caption (image above): background for a photograph celebrating my brother’s birthday, The paintings were made with watercolor, later washed away by the rain.

Confinement policies due to the covid pandemic have entered a new stage in Portugal and our routines are about to change for the better. Tired of having to sit in front of a computer in order to teach and fed up with online meetings and what not, I’m hopeful in regards to meeting face-to-face with some of my students. Getting back my rhythm at the lab is also a reason to be joyful. However, there’s still loads of uncertainty. For instances, I have absolutely no clue what my life will be like after this August.

While on some sort of confinement, since march 13th, I’ve been struggling with an infection, fever, headaches and what not. It has made this period particularly challenging, though nothing compared to what people are witnessing about the impact of covid. I just have a bad case of rhinosinusitis. I’d like to say it did not affect my will to make photographs, but it did, though maybe not as one would expect it. Not being able to have a good night sleep for over a month (fever and nose congestion easily due that to you), I’ve spent extra hours sewing and preparing photographs. With some better days giving me a break on the symptoms, making photographs was what kept me sane. The vivid nightmares have also spurred the imagination.

Our future has been changed and many have taken the “opportunity” to make some hard decisions. The photographs I’ve been making while on confinement mirror some of the conditions that have been propelling me towards whatever future is there for me. Some “issues” were intentionally left out. I think crisis like this push those interested in truth and authenticity to stop compromising and, for me, that time has finally come. 

With the end of the emergency state and the confinement routine, I’ve put an end to a series of photographs created during lock down and I’ll be gathering a selection in this post, along with some (hopefully) brief comments on the ideas and feelings behind them. They are nothing but a diary of this period, a portrait of something that will no longer be. Although they entail a lot of pre-prodution and most were shot on 120 positive film, they were presented as instantaneous, for I shared them with friends, one per day, on my facebook page (although most of those instant shares were not “the final images”; they revealed the scenery, the making-of or the character being worked upon).

An Introduction

I started making portraits wearing handmade balaclavas and masks back in 2012, in the sequence of the crisis we were living in at the time. The first ones I made were used in some demonstrations. As usual, the excitement was present while making the objects and then the images were shot in the kitchen with a dslr camera and little pleasure. I use this camera whenever I want to make quick records, that aim at no life other than that. When talking about the sort of photography that involves ordinary photographic equipment, my decisions tend to signal the choice of tempo, which in turn reflects my commitment. There’s an overall tendency to celebrate play and affective labour and, in order to experiment with those qualities, I’m naturally inclined to chose slow processes.

A couple of years ago, when a colleague invited me to participate in an exhibition/event – Dias à Margem -, I turned some of those images into postcards and the series was given a public name: The Protester. They were not signed and were given away during the context of that event. It pleases me to know they were picked up by people who somehow identified with what the images represented. They always had a propagandist quality about them, given that they were structured around political messages that could be linked back to the historical moments that made them possible. 

The Sequel

Last year, in the context of an academic project I was invited to participate in, I made a new short sequence of portraits with balaclavas and masks. This one had a commissioned request: it was meant to fit a campaign about equality. The same modus operandi as before: all objects created by hand, mostly resorting to recycled materials. Also, the same camera and a clean background. In this case, the sentences included in the images appeared as questions.

Both these series timidly revealed a particular interest in anonymity, that is one the one hand cultural and on the other hand photographic. Western modern civilization, with its praise of individuality (and property), values an idea of success that is inspired by a caricature of the wealthy man: someone who cares for his public appearance, behaves confidently and is integrate (not to be confused with sincere). That caricature implicates this man’s social being: his visibility, acceptance and recognition. All these qualities can be evoked in the construction of a photographic portrait, exploring both physiognomy and context. When a face (or part of it) is transformed (covered, damaged, etc.), it’s as if the notion of Men is severed. In part, the concealment of identity is a threat to the very notion of being: who we are, where we came from, how we behave. How does a face affect one’s notion of identity? How abstract and symbolic can it be?

