“I am 20 year old guy, but only a 7 month old girl”
– Gil Yefman 2002
Let It Bleed is Israeli photographer Rona Yefman’s mesmerizing and extraordinary visual account of the time she spent from 1995-2010 with her brother Gil. We meet Gil as a male adolescent, recovering from anorexia, eyes wide from the camera, coquettish yet intense. As the years pass quickly by, we journey with the Yefman’s as Rona delicately documents Gil’s physical and emotional transformation from male to female, and her subsequent transformation back to become, in Gil’s own words, “beyond any gender”. In 2016 the transgender community is strong and bold and has a vibrant voice. In 1995 when this story begins, Gil was an outsider in a deeply conservative culture.
At a time when her sibling was at her most vulnerable, Rona used not only her vision as an artist to support and accompany Gil through the light and the dark, but her own physical persona too. So similar in looks as to be often confused as twins, as Gil becomes more feminine, the Rona we meet in this book seems to become less so, allowing her sibling room to explore her shifting identity without competition. Through dress up, make believe, and familial role-playing, adolescent fantasy is presented as reality. Blurring the line between snapshot and portraiture, documentary and art, Rona presents Gil as the protagonist and star, with herself in a supporting role, occasionally accompanied by parents, their older brother and friends, who are commandeered as a troupe of lovingly constructed characters.
In the big picture, on the surface, Let It Bleed could be defined as a timely transgender visual biography artfully told with photos, text, collages, video stills. But to see only this would be to miss the messy beauty of what sets this work apart and gives it the potential to become a photo book classic. What is so extraordinary about Yefman’s work is that it holds equal weight and beauty not only as Gil’s opus; but also as the complex and resolute exploration of the interior world created by two adolescent outsider siblings, growing up in a repressive militarized country that neither understood them nor accepted them. Part diary, part family album, seemingly documentary in it’s approach but intensely collaborative, Let It Bleed carves a unique niche for itself on the same shelf as Nan Goldin’s Ballard of Sexual Dependency, Corinne Day’s Diary and Larry Clarke’s Tulsa.
When did you start shooting photographs and why?
I started to take pictures in high school when we had a photography class.
My earlier pictures were playful and serious at the same time by interacting with friends and going out to the streets. What I like about photography is the combination of being together and alone; playing, interacting and sharing secrets with your muse; but also the solitary time in the dark room and the individual vision that photography requires you to have without limitations.
The main body of the work spans the years 1995 to 2010. Can you talk to the personal journey that you explore in this work, both yourself and Gil as individuals; and collectively as siblings?
Both Gil and I found a sense of freedom through our mutual rebellion. We started using the camera to note the construction of our possible selves, inventing multiple identities, occupying a private world of fantastical possibilities where nothing could be fixed, certain, or judged.
We looked at ourselves through the camera in order to re-invent and subvert the social, cultural and political landscape around us while asserting our place within it. Through photography, we chronicled our mutual desire to transgress conventional norms.
An important turning point in this project occurred, during Gil’s physical transformation from male to female, and later on, her subsequent transcendence of any label to become (in her words) “beyond any gender”. Through all of this we understood more about love, faith and that the process of transformation, doesn’t happen in one day, you have to live through it. In Gil’s words, “it’s a bit like breaking apart everything you’ve been raised on (…), every definition you adopted as to who you are, (…) and, from the actual silent intuition, very thin, to start and build something else…”
Eventually Gil told me that ultimately the prison of the female body is no different than the prison of the male body.
Were you coming and going to and from Israel in these years? And if so, was the intensity of your relationship with Gil heightened by the time spent apart?
It all started When Gil, my youngest sibling was just 16 years old that he became my first model and inspiration. At that time, we had not seen each other for more than a year and finally reconnected when we both stayed at our parent’s house during a period of recovery. I had returned home after a long trip abroad in which I struggled with drug abuse and he had almost died from Anorexia Nervosa while I was away and was just starting to heal. One weekend we went to the beach and took some pictures in the sun. Gil posed on the rocks and the shoot felt magical and liberating. On the way back, Gil shared his big secret with me: his wish to become a woman. This revelation was essential to the exploratory nature of our work together. Looking back I think it marked a change in our relationship and we developed a stronger bond by collaborating on this intensive, intimate, record of images, because fixed gender was a very uncertain idea for me too. During that time, Gil and I made these photographs without expecting we would continue this work for over a decade.
