Adriana Lestido: "The most complex human relation is that of mother-daughter"
by Isabel Navarro
During 30 years, this Argentinian photographer has captured with her camera the strength of feelings. A mirror of female intimacy that leaves the ghosts of love uncovered.
Sometimes you get the deepest and relevant images in the most trivial circumstances, Adriana Lestido says (Buenos Aires, 1955), while she sips a coffee at a terrace in the center of Madrid. The photographer speaks in a low voice and does not carry a camera (In general, I don´t take many pictures. It is not necessary) and when she looks at you her eyes are concentrated , feline, and cover her dry face with wrinkles . She has just come back from Antarctica and next week she goes to Finisterre to go on with her last work. She says she has been exploring the edges of the world these last months and it is not hard to imagine her in the loneliness of those wild territories, trying to find something subtle in a landscape (a draft of cold air, the turbulence of a geiser…) that will say more about the human spirit than lots of words) “First, the idea was that of going to a desert – the Argentinian woman says -, but Antarctica is the place with less life and I had the need to move towards the whiteness, the silence. A place of death”.
Adriana is in transit in Madrid to present What is seen (Ed. Clave Intelectual), a book that compiles in 152 photographs the 30 years of professional work where she has been concerned with capturing the invisible. A documentary work (awarded with the Guggenheim scholarship and the Mother Jones Foundation award, among others) whose core has been love, absence, separation, but also difficulty of detaching the symbolic umbilical cord that ties mothers and daughters. “When I started I wanted to do a work on maternity in general. I searched for adolescent mothers, prisoner mothers… I thought it would be ready in one or two years but in the end they were 10 years. When I finished with the prisoners, it was my idea to photograph childbirths. But a book came into my hands, “The good star” by Amy Tan, and said to myself: “They are the subject, don’t search any more”. In fact, the only photograph I recovered from my time of photo journalism is the one of the mother and daughter of Plaza de Mayo. All that I worked on later on was already there: the intensity of the bond mother and daughter, the pain for the absent man. That is the foundation on which I build my next work, but only recently did I realize it.
There are hardly any men in the black and white universe Lestido portrays. “It was not intentional. But in none of the stories there are fathers”. How could there be any in a jail where the female prisoner holds her daughter tight, with desperation and fear before losing her? It is that she was giving her daughter away. The prisoners can be with the children until the age of two and the sequence shows the previous time before being separated and taken to a temporary foster family”. And after the loss, Adriana photographs the comfort (or discomfort) together with one of the inmates. The participation among the women can also be seen. A feeling that other times become a challenge, as in one where a girl of two challenges her mother from the bathtub. “The girl was rebellious, and her mother was exhausted”. And there was Adriana, with her camera, waiting for “something” to happen. “Something” can be a curtain moved by the wind, as a ghost, of a gesture of a mother and a daughter that, in that intimacy where Adriana is not an intruder, finally reveals a crack in that intense love and so little idyllic.
Mujer hoy. When did you shoot your last photograph?
Adriana. Before coming to Madrid, from my window in Buenos Aires, a day in which the city was highly contaminated and there was a strange light.
Mujer. What makes you shoot? What is strange?
Adriana. No, not what is strange. Blurred situations do attract me, but it all depends… It depends on how I feel..
Mujer. At the beginning, what interested you?
Adriana. I started taking photographs at 25 and it was a revelation. At the beginning l photographed my siblings, my neighbors, my friends, my surroundings. And from all those pictures, from the first roll, there is only one that stays with me and it is in the book; it is a picture of my mother in ´79. The only one I took her. Five years later she died.
Mujer. And why didn´you take her more pictures?
Adriana. It didn´t occur to me and I´m sorry. It is difficult to photograph parents…
Mujer. Perhaps one only wants to record what you feel you are going to lose.
Adriana. Exactly, my mother was a very sensitive woman. She read a lot, listened to music, but also she was hard to get on with, to say it nicely. My relationship with her was very complex and when she died our relation was still very tense. Working on the series “Mothers and daughters” helped me recover the love we always had and that the tension of the conflict held down.
Mujer. You started taking photographs towards the end of the dictatorship and you were close to repression when you were a student. Were you afraid?
