Photography Saved My Life
An Interview with Roni River

8 Mar

The Israeli born, Roni River has struggled with being a loner for most of her life. Her social anxiety really became apparent at age 9 when her family moved to South Africa and the new environment left her in a state of fear for the whole five years they lived there. She began to close herself off from the world feeling trapped in a country, trapped in a body that was changing in ways she didn’t really want. After living in the midst of a bad emotional state for a few years and dropping out of high school, her grandmother enrolled her in a photography course and things started to change. She fell in love with photography and because of her fears, first turned the camera on herself and began a 365 project in 2009. She wrote and shot everyday capturing herself in various states of dress (some nsfw) and mood to make an honest and raw portrayal of her journey. Things started to change, the woman inside began to emerge and gain confidence through a community on flickr, she became a better photographer, and found strength to help herself and other women who deal with similar issues.

Here’s our intervew with Self-Portrait photographer Roni River:

CAMERALUV: On your site, I read that you grew up in Israel, but moved to South Africa for about 5 years. Is that where your anxiety began?

RONI RIVER: Yes I was born in Israel, but my mom is South African and when I was 9 we moved to live there, and only came back to Israel when I was 14. I was always very anxious and scared of going to school and from any socializing. But my mom just thought I was shy and timid. It wasn’t until the move that it burst out of my system as the social change was very hard for me. And I started to shut down and close myself off from my family and the rest of world. I wasn’t really connecting to anyone as the rest of my family was adjusting to the move in their own way and 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, and to top it all off they had these uniforms which consisted of skirts and dresses which I found SO embarrassing to be walking around dressed like a girl. I basically only had my grandmother who was my savior at the time she was the only warm shoulder I wanted to go cry to, but she still lived in Israel and it was very hard to be without her. She did come to live there with us at some stage, but only stayed for a year or 2 and went back. I was there for 5 very very dark and lonely years. I was ready to part this world at 13. I was sinking so deep I never thought I’d manage to pull myself out of it.

During the time we lived there my body started to change on me as well, which happens between the ages of 9 to 14 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 and I was really hoping that my body will change the same as my brother and not go the other direction. And I thought that maybe if I fight it hard enough I can make it stop. Which made everything even more complicated as there was nothing I could do to stop it. Another issue I had no control over to add to my list. I felt so stupid and betrayed I really hated every part of myself physically and emotionally.

CL: Did the online community around flickr help you come out of your comfort zone and become more brave in front of and behind the lens?

RR: Yes they did, no doubt about that. Cause at the end of the day our demons can only live in darkness. And that darkness exists within our heads where all those thoughts are running free telling us how stupid and pathetic we are. Once we take all of that and place it in light and let others see us where we fear most something shifts from that darkness and begins to detach itself from us. It doesn’t always happen right away but exposing it (yourself) will certainly start the process. Just don’t keep things so deeply buried in your tummies. We have to share ourselves and talk it out and then we will usually come to see that nothing is as bad as we think it is. Especially how badly we see ourselves. The flickr community was there to mirror myself back to me and I was finally able to see that I’m not all bad, I’m not all stupid and I’m not pathetic. Cause doing my 365 and being all that self absorbed made me feel guilty. But, I realized I’m not only telling my story, but I’m telling other peoples story as well; People who are still too locked up in their own darkness and are too afraid to talk about it with the people in their lives. And that was very humbling for me to hear those stories from those people who were writing to say thank you cause through my photos and my writing they have been able to see they are not half bad aswell.

CL: What where your original goals with 365 project? Did you achieve the results you were looking for?

RR: Well, when I took on the 365 challenge I really didn’t have any expectations. I was sure I wouldn’t see it through and I was terrified of starting it. I just wanted to put myself back in some sort of a commitment to take pictures after 3 years of not touching a camera. I wanted to challenge myself and to shoot. What came from it and the following that started to gather around my flickr stream was incredibly supportive and helped me to stay committed. I think if I was shooting and not posting it or sharing it with the world I ‘m not sure I would’ve seen it through to the end.

I think I did achieve what I set out to do which was to start and finish my 365 challenge. I was a bit disappointed with myself that by the end of the year I didn’t have allot to show for it in my personal life. I was still living at home and wasn’t able to get a job with all my anxieties which were still very evident in my life, but my internet persona was taking off and my photography bug was finally growing and blooming and turning into something that’s really ‘Something’ to be proud of. And I’m very happy with everything that has turned out from this project. And I’m very happy to have gotten to know this woman that’s inside of me that I can’t keep denying or refusing. I have to come to terms with her and learn how to love her and be proud of her.

