Roni River is an Israeli self-portrait artist. Her photography expresses the conflict and anxiety she struggles with. Through these small voyeuristic windows she spins a visual diary that communicates something many of us can relate to: The Search for Self.
We’ve followed Roni for years now. She has an amazing eye and a breathtaking library of self-portraits. Her work ranges from the playful to pensive, perfectly representing the complex young woman she is. Her honest and open answers to who she is and why she creates her art, intrigue us.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
I was born in Israel, but my mom is South African. When I was 9 we moved to South Africa. We came back to Israel when I was 14.
I was always very anxious and scared of going to school, of any socializing really. My mom just thought I was shy and timid. It wasn’t until the move to South Africa that it burst out of my system. The social change was very hard for me. I started to shut down. To close myself off from my family, from the rest of the world. I didn’t know how to express my fear and difficulty.
Going to school was extremely frightening. The children were weird. The teachers were strict and cruel. To top it all off, they had these uniforms which consisted of skirts and dresses. I found it so embarrassing to be walking around dressed like a girl.
I only had my grandmother. She was my savior at the time, the only warm shoulder I wanted to cry on. But she still lived in Israel. It was very hard to be without her. She came to live n South Africa with us at some stage, but only stayed for a year or two.
During the time we lived there my body started to change. It happens to girls all around the world, but I was so clinically depressed at the time, that having my boobs pop out and getting my period for the first time was torture.
I was so shy of my body and so embarrassed by it. I always wanted to be a boy. I was really hoping that my body would change the same as my brother’s had, not go the other direction. I thought that maybe if I fought it hard enough, I could make it stop. That made everything even more complicated. There was nothing I could do to stop it. It was another issue I had no control over. I felt so stupid, so betrayed. I really hated every part of myself, physically and emotionally.
I was there for 5 very dark and lonely years. I was ready to depart this world at 13. I was sinking so deep I never thought I’d manage to pull myself out of it.
When I started taking photos I was very lost. Lost both in shooting the right exposure as well as in the subject matter. I really wanted to do music photography and portraits, but I had no friends to pose for me. I shot my sisters a few times. It was really awkward and embarrassing for both sides.
In 2004 I met a photographer. We had a 2 year relationship. He was the one who taught me everything I know today. He tried to motivate me to shoot, but I was too scared.
That’s when I first started to take photos of myself. I was really shy, embarrassed of what I was doing. When we broke up I found myself shooting self-portraits. It was the only thing that made sense at the time. I didn’t do it too often, maybe only 3 times a year. It wasn’t until 2009 when I began my 365 that I came back to it full swing. I haven’t stopped since.
I decided to do a 365 project when I found out about Flickr. I decided to share it there, as I saw others doing it. I thought it would be interesting to not keep it to myself. The fact that it was shared made it harder to give up and quit.
I had a lot of days initially where I didn’t share the photos, or didn’t share the real photo of the day. It was too private for me. But after a few months there was nothing I was keeping to myself. The amount of messages coming in response to my photos’ journal entries was overwhelming.
Finding so many people who related online, who had anxieties as well, was a complete shock for me. People found how I dealt with my anxieties encouraging. It has definitely kept me inspired to continue.
I feel it is a part of my journey in photos to talk about what’s going on and to share it. We are all people going through the same issues at the end of the day.
I have come to find that when you present yourself stripped bare of your masks, honest and truthful about your demons, that people strip off their masks as well and embrace you.
I definitely think that it gave me, me. I was really able to discover myself.
I got to spend a year with myself in a way I never thought I would, or even could. I was eating, breathing, and sleeping this project and its process. Writing on a daily basis about my issues, my challenges, brought a lot of things to the surface. I was dealing with all of it at once. I started to see myself in a different light.
It was an eye-opener.
I found a woman lives inside me. I was always sure I was a kid in a grown-ups body. I’m not. I’m not an outsider and I’m not a basket case. Not at all. I always saw myself as a quirky outsider to the rest of the normal world. That no one would ever want to be my friend. That was my reality until this project.
As anyone who ever took on a lengthy project knows, its down side is just a part of life. After my 365 I came down a hill. I really enjoyed climbing, but had to go find a new challenge for myself. It wasn’t easy.
I was down and confused creatively for a long time. For the first 6 months I was busy re-editing all the photos and working on my book. All of that was really exciting, but after that I was very empty. I wanted to do a lot more but I felt stuck.
I knew it was normal. I had to let it pass, not panic and drown in it. A lot of people go on to do a 52 week challenge after their 365 project. But I knew I wanted to grow creatively without those daily challenges. I wanted the freedom to shoot whenever I wanted to, not because I had to. Although, looking back my best shots were always on days that I wasn’t in the mood for photos.
I think I’ve only now finally found my voice again. It’s amazing to see how I’m changing in my photography, my style of taking photos. I’m also stepping away from what others love to see in my photos. I’m shooting closer to the heart and am very pleased with it.