As I see it, this act of appearing in public with a concealed identity, is always both political and aggressive. To admit and declare that in order to walk this earth one has or wants to cover up is to admit a failed connection between how we feel and think about ourselves and who we are as public personas, as if the social was always a political act, deprived of authentic energy. 

Finding my way out of confinement

Whenever I start making things with materials gathered around the house, I’m happy to confirm that, now and then, my habits of recycling serve a purpose. Inspired by the need to make myself some masks to wear, given the new coronavirus reality, I thought I’d just pick up this recent practice of making portraits while wearing masks and make some images. Things evolved in a manner that it was less about the usable masks and, again, more about the message. I used some of the masks previously made, but most costumes/masks were created from scratch; often the sceneries as well. Spending most days at home, it was also a way to focus on creativity, cause without that focus I know what’s ’round the corner. I started will the old dslr, but an accident along the way made me shift to analogue format and the majority of the series was shot in Ektachrome with my old Mamyia RB67.

Photograph #1: A Helmet (March, 2020)

I love this helmet made with Ghost’s fur. Some people might find that creepy, I understand, but I have the habit of keeping the hair that is left after brushing the animals and when Ghost died it was therapeutic to make something with it. A helmet sounded ideal, like stepping into his fur, assuming is persona. His smell is still on it, so when I put it on it’s always intense.

Sofia Silva, A Helmet, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

 Photograph #2: Not in the mood for love (March, 2020)

One of those days I felt irritated, picked up one of the balaclavas from previous endeavours and shot this with little else in mind. 

Sofia Silva, Not in the mood for love, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #3: Before the storm (March, 2020)

March 27th, the press kept showing the chaos happening in Italy and Spain and sending out the message that we’d go through the same ordeal. It felt like in about a week we’d be in deep hell, with our NHS (here called SNS) collapsing. I often recycle or buy cheap old frames to use in contact processes. In one of the latest bundle, the frames all had cross-stitch embroidery works and I used two to make this mask. I thought of my mother. After seeing the image, she asked: What storm?

Sofia Silva, Before the storm, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #4: Human Trap (March, 2020)

Again, I adapted something used previously and made this photograph thinking about the way our societies are making it so hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The political decisions made to constrict our rights and liberty made me very angry during these times. The way most of the press behaved ditto. The seeds of authoritarian, moralistic and judgmental citizenship that characterizes the new millennium sprung under this crisis, making me feel even more out of tune with human existence.

For this image I just painted a yellow stripe on the wall. It was also the start of a series of interventions in the exterior walls, which eventually led to me having to paint most of the house.

Sofia Silva, Human Trap, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #5: Insomnia (March, 2020)

I started working at crazy hours. Sometimes during the night, because of insomnia. I’m a morning person, but this confinement made another adjustment in my biological clock and, when I’m able to get some sleep, I now wake up before 6am. It’s great for me, though not so good in “normal times”, when you have to adjust to other people’s schedules. The object, scenery and photograph were made between 5 and 8 am and the photograph is taken inside, with the internal flash. The illustrations are all from a popular embroidery magazine called Amer, which was recently gifted to me.

It’s definitely a more personal portrait, reflecting on the sort of thing that keeps me up at night; on the other hand it was meant to reflect on “domestic duties” and how women are still expected to be domestic robots.

Sofia Silva, Insomnia, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #6: Smoking (March, 2020)

Last year I made my first attempt to stop smoking. It lasted 9 months and from one second to another, after a stressful reunion, I just started smoking again. This year I’ve made some failed attempts to stop again and, finally, the nose congestion, the headaches and the fact that there is a pulmonary infection going around, made me take the plunge. Some say it’s bad timing, that it can trigger stress, but with me that’s not how it goes. Smoking, for me, triggers stress.