CL: What surprised you about the process?

RR: The feedback. The fact that people were enjoying my commentary and photos on a daily basis was such a surprise for me.

And the process itself of taking pictures. The process of Inspiration and how it all works. I’ve come to realize that you can’t sit around and wait to be inspired or for a great idea to come knocking at your door. I had to constantly work at it and search for it and tickle every part of my being, all the time, until I finally touched something that I knew would work. And then after I got that really good photo or I felt content cause what I wanted to say was said, I had to start all over again the next day. It was very frustrating and terrifying all at the same time for the first few months, until I got use to the thrill of it and was excited to see what every new day was gonna give birth to creativity wise. And then it started to flow more naturally and my photos were less ‘POSY’ and allot more natural.

CL: Tell us how your Self-Portraits and Photography saved you from depression?

RR: I’m not sure it was my self portrait, more so than the fact that after being a high school dropout suffering from all these anxieties which made it very difficult to interact with the outside world. The fact that I finally picked up the camera and did something with myself and with my life was what helped to pull me out of it. Cause when you let yourself sink in these swaps that we sit in sometimes, without even realizing it, it gets so hard to get up and do something, Anything.

I reached a very low place in my life in 2008 and I had just bought this new camera (that I saved for a few years to get as I am not working and not making a living it took some time). I wasn’t doing anything with it and I was so frustrated with myself. I was lucky enough to find photography in the first place, and I knew I had something in my hands that can make me feel better and I wasn’t doing anything with it. Then a friend said just take a photo every day for a month doesn’t matter what you shoot just shoot. And that became my October diary project. I was just taking pictures around the house, I shot my bed sheets in the morning after waking up and the leaves outside, ants, making coffee, and doing it on a daily basis and thinking only about that throughout the day instead of how much my life sucks and is not going anywhere. My focus shifted, and once my focused shifted from all that was not working in my life to all the new opportunities and ideas I was starting to get, something in my attitude changed and became a bit more lighter and a bit more enthusiastic about taking pictures. Once I finished that month of shooting I was feeling to so good about myself cause it was the first time at age 29 that I started something and saw it through to the end. And nothing beats that feeling. All that darkness and all those voices just die in that moment. and that’s when I decided to take on something bigger like the 365 project and this time to shoot myself and not just things around the house. I wanted to go deeper and I have. I never realized how deep into myself 365 would take me, and it did so because I was writing on a daily basis as well on top of the photos. And I’m so glad I went on that journey.

I just have to say that it didn’t make all my anxieties go away or my melancholy persona to disappear, but it has helped me to learn so much more about it and about myself. It helped me realize that all these anxieties and so called ” Issues” are NOT who I am. They are just a part of me that I am learning to deal with and overcome but it ISN’T ME. And making that distinction was an eye opener for me.

CL: Has this project helped you outside of the online communities? Have you surrounding yourself with people, or do you still spend a lot of time alone?

RR: I do spend most of my days on my own, I feel safe this way and I like being this way. But it has helped me with dealing with people absolutely.

The internet and the following I received and all that recognition and interviews made me understand that I’m not all bad and that I am worthy of everything this world has to offer. I stopped feeling so sorry for myself and victimizing myself and then whenever an opportunity presented itself to go out or do something that was outside of my comfort zone, I had allot more confidence and I did it. I was making friends with my cousin at the time. Something I never thought I’d ever be able to do. Whenever I went out with her I had anxiety about it, but I was still able to go instead of just saying ‘no its too scary never mind’ something that would not have happened otherwise.

CL: Do you plan on only shooting self portraits in the future? or will you pursue photography further as a career?

RR: I would love to work in photography. Absolutely. I still have to build up some more confidence and I would love to shoot others. I probably will shoot myself and my life as well as write about it for a long time still. But my biggest dream is to start working in photography and shoot some really big campaigns and editorials. I did shoot myself for a clothing line a few months ago which was challenging and wonderful at the same time. I don’t mind doing a bit more of that either.

CL: How are you/ or how will you use your experience to help other women who have struggles like you did before you began?

RR: I would love to reach out and help alot more, but most of the time I still feel so damaged myself that I don’t know what I can give or say to help someone else when I can’t always help myself … I think giving you this interview is a way for me to reach out and help allot of other women and men that suffer from social anxiety as well and maybe give them a glimpse of hope that it isn’t the end of the world.

For more on Roni, visit her sites:
Roni’s Portfolio
Roni’s 365 book
Roni River Photography on Facebook
Roni on Flickr
Roni on Twitter
Roni on Tumblr

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