‘Dark tourist’ shares her images
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‘Dark tourist’ shares her images

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Photographer Julie Dermansky

Julie Dermansky has spent the summer in New Orleans working on a project for Tulane University, photographing the post-Katrina landscape (and, unexpectedly, the damage wrought by Gustav), and patrolling the streets with the National Guard.

Raised in Englewood and now living in New York City, Dermansky, who said she has “gone around the world two times,” has also been working on a book about “dark tourism,” or travel to sites associated with death and suffering.

“I didn’t coin the term,” she told The Jewish Standard during a telephone interview. Nevertheless, over the past decade she has become well acquainted with genocide memorials, battlefields, and what she called “sites of historic blight.”

“She’s gone to Auschwitz, Rwanda, Armenia, the World Trade Center, the Japanese internment camps set up in California during World War II, Cambodia, [and] New Orleans and shot remarkable pictures of what she sees,” said her mother, Englewood resident Ann Dermansky.

According to the photographer, “Auschwitz is the most popular tourist site in Poland.” She visited the former concentration camp in 1995. “At the time I thought, I can’t do any work with this. It’s Auschwitz. It’s forbidden.”

Nevertheless, she said, she felt compelled to return for a 10-day trip to Poland in 1996, producing from that experience an exhibit later presented at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

A self-described secular Jew, Dermansky abandoned her work as an artist and sculptor to devote herself full time to photography and began her travels in earnest in 2005.

“I thought I could do both,” she said, noting her original desire to be both an artist and a photographer. “It was an insane idea. There are limitless things to learn and know about photography.”

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This memorial is at the site of the federal building in Oklahoma City where 168 people were killed in a bombing on April 19, 1995.

“I try to capture the essence of a site,” she said, pointing to the “irony” of turning the sites of tragedies into modern-day tourist attractions. For example, she said, rather than waiting for “just a moody shot” of Auschwitz, she may focus on visitors enjoying food in the facility’s cafeteria.

“I’m trying to show a different way of looking at history,” she said. “If you don’t go, you can’t really understand what happened.” She noted that one man who viewed her work said he had almost forgotten what happened in Rwanda until he saw her photographs.

“I don’t have a political point of view to force down someone’s throat,” she added. “My visual viewpoint is the same throughout all my work. I respond to irony; that’s what makes life so rich.”

Dermansky, who said she has always had an interest in photography, noted that she is exploring the idea of becoming a part-time war photographer. She is planning a trip to Iraq in December as part of a joint project with the National Guard.

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This is a room of victims’ clothes at the Murambi memorial in Rwanda.

On Sept. 10, the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects will launch an exhibition of Dermansky’s photos called “Memorial Sites: New York to Nairobi.” According to the photographer, in addition to photos that have been displayed before – from images of the site of the destroyed U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, to the Valhalla, N.Y., 9/11 memorial by architect Frederic Schwartz – the event will include previously unseen images, among them, photos from “Hangar 17.”

“That’s where the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey keeps the remains of the World Trade Center building,” she said.

She will also display, for the first time, photographs of the new memorial for Katrina victims.

“History belongs to all of us,” said Dermansky, “but it is the memorial site commemorating a particular historical moment and connecting it to the present that infiltrates our being and transcends history.”

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The memorial in Yeravan, Armenia, has an eternal flame in the center. The grounds also house a museum.

A statement from the AIA notes that “Dermansky’s photographs capture traces of mankind’s unthinkable acts strewn across the planet in the form of monuments and residual artifacts. By presenting a global record of architectural structures, her work engages people in addressing issues of injustice and genocide that they might otherwise avoid when presented in the form of current events…. Dermansky’s images tie the past to the present and start a dialogue about society’s obligation to honor and preserve unspoken history through the architecture of memorials.”

The exhibit will be open to the public. For more information, visit the photographer’s Website, jsdart.com, or call the AIA at (212) 683-0023.

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