A couple of weeks ago I joined some colleagues of the university I teach at to present work to our students. It’s an annual event, created by the director of the course with the intent of allowing professors to share their own experience with the process of image-making and research in the visual field (something we do too little of in the context of our classes).
So as I was preparing a brief presentation of images, I entered a journey through the archives of the past 17 years or so and came out with some conclusions, one of them being that performance (or the performative act) has always been at the core of my relationship with the photographic image. Besides that, I guess the only constant aspect I recognize in the images I’ve been creating is that my interest in photography has always had very little to do with the camera and the shooting event and more to do with representation. This also made me think about the way I regard the photographs of others, always thinking about the ethos of the individual taking the photograph. When I look at a photograph, I’m invited to consider the photographer’s body and his/her stance in relationship to the world around him/her.
In the early years (while studying photography) I became very passionate about the medium, particularly with analogue processes and the darkroom. However, life was definitely my priority. I was exploring my identity, as is expected of a young adult and, as I look at archival imagery, I realize the photographs I still identify with aren’t the ones made in the school context (where I was tutored towards a more conceptual approach), but those created unpretentiously (with no academic or professional concerns), as a record of my experiences. Funny enough, I did very few of those. I always find it hard to “live life” and photograph at the same time and I almost always opt for the former. No regrets.
During that presentation, I showed the two images below as a record of the first 5 years or so doing photography. Self-portrait was very much at the core of the process and these images gather a mix of aspects I kept exploring and repeating, namely: performance, staged photography, gender issues, the female body and ingenuity (among others).
What I left out of that presentation and now bring to this blog is a couple of images taken during that period that where never given any “artistic value”, but that I still regard as a more authentic register of my ethics as an image-maker, particularly when it comes to my relationship towards the idea of exploring truthfulness in the creative process.
During the last year of the undergraduate degree, I did a project that took ruffly about 9 months, called Take-away Roots. It was entirely about performance and exploring the relationship between the human and the natural, evoking and creating rituals that would somehow interfere with the natural environment I set out to create. That project had its autonomous life after its academic presentation, but what I find curious now (when looking at the overall collection of medium format transparencies taken during those 9 months) is what became the public series of 12 images: how constrained and polished that selection is (and why?) and how I now find myself interested in the images left behind.
What has not been previously said is that my experience with photography has always been very much affected by a relationship with alcohol. Even though this is not the right time to explore that, it’s worth mentioning before introducing the project I was involved in between 2008 and 2009. I called it Memory’s Architecture and it dealt with the impact alcohol has in one’s memory and the stories we tell ourselves. It had some public visibility. Again, today, what I find curious is how poor these images are (in regards to being a truthful representation of what I set out to work on) and how surprising it feels that someone actually payed attention to them back then. I’ve kept diaries since a very early age and when I started in photography I continued doing that, mixing the record of a private life with the process of image-making. Now, when I look back at the diary of that year, it’s clear to me that if there was something truthful in that project it is not the photographs that were made visible but, instead, that diary.
Being involved in this process of staging photographs, I’d gotten used to creating objects, props, sets that were at the core of the photographs. As I entered the MFA at Glasgow School of Art, the process of creating those objects started occupying a different place and as that became more pleasurable, the act of shooting the images become less and less pleasurable by the month, to the point of becoming painful. In a way, the need to strengthen the affective bond between the process of creation and the photographic subject was transferred to the time allocated to creating these objects and that time became profoundly transformative. When the time arose to actually shoot the picture, I was left with little energy, as if the register was just a way to record what had been happening during that creative process, and the photographer (and the photograph) failed at doing that. As would be expected, the results were never satisfying and I just couldn’t see where my relationship with photography was going.
The images created between 2009 and 2012 are very much based on a therapeutical approach to the process of image-making. That approach had always driven the process, but it was only made conscious through the eyes of others, namely teachers, who helped internalize that aspect into the work. I remember the contact with the work of some authors being truly powerful, as if legitimizing this performative and therapeutic value that was latent in the kind of images I created: Franscesca Woodman, Marina Abramovic, Jo Spence and, finally, David Nebreda, were some of the authors that played a big part in this process.
During the masters degree, the therapeutical and obsessive approach to work was taken to the extreme. Every day I wrote and embroidered. This had a therapeutic value. Repeating tasks that concerned the creation of objects became central to my practice. Once again, I find the images that result from the work done during that time to have little or no relevance, but the process of getting to them was truly transformative. So, again, as I was working through some internal questions and trying to create images that would reflect that process of growing-up as a female individual, I failed. What happened was that the truth involved in that process kept being redirected to the objects and, in the end, the objects (most of them immediately destroyed – a consequence of my relationship with materiality) were the most relevant part of it all and the images kept repeating the same pattern of worrying about technical aspects and theatricality
I believe artistic expression is an act of generosity that can only be authentic and original if it engages with truth. Without this desire to engage with human condition in an aesthetic dimension, I find it makes little sense to make things public. By the end of the MFA, I was feeling pretty much inauthentic. The process was no longer pleasurable and to keep exhibiting made no sense. So I stopped creating images, for about 6 years. Of course there were photographs, here and there, but not a real engagement with the image-making process. I kept my relationship with photography – maintained this blog, did my PhD, kept teaching at different schools and for two years coordinated Propeller – but I was pretty much convinced I would never regain pleasure in the image-making process. Suddenly, last year, something changed. Being aware of the set of circumstances that made that happened doesn’t make it any less surprising.
Some problems were solved during my PhD research about authenticity. After that period was over, I actually stopped feeling like an inauthentic creator. The best that came out of that process was a sense of freedom and legitimacy to do whatever I like. Why I hadn’t felt that before? Well, there’s no shortcuts to finding those answers. At some point, I understood that my rhythm, my time, my body, my gestures, they express themselves in some ways better than others. Searching for the events that make this encounter possible – between the performative body and the photographic subject – has been rewarding. Today I can identify with images created in completely different contexts, if and only they manage to reflect an encounter between the ethos and the aesthetic ethics. However realizing that my relationship with photography has a lot to do with time (it’s slow photography), only recently have I came to understand that this time has a lot to do with how I am in life, but also with affective labour.
Tira-Olhos, the project I’ve talked about in one of my previous posts, is where I’m at now. The time spent there, exploring different tools and processes to create photographic images, brought me back to a pleasurable path of image-making. Below an amalgamate of photographs (color negatives) created throughout the year during my walks.