Adriana Lestido

To be able to See

By Juan Forn.

In the house where Adriana Lestido was born, in the heart of Mataderos, there was and old bellows camera stacked away in a cupboard. It belonged to her father who was in prison. During her childhood Adriana had to be something of a mother to her younger sister and an older sister to her mother. She took photos in parks for a living. She wanted to be a nurse (not a doctor) she was an active militant in politics and lost her partner Willy Moralli, who was kidnapped and disappeared in 1978. She took her first famous photograph in 1982. There were very few women at the time in photojournalism. She was the only one at La Voz newspaper. Her colleagues began to respect her after a demonstration in Lanus against the military government. There was repression and she stayed put, they tore her gear away but she kept going and came back with good photographs. The next day there was an event with the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. She went with the equipment she had left. Suddenly she looked down and next to her was a little girl, with a white head kerchief, crying. She felt uncomfortable about lifting her camera but then the child’s mother came. She was a woman of the same age as Lestido. She picked up her daughter and together the shouted the slogan: “They were taken alive, we want them alive ”. The photograph, known today as Mother and Daughter of Plaza de Mayo, was on the front page of the newspaper the next day.

In 1986, when she was on an assignment at the Borda and Moyano Psychiatric Hospitals when she discovered the Infant-Juvenile Hospital for adolescent mothers carrying out their sentences with their children in their arms. She had a very romanticized idea of mothers in captivity. However the focus swung from motherhood to captivity. Apart from her own photos she proposed a workshop for the imprisoned women and they took their own photographs. Lestido saw, and was later able to capture what those women saw, what her father saw, when he was in prison. The series was called Women in Prison, it won the prestigious Hasselblad Grant and allowed Lestido to think of her next project, Mothers and Daughters. Once again she was able to capture the minor and mayor elements, the situations themselves itself and everything they represented, what happened inside and outside for the women she photographed.

The series that followed was, El Amor (Love), but something began to happen, the human figure, so fundamental in Lestido’s photographs, gave way to nature and gradually became invisible. El Amor, took place in Villa Gesell, or more precisely between the sand dunes and the acacia forests in Mar de las Pampas. The human presence faded into the background. The next step was Mexico, first the jungle, then volcanoes. At 2000 meters she stood facing the mouth of the smoky crater waiting for the sunrise. Lestido felt then that what followed had to be snow, ice, pure whiteness.

Before that she gathered her body of work in big book called Lo Que Se Ve (What is Seen). Once I heard her say “I don’t photograph what I’ve seen, what do I want it on paper for? I’ve already seen it. What I want is to see what my eye doesn’t see, what it perceive but can’t see”. She’s been asked several times why she photographs in black and white. She invariably answers that in dreams you seldom recall colours, that doesn’t mean we dream in black and white, it’s simply a colourless image”.

In the summer of 2011, in her house in Mar de las Pampas, thanks to the formidable Toni Postorivo, Lestido met a biologist who was going to the Antarctic and who helped her reach the white continent, the end of the earth. Lestido believes every end has a beginning. In that spirit she did the compulsory course to learn how to survive in an Antarctic base and took off with her cameras in search of absolute whiteness.

She was going to be lodged in the beautiful and super equipped Base. Due to bad weather and other hazards she ended up in Isla Decepción (Deception Island). The Decepción Base is a mere shack on the slope of the volcano. The earth is hot volcanic sand that melts the snow straight away. The landscape is black and grey. The only white to be had is the constant fog. Lestido and her group were supposed to travel in a Hercules jet belonging to the Armed Forces, but they ended up being sent to Beagle, in an ordinary ship, not prepared for such cold temperatures or for crossing through ice. They arrived in the middle of a storm, after a fire at the Brazilian Base nearby. The next day they were told they’re not authorized to leave the base on their own yet inside conditions are quite precarious. She had to re-plan everything. That’s how Black Antarctic, the Diaries was born to become this book.

The smoky pit fires, the sea wolves, the penguins, the birds of prey, the huge whale bones, the thickness of the coastal lagoon, the care needed to avoid the humidity and condensation ruining the lenses the grottiness inside the base, the endless walks when the weather allowed them out. The hateful guide’s orders to retreat just as the fog was clearing. A glove blown away by the wind and miraculously brought back. Singing an opera at the roaring sea, telling strangers your dreams under a dim gas lamp. To witness one morning the inexplicable disappearance of all the black hoods in the base, (only the black ones). To see it snow and the snow melt on the black volcanic sand, to see where the waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific meet. Places like Bahia Luna (Moon Bay) Playa de los Témpanos, (Icicle Beach), a mountain baptized La Chamana (Spiritual Guide): water, air, fire and earth. She wrote all that down in a handmade notebook made by convicts at José León Suarez prison where Lestido went to photograph before departing on her trip to the far south.

The guiding presence of the Werner Herzog throughout this book is no coincidence. Black Antarctic belongs to the same family as Of Walking in Ice, the diary Herzog kept on his long walk from Munich to Paris when he found out his beloved Lot Ante Eisner was dying in the French capital. It’s often said that a good story is one in which something changes between the beginning and the end. That’s what happens in Black Antarctic. “Faced with so many images and so much nothingness, I prefer to ask myself: Am I reaching the core in what I’m doing? Is what I’m doing transforming me? Is it transforming others? Can my images become theirs?”, Lestido asks herself. Einstein used to say that if our vision was good enough we’d be able to see the back of our necks when we look into the distance. I hope that happens when you read this book.

This text is the prologue to Black Antarctic: The Diaries, published by Tusquets in its collection Rara Avis.