In 2004 we stopped working on it and in 2008, after I moved to live in NYC, we took more pictures, one of them is ‘The Dialogue’ (in B/W on the back cover) and the other one is the last picture in the book called:’Gil Alone’ I think it expressed everything.
We also grew to become separate artists. In 2010, I was working on a show of this series at Participant Inc. and I invited Gil to make a special piece for this show to comment on the work. Gil made two gigantic very complex knitted dolls named: ‘Rona and I’, connected in chains, poop, breasts, bloody heart, sperm, hair as one. They were very badass colorful dolls with tongue piercings, one set of eyes and huge penises, hanging and spinning from the sealing which gave a very fresh interpretation to this archive and the relationship, through Gil’s own language and vision.
Working on the book both in LA, NY and in Israel, created the right emotional distance but left it close enough to stay connected.
The physical similarities between yourself and Gil are immediately striking. You often mirror each other in clothing and pose, and in doing so deliberately seem to blur the lines of what we currently term “gender fluidity”. Inherent in the work, there also seems to be a blurring of the line between fact and fiction. Was this intentional, part of your artistic process? And in that same vein, dress up, make believe and role-playing are a reoccurring visual theme in this series that also includes your siblings and your parents. Was this always a commonality in your family? Or were they tools that were embraced to support Gil on his journey?
I used a quote by the French writer and artist Jean Cocteau, “The mirror as an entrance to the Otherworld” …
Gil and I shared close relationships and the mirroring of each other took us to another world. As a female Gil allowed me to document her reality, that felt almost ‘dream-like’ at that time, anchored in the awareness that one could occupy an array of identities. Our interaction marked the thin line between art and life, fiction and reality, until it all began to bleed and there were no longer any divisions apparent.
Through our own reinvention of this trope we became evident, and reality gave way to the imaginative. Through these pictures intimacy unfurls between the snapshot and the staged. This merging of fact and fiction created a loose flow of images that function somewhat like collage, evading the linear.
Back In childhood my two brothers and I had a large basket full of different costumes, funny old cloths, hats, wigs and shoes of the 60’s-70’s, that we used to dress up with, dance, play around and even take pictures as kids, so the process of dressing up and play as adults was experienced using childhood methods, (the feeling was like being in a time machine), in order to process a grown up work of art.
What resulted was an overlapping, confused and sprawling adventure that was, and still is, our lives together. Gil is the protagonist, while Lior (my partner) Omer, (my brother) my mother, my father, my friends and myself are transformed into an arsenal of characters to support the main story.
By including yourself and your family in the images, the comparison to a traditional family photo album becomes part of the conversation. Was this intentional? And if so did you enjoy subverting the expectations of what a “traditional” family album looks like?
I had always loved the uncanny feeling found in family albums and they inspired me to draw upon my own childhood pictures in which the dissolution of boundaries became apparent. The iconography of the 1970’s and 80’s emerged and influenced the photographs pictured here. Through our own reinvention of this trope we became evident, and reality gave way to the imaginative. Through these pictures intimacy unfurls between the snapshot and the staged. This merging of fact and fiction created a loose flow of images that function somewhat like collage, evading the linear. What resulted was an overlapping, confused and sprawling adventure that was, and still is, our lives together.
The term paper movie was coined by Lewis Baltz (I think!) as a reflection on the narrative quality of photography. Do you think that is applicable here to this body of work?
I don’t really see Let it Bleed it as linear. But it is about chaotic life experiences with intense situations and holes, and in that way it is like a film. It is twisted, and celebrates relationships and the everyday banal, whilst colliding with spontaneous performances. This is a family story told through an artistic dialogue, that pierces boredom with theatricality and exposes how growing up is a process that involves breaking into pieces and then slowly growing again.
Was it always your intention to shape the images and the story they tell into a photo book? And if so at any point did you consciously shoot with an eye to sequencing the images, as they exist now? What was your process in the creation of Let It Bleed, the photo book?