This masks is made out of candy papers sewed onto fabric. I always avoid trowing them away, so I keep the papers in the jars. Last year, when I quit, I chose candies as substitutes. This time, I’ve chosen salted broad beans.

Sofia Silva, Smoking, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #7: Rationing? (April, 2020)

Hunger made its way into daily conversations. Suddenly, people are fighting over food. Unemployment has sparked and the support given by the government is completely unable to cover the needs of those who were, prior to this crisis, already in precarious conditions. I’d just come to the conclusion, working on this year IRS, that the overall sum I spend on food for a year (around 2000€) is more than the overall sum I earn in one of my teaching jobs. How a country deals with housing and food says much about its politics and people. Before this, the housing market was already driving people to outrageous circumstances and neoliberalist labour politics pushing people to miserable conditions, so what’s next?

The photograph on the wall is from a former project, done around 2011. For the head I used the same fabric showed in the background photograph. This was also made indoors, after another sleepless night, using the internal flash.

Sofia Silva, Rationing?, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #8: New Rituals (April, 2020)

I was definitely not happy about this photograph, but chose to publish it anyway. I wanted to make a crown out of the seagull’s feathers I usually pick up from the beach. Being that I’m very critical of cultural appropriation, I tried to avoid wearing it like a native headpiece. Maybe I’ve appropriated another costume (it’s very likely). Sorry if i did. I also made the fabric that goes along with it, with natural dyes and simple shibori techniques. You would’t imagine it, but on the other side of that window there were horses playing with each other. True story. Though the ritual of staring at the window has written its way into everyone’s daily stories, it is not my reality. I stared at the window only for the photograph.

Sofia Silva, New Rituals, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #9: Different times, different corsets (April, 2020)

I made this mask with a bra and a corset. I hate wearing bras and since this confinement period started I’ve avoided going back to that. Guess I’m more on a hippie front. Yet, going out, I still feel the pressure to conform to social habits and am aware it will take some time to adjust. This photograph was also made indoors, using the camera’s flash. The background is a bed sheet and there’s post-production work to cover the naked torso, which I felt uncomfortable showing. The bra was then recreated and is now a wearable and reusable protective mask. Very effective recycle material.

Sofia Silva, Different times, different corsets, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #10: Some distances make us closer (April, 2020)

April 8th, it was my youngest niece’s birthday and I wanted to make something fun for her. I wouldn’t usually have the time to put into something like this. This year I’d probably go meet my family around this time of the year, so it seemed natural to try and reach out through photography. I made several disastrous attempts at decorating my face. Bought some cream but was unable to turn it into Chantilly (thought it was the lack of electric equipment, but apparently the problem was I chose the wrong cream), then ended up mixing some chocolate with blue and green dyes and tried to do it in a way that was not reminiscent of blackface. Painted the background wall, making life harder for myself. The smell of chocolate stayed throughout the day.

Sofia Silva, Some distances make us closer, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #11: Ode to the Sun (April, 2020)

The background work took me about a week to make. It’s a 70x100cm cardboard glued with leftover boxes from incense sticks and lumen prints. The day I shot this I felt sick and uninspired and I feel it translates. 

Sofia Silva, Ode to the sun, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #12: Social D. (April, 2020)

So my dslr broke while shooting a photograph of me wearing this death mask while lying on the ground, in the middle of the garden. I was puzzled by how significant it seemed, like a sign to stop doing this. I’d made the mask with a cyanotype print from an x-ray and, while preparing for the scene, the tripod fell and with it the camera as well. Since I had already sketched a few images and had some masks and sceneries prepared, I decided to pick my Mamyia and some Ektachrome left in the fridge and kept the photographs going. It was a huge change, of course, and because I was left with a shutter release cable and not a timer, I add to adapt. Things started slowing down and with it a different sense of purpose stepped in. I’d take two or three films and then go into the lab, process and scanned them, but the emergency policies here didn’t make it easier for me. It’s curious to confirm how a change in format keeps somethings similar, while others get transformed. With either cameras and formats, I’ve only taken between 2 and 5 photographs for each representation. Maybe if we go back to confinement and I go back to this (not!!!), I’ll chose the large format for a change and stick to one photograph.