Adriana. I guess so, but I wasn´t totally aware because I was very confused by terror. From a distance, I understand it was foolish to have stayed in the country. I was very lucky and fortunately survived. What I do remember well was the darkness I was immersed in where I didn’t know if there would a new morning.
Mujer. Your husband disappeared...
Adriana. And so did many friends..
Mujer. Have those disappearances left a mark on your way towards observing and photographing?
Adriana. I never worked on the issues about the disappeared but that feeling, that pain, runs through my work. At that time I was not aware, but I started taking pictures a year after. My husband disappeared. I believe that deep inside there was a need to break the spell of darkness, because taking photos is working with the light.
Mujer. But, though you didn´t work regarding the disappeared, one of you most iconic photographs is that of the mother and child in Plaza de Mayo. What was that day like?
Adriana. It was in a demonstration of the Mothers in Avellaneda. I had been working in that newspaper for only a week, and the girl was crying beside the mother. There were many photographers and they all took pictures. But I felt a bit shy to take one and I waited for all the colleagues to leave towards the area of the speeches. The girl calmed down. At a moment, some slogans were shouted, the mother picked her up, they shouted together and I took that photograph.
Mujer. How do you build the bond with the people photographed to make them forget you are there?
Adriana. I think it is something that happens more for the quality of the presence than for doing anything in special. When you are present, you become part of what happens. To go beyond the self without an ego and be what I see. That is what gives me invisibility.
Mujer. The ambivalence of the relations mother-daughter is an overall presence in all your images, something out of the ordinary, as the speeches on maternity tend towards idealization. The exhaustion, the rivalry, fears, fusions do reflect in your work.
Adriana. I believe the relationship mother-daughter is the most complex human relation that exists and also the one related to love-hate. It is something very strong: a woman being born from another woman, with all the play of mirrors behind, the symbiosis. That is why many adult women have unresolved problems with their mothers.
Mujer. How do you think it can be resolved?
Adriana. I believe a woman is not totally a woman until she can see her mother as another human being with a preview story before the child´s arrival and with her own expectations. That can take a lifetime or perhaps never. And that gap takes place only with a separation. I think all my work is permeated with separation as a vital need. In the same way, at childbirth it´s necessary to cut the umbilical cord, that cord with the mother has to be cut several times. And I´m not talking about breaking up, on the contrary, because separating is what allows a person to have another type of relationship with the mother. It is vital because learning to separate teaches to unite.
Mujer. What can you say about your photograph The Salsera of the woman dancing in an embrace?
Adriana. I did it during my stage as a photojournalist when I started my relationship with the man that was later on going to be my husband. We went together to cover the news, he was writing while I took the photographs.
Mujer. It is very iconic...
Adriana. It´s my image of love. .
Mujer. But perhaps because here we don´t see the man either, it gives the impression that it is a very unilateral love. Does he also have that look of ecstasy or is the woman the one that does everything?
Adriana. [laughs] I don´t know. It could be. But because of her intense surrender, it must be something shared. Love is synchrony.
Mujer. Have you ever talked to her?
Adriana. Never, until recently. That photograph belongs to the collection of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes of Buenos Aires, and when they worked on the anthology of my work they used that image to promote it abroad. The woman in the photo had never seen the picture before, but she had a sister in the United States and she was the one to discover the image. The day of the opening, she appeared by surprise.
Mujer. And what did she say?
Adriana. She told me that they had a short story as a couple… but the unusual thing is that when we met, she was going through a crisis about invisibility. She felt that nobody was looking at her. So I showed her the endless number of cards I have with that picture, the billboards… and she couldn’t believe it.
Mujer.Do you ever accept a task on demand?
Adriana. Only if there´s total freedom. I quit photojournalism in 95. I prefer earning a living differently.
Mujer. Would you accept the task of taking photographs of Cristina Kirchner?
Adriana. Yes, in her case because I feel admiration for her. There are many things I don´t agree with, but the fact Videla died in an ordinary jail is a powerful symbol. And it means a lot. Beside in the criticism about her, there is a strong machos’ attitude that is very disturbing, especially when it is comes from a woman.
Mujer. What picture are you searching now?
Adriana.I don´t search for anything. For me a good photograph is a miracle and miracles are not searched for but discovered instead.