I made 6 copies of my first hand-made artist book in 1999. I had I finished my undergrad studies and was hoping to publish it; but I couldn’t find anyone in Israel that would do that. More chapters of this long project were photographed and developed until 2010 when I had an opportunity to exhibit it at Participant Inc.in N.Y. I had always wanted to make a book and luckily Nick and Lina from Little Big Man saw the work and offered work with me on a publication. It was a process, a journey to the unknown like working on any art by itself, and there is a huge difference between the artist books of 1999 to the one in 2016
Would you describe this work as a collaboration with Gil, or an exploration?
This work couldn’t be possible without Gil’s amazing performance as the protagonist and the muse, allowing intimacy and fragile moments to be revealed. Gil’s creativity, talent, braveness, hummer, generosity and boundless trust, all played a major roll in the work. I have documented this collaboration over the years, and remade the work into this body of work.
Today Gil is an accomplished artist whom travels the world inspiring others while continuing to break boundaries of any kind. I feel an immense appreciation for our close relationship and for our continued dialogue that has made this work possible.
There seems to be a nod specifically to Nan Goldin both visually in your work and in the titles of some of your images. Was this deliberate and if so was it an influence that you were aware of at the time or a revelation later with hindsight?
When I discovered Nan Goldin’s book The Ballard of Sexual Dependency, at the school’s library, it was so exciting, shocking and so liberating to me that immediately I showed the book to Gil and it was just a little while after this, that Gil and I started to take those pictures together. Goldin’s work had a great impact on us, it was a huge relief to experience it, it gave us a pass to go on and continue to live our dreams as we wanted to. I feel very grateful to Nan Goldin for changing the conventional photography world and it was very influential on me as a young photographer, but with the awareness that I am different person, a different generation and coming from a very different place and culture.
Let It Bleed invites genre comparisons also with Larry Clarke’s Tulsa, and Corinne Days Diary. You explore a highly personal world in a somewhat journalistic manner, but seemingly without the constraints of traditional documentary portraiture. In doing so you have told a unique story and carved a unique niche within this genre. With this in mind, I’d like to circle back again to how much you were looking at the work of the artists ahead of you, and your peers coming up around you during this period, and whether you consider “influences” a help or a hindrance?
Yes I consider them influences and inspiration, as well as Harmony Corrine, Federico Fellini, Juan Cocteau, Diane Arbus, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Juan-Luc Godard and more… but then after you see all this, you have to invent yourself. This is the transformation from being a young artist to a mature artist. And the book has it all inside. It’s also about growing up with the tension of center-periphery, young – and older, that was part of the work.
What artists (photographers or other) do you currently look to for inspiration and enjoyment?
I am inspired by work that has been made from and about life as a way of surviving; things that are real, brave, smart, bold and exposed the fragility and strength of the artist and the human being involved in the work. I like to see a unique vision, not a formula, taking risks, the artist as a adventurer, I like things coming out of the underground, I keep searching and exploring, it’s not about another artwork it’s more about understanding and communicating in the world (inner and outer) and develop a unique artistic vision for them.
In my close circle of Artists friends and colleagues, it is of course growing all the time and spreading follow the work of my colleagues in Israel and in the U.S. . The last 9 years living in NY have bought me close to and inspired by Lia Gangitano, Michel Auder, Moyra Davey, Gary Indiana, Vaginal Davis, Genesis Breyer P-orrige, and Jonathan Berger among others! And I dropped many … And in my family circle there are cutting edge artists whom I have a dialog on different levels for many years and I’m so grateful for them. Lior Shvil, Tanja Schlander and my sibling Gil Yefman, who is an accomplished artist today whom travels the word inspiring others with his work and personality while continuing to break boundaries of any kind.
If 2016 Rona could go back in time and visit 1995 Rona, what would she say to her?
Wow I couldn’t find really good short answer to it, except: GOOD LUCK!
Let it Bleed by Rona Yefman can be purchased here.
Sophie de Rakoff is a London born, Los Angeles based costume designer who looks at a lot of photographs and buys a lot of books.