, what’s ruse. It’s all made to look real.
I spoke with Roze over email about her photography.
The introduction was edited from what was originally published.
To take a question from one of my favorite writers: does shooting photography help make the anguish of life more bearable? How did you get your start in photography?
Because photography is a passion of mine, it definitely helps make the anguish of life more bearable. Having a passion for anything, whether baking pastries or shooting a camera, is all it may take to help the anguish of life. Having passion is a blessing. I’m so lucky that I feel so passionate about something. I got my start in photography in many different ways, so it’s hard to really pinpoint where. Even yesterday I was talking about how much I love my grandpa’s photos of my parents’ childhood. I am attracted to freezing time: I love that I can see my parents’ faces as children in their homes with the type of carpet on the floor just as visible as the wallpaper behind them. When I was nineteen, I moved to California, and that’s where I really began to take photography more seriously. Adapting to a new place and new people was so vibrant to me that I started bringing a camera with me everywhere I went.
Did you ever feel like giving up? Were you ever unsure of your talents?
Giving up on creating photography is not really an option. If I am alive, I will be creating something, because that’s one of my gifts that I have as a living being. No matter what I will be creating–even if I’m just thinking creative thoughts. As far as being unsure of my talents, I am often unsure of so many things in my life, but my talent is not one of them. My creativity might be the one thing about me that I have unlimited faith in. I believe I am talented whether or not anyone else does. I can be insecure about everything else about myself but not this. At least I have this. I have a close safe connection to my creative side.
Do you think photography allows you to express or make visible the unsayable things inside you?
One hundred percent! I feel that I can express a hundred thoughts through one image and even more so when paired with other images. Colors alone are powerful. I am affected by colors, and that in itself I think I can communicate. There’s so much you can express through images and at the same time leave so much open for the viewers’ imagination and experience. I like that aspect of visuals. I love writing, but expressing myself with words is too cut and dry sometimes. Most of the time I don’t even know what I am trying to say, but an image or color can express how I feel. My opinions often drastically change, but I feel like an image can communicate for me without being so literal, or it can even express that confusion.
What kind of world does the camera reveal to you? Is it tragic? Something else?
I think thinking about death a lot lead to my attraction to photography. Thinking about death not in a suicidal way but as an appreciation of life so much that it hurts, I don’t want it to all end. I don’t want to let go of everything that is so bizarre and beautiful to me. I don’t want to let go of the moments I experience or the faces I have seen. I wish everything can last forever. The fact that everything must come to end bothers me so much. I always feel like I’m running out of time. Photography has been the one thing I have that helps me cope with this. Photography can be immortal. A photo of us can exist longer than our physical selves. Whether that’s a strange way to look at things or not, that’s what the camera reveals to me. It’s what helps me feel like I exist. This is what works for me.
For example, what compelled you to shoot this moment? What caught your eye first? Did you direct him in any way?
This is a moment from the We Were in Sicily series taken from my trip to Italy with artist Natalie Krim. She and I became obsessed with this fish market in Catania, Italy, where this photo was taken. Everything about this market was surreal to us because of how aggressive the men working there were about their produce. The men were screaming across the market, there was music playing, butchers with cigarettes in their mouths while their hands were covered in blood chopping up fish guts with knives bigger than from any horror movie scene. We would go there almost every day for weeks and just take in the energy and experience of the market. I did not have to direct that butcher in the photo because he was already in such a perfect mode of looking insanely proud of the animal he just sliced in half. It was so surreal and bizarre, just like a perfect movie set but real life. The butcher looks like an animated character brought to life. His skin, the background, the sliced animal, the colors and his expression are what I love about this photo. There are so many photos from this trip. I remember being on the plane back to New York and saying to myself that if the plane crashes how would I make sure my camera negatives float so they don’t get destroyed?
You seem to play with photography’s association with truth-telling, creating pictures that look like documents but might not be. Have you ever had to step away from shooting for a period of time? Do you think the camera can ever have a negative capacity? Be used in the wrong way?
I’m not set in one way of anything. I equally love capturing reality and creating sets that aren’t reality but might pass for it. I have a love for both or a mix of the two. I like things to look borderline imaginary or surreal because I think everyday moments, people, or things look halfway surreal to me naturally, and I want to photograph them in a way that emphasizes how I see things so that others can see things that way too. Sometimes I feel like I’m creating movies with photos. Some things are truth telling and some things are imagination. I step away from photography all the time. I need breaks in between projects. I’m not someone who does a photo shoot every day. I don’t know how I could ever do that because shooting takes so much out of me. I wouldn’t be giving my all if I didn’t do things this way. Everything I do is special to me. As far as your question about photography being used in a wrong way, it’s tricky to think about art being used in a negative capacity. I think that comes down to intentions and perception: it’s not cut and dry. Photojournalism and artistic photography can go hand and hand but collide at times, I guess. I think people should take everything with a grain of salt. Rights and wrongs are blurred when it comes to art.
This is one of my favorites. Could you explain how it was made from start to finish?
This is another shot from the We Were in Sicily series that was in the fish and meat market. The way the guts and organs of the animals were displayed was visually striking. I knew that it would be interesting to capture them with film up close. In this photo, the guts are hanging on display like proud merchandise and the shapes and colors are so interesting you almost forget you are looking at the inside organs and guts of an animal. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was so intense and both grotesque and beautiful at the same time. I loved the intensity of Sicily in every aspect.
What does it feel like when you capture a photograph? Is there any joy or catharsis?
It brings much joy and catharsis. Being alone and walking around at night to take photographs might be my favorite thing to do. I feel like I’m hunting and feel more awake, alert, and, most importantly, present in the moment–more so than any other thing I do. Cathartic of course because it is a way to express myself. It is a way to get things outside of me. Get my thoughts out of my head. It is the ultimate healthy release for me.
What have you learned about yourself from shooting photography? Has your own imagination ever spooked you?
It’s been a gateway to my imagination. A gateway back to me as a child. It’s like a tumble effect. I learn more and more how to connect myself through my creativity and also learn to trust myself. I capture what I want to see and put trust and faith in that. I’ve learned that I really see the beauty in people, moments, and things. I learn things about myself through the types of images I’m drawn to capture and my ideas. I learned that I have a deep appreciation for a lot. Has my imagination ever spooked me? All the time.
All images © Rachel Roze. See more contemporary photography artists Roze’s work here.