Because it has been such a long time since I’ve done this sort of staged work, using a camera, I’d forgotten how this, as well, is slow photography. The way I relate to the process of self-representation is like a performance. Although I know this environment extremely well and how the light affects the different ends of the house, the moody nature of the weather often has me sitting around with masks for long periods of time, waiting for some cloud to pass or cover the sun. Often doing it completely blindfolded, it is also very much about the body’s temperature and rhythm. Setting the camera and the tripod, composing, focusing, measuring the light, connecting the cables, dressing up and, finally, waiting for “the right moment”, it’s always a prolonged event.

Sofia Silva, Social D., Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #13: Blind Love (April, 2020)

I find pomegranates extremely beautiful. Unfortunately I don’t enjoy eating them, so I only have them around to use as natural dyes for different ends. This one was particularly big. In portuguese, pomegranate is spelled romã and when you spell it backwards it reads amor (love). I made a pink mask with natural dyes from hibiscus and tried to take a bite of the fruit through the fabric.

Sofia Silva, Blind love, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #14: Talking to the Dead (April, 2020)

Since this crazy period started I’ve been thinking a lot about someone very dear who is no longer living. I know she’d find it extremely stressful to live through these times; she’d suffer with anxiety; not so much with loneliness, which she was already used to. My ability to live through this is hers not to. Besides the corpse (mine), everything included in this photographs was hers. She’s also represented in other ways. These days, a white butterfly has been hanging around the garden. I’ve often photographed her. I like to think is always the same. I like to think it has a soul.

Sofia Silva, Talking to the dead, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #15: Stuck in History (April, 2020)

I felt trapped. The fabric used in this image is a very big skirt handmade from patches several years ago, in a meditative process, during a Scottish winter. It has been featured in different occasions. Thought it might be time to tear it apart, but was unable to. The background fabric is from a recycled parasol. Felt trapped in between the idea of affective labour and value, which would latter trigger another photograph. I don’t like being attached to things that I make, but this skirt has survived. For reasons that have to do with the original intention behind its making, it makes me think of my mother and I see her tenderness while looking at it.

Sofia Silva, Stuck in History, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #16: Against Human Noise (April, 2020)

Another helmet evocative of dogs and cats, made out of transfer laser prints The harness worn as a corset also belonged to Ghost. I’m accustomed to spending more time in between animal noises that human ones. However, because of the general confinement, the neighbors’ sounds started echoing more often, transforming the soundscape. It’s been challenging.

The wall had already been painted a couple of times since this series of photographs started and I finally compromised with this color (somewhere between salmon and a soft pink).

Sofia Silva, Against human noise, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #17: Magical Thinking (April, 2020)

This photograph is an exception: a remake done in analogue format after a first attempt with the dslr. I wasn’t happy with the first results and before I painted over the wall, I took a couple of shots, which I think turned out better. The headpiece took me a day to make; it’s an intricate piece in terms of how the threads are connected. It’s made entirely out of recycled carpets.

Sofia Silva, Magical Thinking, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #18: Antivirus (April, 2020)

Another praise to my obsession with recycling, this “mask” is created out of remaining threads and ampules of vitamin supplies I often take when I need a boost in energy. With all the talk going around about the need to strengthen our immunity system with vitamin C and D, I thought it would be the perfect time to put these recycled objects to some use. Not everything is this photograph is recycled, but it’s pretty damned close. On the background, another sign of vitamin’s supply: the neighbor’s tamarillo tree. After featuring these head pieces in photographs, I often used them as dream catchers. 