I have always been asked about body image because I shoot myself and I’m not thin. I have always found it funny. I hated myself, but it was never about my body. I felt stuck in this anxiety filled body and I couldn’t do, say, or be what I wanted. It was an overall hating me problem.
Femininity had always been an issue for me. Yes, my self-portraits have helped me in that sense. I gained confidence and found my power. Women have so much power they just feel intimidated by it sometimes. We don’t know how to approach it. I have definitely learnt to live in peace with it and embrace my power.
I have connected with a lot of people, mostly men, but many women as well. Receiving an email from a woman telling me that she likes herself more now, that she started to shoot herself as a result of reading my story has always been very touching and emotional for me. Both men and women are very supportive.
I have come to find that when you present yourself stripped bare of your masks, being honest and truthful about your demons, that people strip off their masks and embrace you. It’s very rare that you will be judged when you come with nothing but your truth and vulnerability. People really relate and respect that. At the end of the day we are all human beings that want to be loved and accepted.
That’s a big question. I think people always live in fantasy. We tell ourselves these romantic stories about our lives because reality can be too grey to deal with.
In my work, I definitely make my anxieties the focus. It’s where I pull my inspiration from. From all the darkness, the disappointments, and the lonely areas of my life. That’s what I focus on to shoot. But I’m not a depressed human being. Some people think that of me. My fun and quirky side just doesn’t get photographed often.
The first time someone commented about my nudity being porn, I was really hurt and offended. But after being upset for 5 minutes I realized I’m not ashamed. I don’t regret a single photo.
People don’t always get nudity. Most people see nudity as something sexual no matter its context. That only says something about how narrow minded their lives are. It has nothing to do with me. That was that. I never received anything hurtful after that incident.
I really wanted to do something with music. Backstage was always more glamorous than the front of the stage in my eyes. I had dropped out of high-school at 16. I was home, not really knowing what to do with myself. At 18 I took a sound technician course, but it was so technical I just got lost. I really wanted to intern somewhere, but my shyness 10 years ago was very extreme. I just got frustrated with it all.
I did nothing until 21 when I took my photography course. Again I was lost when it came to working the camera and exposing film, but I was completely and utterly in love. I knew I had found my calling.
They were very shocked. Suddenly my 365 came into my life, bringing along with it my self-portraiture and nudity. It made them nervous. But they had to accept it. They have supported me completely. I am so happy and lucky that I have the family that I do.
My dad doesn’t know too much. He read about me in the paper once and said nothing. I think he’s embarrassed by it. He never says anything to me, and I don’t say anything to him.
That image was actually a test shot. I had this idea of being all made up, while being in the bath. Then I got out to bring a cigarette. I took a shot to see if it had shot well. After reviewing it, I thought it was not looking good. I got rid of the cigarette and shot other stuff. But looking over the set afterwards, I realized that this test shot was my image. That photo was actually later painted by Kevin Peterson, an amazing artist.
Shooting on a daily basis was hard, creatively. It just got to the point of asking myself everyday What do you feel? How do you feel? Am I upset? Am I happy? Excited? Do I want to be silly? Do I want to cry? Or just say something?
I had to stop thinking about how many days I had left and just focus on that day. An image would come to mind and I would work from there.
Oh wow. I saw someone on Flickr asking for votes and I thought What the hell. The prize was a year living in New York City. I mean, what a dream! So, I entered.
I didn’t have a lot of time left to get many votes. I entered less than 2 weeks before deadline. I still made it to 12th place for viewers choice, which was insane. Then I got an email telling me I was a finalist in the judges round, which completely blew my mind.
It’s the judges round that counts anyway and gets you the NY prize, but I didn’t win. The second time I entered I came in 2nd place for viewers choice which was so damn close it really hurt. But, what can you do…
I don’t have money to keep entering these competitions. It’s $10 a photo. But it’s fun. It was awesome to get that email telling me that such professional eyes picked me over hundreds of others.
That was a huge compliment.
I’m extremely excited to be taking part in Portrait Salon, an exhibition of works rejected from a juried art show. It has a long tradition of showcasing fringe artist’s work, that may otherwise go unseen. My work will be screened at 4 UK venues simultaneously on November 29th.
My personal life is upside down at the moment. Whenever I am in an emotional roller coaster, it takes me a while to find my way back to shooting.
I am working now on a project called Things people say. I’m shooting photos and combining them with messages I have received through the years. I have found that words are our stories. It might be a heart felt email or something a guy said when he broke up with me.
It’s fascinating to study and look into those stories. The stories allow me to disconnect myself from what people say and just focus on what I feel. I have asked people to send me words that left a mark on them. I want to make this a universal story. It’s still a work in progress.
I also want to make a new book. I have shot a lot of new work since my 365 project.