“I like photography’s ability to stretch time” – an interview with Daniel Terna
20 • 06 • 05Judit Flóra Schuller
Daniel Terna is a Brooklyn-based photographer and visual artist. In his personal works, he often seeks inspiration at home, documenting his close surroundings and the life of his parents, in particular his father, Fred Terna, who is a painter and a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor.
In your father’s biography, the fact that he was a Holocaust survivor is in the very first sentence. How and to what extent is it present in your life?
It is everywhere. That is the “joke.” You are born into this traumatized family where the Holocaust can be brought up over dinner. Everything is always connected to it in some ways. It is a very serious trauma, but there is also a certain kind of “Jewish humour” to it. Even when I am in a normal situation, having an optimistic conversation with my friends, I tend to bring it up somehow. It is very much present.
Your family on your mother’s side is also affected.
My mother is my father’s second wife, and she is the child of survivors. She was born in 1947, after the war, in Paris, and then her family immediately moved to Bogota, Colombia. She lived there until she was twelve, when they moved to Brooklyn. She grew up with two Holocaust survivor parents at a time when the Holocaust was not widely spoken about in society, neither academically nor in therapy. Psychology was just getting to grips with how to work with traumatized victims. My mother grew up without knowing how to ask certain questions, and she did not have the psychological cushion that I have. I was raised by a Holocaust survivor and a child of survivors, so I am part of the second and the third generation at the same time.
Has your father always been open to talk about his experiences and traumas?
With me, he has always been open. It was just “something” that was spoken about, sometimes casually. I didn’t have a sense he was holding anything back from me. Also, I am adopted, and that was something else I have always known. My father was not only open about the Holocaust with me, but he also went on to talk about his experiences at schools and colleges. He also entwined into these talks how his art is related to the Holocaust. In the camps, they said that if any of them were to survive, they needed to live to talk about what had happened to them. He sees bearing witness as his job and duty.
How did you start making works about him? Do you also consider it as some kind of a “mission’?
Since 2011, and even in bits before, I have felt the responsibility to deal with the story of my father, but I try not to let this feeling take over the process of art-making. I do not consider the making of these works a duty. If people can listen and get something out of my work, that is an added plus. The primary reason I make works about my father is that it provides me with a kind of catharsis. In the earliest works I made about my dad, I used him as a model. I was not focusing on his trauma and war experience. At the time, staged photographers like Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson or Philip-Lorca diCorcia had a significant impact on me. I was interested in making different set-ups, I created scenes and asked my father to be part of the images. These works were not explicitly about the Holocaust.
In 2015, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, you and your father were invited to attend the commemoration ceremony there. The artistic outcome of the visit was the video work Dachau. What can we see in this piece?
It’s an unfinished piece. I made a lot of footage when we were there but I haven’t finished editing them. The final outcome would not necessarily be a straightforward documentary piece. I rather see it as an installation with various moving image stills.
Was Fred liberated from this camp?
After Auschwitz, he was sent to Kaufering, which was a subcamp of Dachau. Towards the end of the war, as the frontline was getting closer, they were put on a train to Germany. When the train was attacked, he managed to jump off, together with a friend. He does not really like to tell the story of his escape in much detail. As a child, I was particularly interested in hearing about these terrible details, which to me at that age seemed like sensational scenes from a film. As an adult, I aim to find an alternative way to narrate my father’s story and show history in a different way, without emphasizing the “shock effect.” In my unfinished “Dachau” work, I critique the strategies that commemorations and memorials utilize in their attempts to have viewers or visitors “remember” the past.
The work My First Wife Stella was made during a road trip to the West Coast, where you were revisiting the places your father went to with his first wife in 1967. How did the idea of making this piece come up?
As I was growing up, my father always used to say: “My first wife Stella…” To me, Stella was always this abstract person I had never met, I was always wondering what kind of person she could be. Stella was also a survivor, suffered from bipolar disorder and often spent months in hospitals. They got divorced in 1975, and she died of cancer in 1983. In 2010, I came across some colour slide photos in my father’s archive, which he took on their road trip to the West Coast. My dad said these were just tourist shots but they are not, they are wonderful records, works of art. These pictures inspired me to re-enact their road trip.
Did the process of making this video help you to fill the gap, the absence of Stella?
Yes, it did. I like comparing two states, the before and the after, that two images can render. In this sense, I like photography’s ability to stretch time. Based on the images I found, I tried to locate the exact places they visited in 1967, and I made long video shots of these spots. I was interested in seeing the changes and the similarities in the landscape. I started to make this project to think about Stella, but in retrospect, I believe I went on this trip to think about my dad and my relationship with him. Talking with him about his first wife opened up a new kind of dialogue about love, relationships and romanticism. We managed to talk about the past without talking explicitly about the Holocaust and war traumas. Still, the Holocaust is under it all, but it was a relief to leave it out of the conversation.
By the end of the video, as you are visiting the mausoleum where Stella's ashes are kept, your father says: “Things are not important. People are. And things include ashes.” How can you relate to this? What is your relation to your father’s legacy?
While I have inherited my father’s idiosyncratic tendency to hoard things, he does so out of trauma (he can’t throw away old shoes or maps; rarely are there less than three loaves of bread in the house), whereas I hoard things because I project symbolic and sentimental meanings onto objects. Everything I make about my dad, and all of the paintings he makes, will outlast him. I want to try to preserve every manifestation of who he is through photographs, video footage, objects and his paintings. If I want to represent my dad and tell my kids who Fred was, these materials will be there.
"In 2016, I began to take close-ups of my father’s body. I looked at his skin as if it were a canvas. These details of his aging body represent him in an abstract manner."
You have been making portraits and short video works of your parents, documenting their everyday life, since 2012. How did it all start, and how has this photographic attitude changed during the lockdown?
The early works are more straightforward portraits, mostly single images. We live in the same building, so I am really close to them. The time we spent together has expanded during the lockdown, though we try to keep some physical distance even in the same room. During the lockdown, I have taken portraits of my mother as she came home from the hospital where she works. These sequences show the change and movement of time and light (again, I am interested in the “before” and “after’—trying to see how her posture and expression change as the crisis unfolds). In 2016, I began to take close-ups of my father’s body. I looked at his skin as if it were a canvas. These details of his aging body represent him in an abstract manner. During the confinement, I started taking pictures of him from afar, on his walks to the mailbox and grocery store.
Despite warnings in the news about the dangers of the virus to his demographic, my dad insists on leaving the house to run errands that my mom or I could easily do for him. As he stubbornly says, “If I survived the camps, I can survive this.” I do think it’s in some ways the idea of being told we have to stay indoors that sets him off—perhaps reminding him of being in Prague in the 1930s, when Jews began to lose their rights—so venturing outside is both practical (he needs to stretch his legs), and a form of freedom. In the newer pictures, I am using a telephoto lens as there is a physical distance between us. I juxtapose these pictures of his body with close-up photos of flowers in bloom that I took on my own solitary walks during the lockdown.