Sofia Silva, Antivirus, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #19: Hallucinations (April, 2020)

Although all of these photographs rise from intuition, 90% are carefully sketched and planned. I’d say the remaining 10% ride solely on that intuition. In this case, I’d just painted the wall fresh and that colour blue had me staring at it for a long time. It was a very sunny day. Before cleaning up the mess I’d made on the floor, I just put on a clean shirt, one of my reusable masks, a headband matching the same fabric and some vintage binoculars. It didn’t come out as I’d imagine it, but the blue still melts me.

Sofia Silva, Hallucinations, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #20: A Precariedade Mata Mais (April, 2020)

I’d made the print about a week prior: a cyanotype from an x-ray (plus the sentence written over some leftover plastic), dyed with eucalyptus. It conveys one of the things I’ve thought about the most during this period. I’ve often written here that I think the biggest privilege one can have is education. Knowledge, whatever its source, culture and application, goes a long way. But it can also be a problem. For instances, although I hate that I’ve been working in precarious conditions since I can remember, what complicates it even further is that I feel like my choice to keep at it is a compliance with the system that I hate and despise. What I feel now as more truthful than ever before is that to continue in this path would be to disrespect the things that have kept me alive, choosing to stick to a certain way of living. It’s a game changer, with unpredictable consequences, but it’s inevitable.

The photograph per se was a challenge. I went over a few possibilities, but the navel-string tying me to the camera made all the options hard to realize. This one, although complicated from a logistical point of view, made sense for me. 

Sofia Silva, A Precariedade Mata Mais (Precariousness Kills More), Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #21: Fuck the System (April, 2020)

I made this extra long bonnet out of remaining cotton fabric (with a tannin bath). The stamps were carved out of linoleum, then printed with offset paint. I’d been trying to find a box of flashes I knew existed and I finally remembered where they were. All second-hand flashes, all with some kind of problem, but I manage to resuscitate a beautiful metz 185 and find a cable that would fit the camera. It was a happy moment. After that problem solving ordeal, I felt I’d succeed. As usual, what I feel towards this photograph is very different from what I feel towards the bonnet. Obviously, when I photograph the objects and make them public, they acquire different meanings. In a sense, I and the camera turn them into signs and/or fetishes and their intimate affective nature is lost. As you can imagine, after what I’d previously written about the image above, this message was quite predictable. It’s the most authentic expression of how I’m feeling these days: like the system fucks everything, everywhere and everyone and I’m just trying to find a way out.

Sofia Silva, Fuck he System, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #22: Affective Labour is Making me HUNGRY (April, 2020)

Continuing on the path of political messages, I made some more cyanotype prints, painted over one of the walls and created this weird character. The discussion about the situation of those who work in the field of arts or culture is deafening. As usual, there is no unity. Instead of pushing for the intermittent status, or for the unconditional basic income (or other, just mentioning two measures that would encompass the vast majority of precarious workers, which most cultural workers are), there’s a continuous fuss about smaller things that in no way equate the conditions that are universal and shared among all workers that this ultra fast technological and capitalist system crushes. What I identify as the underlying problem is this discussion, is that most people wanting to be part of the system don’t realize their practices are marginal. Education towards the arts has a long way to go here and that vacuum translates into the sustainability of most artistic practices. As precarious workers, a cultural worker is really no different from many others.

For the photograph, I repainted one of the walls with a blue acrylic square, just enough to frame the image. It was the forth and final intervention in this wall before it was finally painted over. 

Sofia Silva, Affective Labour is Making me HUNGRY, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #23: Gardening (April, 2020)

I found this fabric in the dumpster one day. It was a huge piece (pillows and bed covers), an old mix of cotton and linen and I love the print. I’ve been trying to make something with it, but nothing sticks. For this image, I sewed the fabric over a corset, made the mask/helmet and used some extra to wrap around the arms. The day prior (or before, can’t say exactly), the wind brought down a large rose bush from the garden and I’d been working to put it back together and prune part of what was hurt. One of the roses made its way into the photograph and the title sounded fair.

Sofia Silva, Gardening, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #24: Delirium (April, 2020)

Lace is one of the things I often found in the trash. I put them to different uses and share them with friends, but some linger around the house and this “mask” and “shirt” were some of the first I made during quarantine, though I hesitated using them until a later date. See, this sort of material reminds me too much of kitsch culture, which was not something I immediately wanted to reference. I felt like some sort of ornament in a popular vintage shop. Nail-polish is as far as I’ll go regarding make-up and, in this case, it was necessary to cover the zombie look my nails acquire after weeks spent working with natural dyes. 

Sofia Silva, Delirium, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #25: Imagined places of desire (April, 2020)

The head piece was made out of old socks, those we keep in drawers waiting for the lost pair. The mattress is my cat’s bed. Yes, Xica, my cat, has her own room with a view and a bed, so that she can isolate when she doesn’t want to be bothered by the rest of the family. I was inspired by the red filter found for the flash and also by the fact that lately, while watching movies, I keep noticing how people touch each other… 

Sofia Silva, Imagined places of desire, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #26: Beachwear (May, 2020)

The sand and the sea are part of my daily routines, but I never go to the beach to swim and toast under the sun. About two years ago I bought a swimsuit thinking I might try and change that habit, but it never happened, so at least I put it to some use doing this photograph. The head pieces are a second wave recycling of previous creations and the background fabric is from a recycled tent.

Sofia Silva, Beachwear, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #27: Social Mask (May, 2020)

This is a self-portrait. I think of myself as a clown and in order to create this photograph I had to make the decision to let go of the dress I wore, for years, during Carnivals, when I used to dress as a clown. The mouth piece was made with the coat and the headband is part of the dress. the skirt fills the background. I was getting tired by this point. The dressing up was wearing me down.

Sofia Silva, Social Mask, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #28: No future (May, 2020)

No fucking future for me and for you. It’s not only that I actually feel like I have absolutely no clue what my future will be like, it’s also a playful homage to punk. You know what. I usually listen to rock, sometimes more heavy than others, but recently sliding on the darker and heavier beats. Since the quarantine started, punk songs have often come to mind. I’m wearing a very dear coat, that brings back to mind some hardcore rides. Thought seriously about shaving my hair for this image, but resisted the impulse. The center image is another cyanotyoe print from an x-ray.

Sofia Silva, No Future, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #29: Dystopia (May, 2020)

The idea of wearing this cage and pajama to speak about confinement was around for some time, but it sounded too plain, so I kept avoiding it. Finally tried some staging with my dogs, but wasn’t happy. In the end, I did just this one photograph, to avoid giving up without a last attempt. The overlapping of the stripes seduced me. It was a crazy one to make. I’d sewed a zipper onto the pj’s hood, it was extremely hot, the cage was heavy, I couldn’t see a thing and had to blindly fire the shutter cable with my feet. 

Sofia Silva, Dystopia, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #30: I am Landscape (May, 2020)

Trying to capture my obsession with antotype was always going to be a failed attempt. There was a first image done with this antotype hat and fan, but because I wasn’t pleased with it, I revisited the objects in this way. I also first staged the image outside and then moved it indoors. My elbow was hurting by this point, after more than an hour staging and waiting for the right light, to make photographs lasting 1s without moving.  

Sofia Silva, I am Landscape, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

Photograph #31: Second Wave (May, 2020)

To close the series, I decided to work around some warmer ideas, preparing for the Winter, as we’re likely to go back to quarantine when a second wave hits us. Tired, upset, you name it… by this point I was getting bored about the entire thing and was just eager to process the final films. My legs hurt like hell after a stupid crazy hike that pushed my body further that it needed to go

Still, it was meaningful to end the series shooting in this room, which has been both and office and a lab and is now the place where things disappear into. 

Sofia Silva, Second Wave, Finding my way out of confinement, 2020.

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