Adriana Lestido, the photographer who stared Antarctica in the eye
By Agustina Larrea.
Well known for her work on mothers in prison and adolescent mothers, among other series, the Argentine photographer has just launched her book “Black Antarctic. The Diaries” a journal of her trip, as artist in residence to this surprising territory that became something of an initiation rite. In conversation with Infobae, she spoke of the crossing, her relationship with writing, her career and her plans.
There’s no lack of expectations. Nothing is missing; the I Ching , meditation, some clothes hanging in a small room shared with others, references to Werner Herzog’s work, the dangers of a hostil territory, the unexpected announcements, the inclemencies of the weather, the questions regarding love and freedom. In Black Antarctic. The Diaries, Adriana Lestido puts into words the themes that have run through her life and work in an intimate journal that records her trip to the Antarctic in 2012. What began incidentally as a double exploration, both internal and territorial, turned into two books, (one of photographs, one of text) and a possibility to explore a new language.
What drove a photographer, renowned, among other things, for her series on adolescent mothers and mothers in prison, or on love, in rigorous black and white, to venture into an arid territory where any human presence seems to vanish in the foggy landscape?
"When I was in Madrid in 2010 I saw a retrospective of Miquel Barceló. In a small room there was a white series that he’d made after a period of time in the Sahara Desert. " Lestido tells Infobae and adds: "What I felt in that small room with those paintings was very powerful. I felt the strong need to go somewhere like that, towards such emptiness. I initially fantasised with the Sahara Desert. At the time I also had the idea to stop photographing people, of going back to basics, to the four elements: water, air, land and fire. It never ceases to amaze me how things turn out. Suddenly you start working on something and you realize you’d already started much earlier. If it’s meant to be, possibilities open up in different places. At that time I met a woman who came to see me about my workshops. She’s a biologist from Mar del Plata, Cecilia Ravalli, who periodically embarks and heads out to open sea. I liked the idea of embarking on a ship and working with water and she agreed to find out for me. Some time later she came back to me and mentioned El Deseado was heading to the Antarctic. I said to myself 'The Antarctic! , That’s it the Antarctic!' That’s our desert. I even applied for a grant to Conicet to be able to get on that ship. They never replied, obviously! (laughs). So the idea became clearer, it wasn’t the water I wanted but the Antarctic itself. A year before, while I was in Mexico, in Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, the image of being out in the white came to me. A year later, when I already had the idea of going to the Antarctic I met another biologist (Luciana Motta), who goes regularly to the South Pole. She also takes photographs and offered to help me".
And so it was that after submitting an application for artist in residence to the Argentine Antarctic Institute, it was granted and the adventure began. But instead of the ‘white’ Adriana imagined for her photographs, the Antarctic landscape offered her something completely opposite.
When I got there I found it was completely different to what I’d thought.
Deep down I know that’s where I was meant to go, to the black. It was obviously disappointing at first. We were headed to Base Esperanza, (Hope Base) which is beautiful, we were going to have a room each, Wi-Fi…Yet we ended up in Decepción (Deception), which is a very basic summer base. It was quite an impact to arrive expecting to see white and see black instead. Because it’s a volcanic island the heat melts the snow immediately and the land is black. There are only a few white blotches. In winter I imagine it must be completely white but not in summer. However, truth be told, it was all there; the fire was there under the ice. It irrupted in the 60s. The rough conditions we faced were far more in tune with the spirit of the Antarctic that is wild and extreme. Even though we suffered the hardship, it’s the way it was meant to be. It’s where I was meant to be. There are two key elements. On the one hand it’s a completely unpredictable place. One minute there might be a clear blue sky and a moment later I’d be completely covered up and blinded by the fog. Added to that were the military logistics that made it even more unpredictable. That’s what made it such a vital learning process. That’s life, you want white, you get black. That’s great! It’s constant change and challenge and the acceptance of that constant change, giving in to it.
As a sort of continuity of what she experienced during her stay in the Antarctic, when she got back the idea of editing a book with what she wrote in her diary came up. " I always write, but I never dreamt of publishing my travel journal. Another gift of life. I always keep a diary, in fact I write more than I photograph, even more so when I travel. I wanted a book of very clean images, without text, without even a prologue, nothing. Just the photographs and a few quotes. That’s what I did. When I had the mock up of the book ready I showed it to Juan Forn, friend, writer and publisher. He loved it but he said: ' What about everything you told me about the black Antarctic?'"
She had a similar conversation with the Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide –who Lestido deeply admires – so, after rereading all the handwritten texts from her journey, that she wrote down in a copybook she bought from prisoners in Jose Leon Suarez jail, she decided to publish them. "It was such a beautiful process. The meaning of what one does always reveals itself in due time. You might set off with an idea or need and then it’s disclosed, in due time. You might set off with an idea or concrete need and then a path opens up and there’s a deeper meaning to it all. Time will tell. Today I feel the Antarctic relates to the need to take a new step, it’s a rite of passage. An end and a beginning. It’s the end of the earth, and somehow I had to go there to begin something new. It’s a place where death is very close. It’s always there potentially, but it becomes more apparent in the Antarctic. When we arrived at Frei, there had been a fire at the Brazilian base and many people had died. The survivors had been evacuated to Frei. When we passed through Orcadas, on our way back, the head of the Base and the cook had recently died. They went out and fell through a crevasse. However what I’m referring to is death in the sense of transformation. To be able to present this in a book of text, is the beginning of something new for me, that’s wonderful", Adriana assures.
Speaking of beginnings, you started with photography at the age of 24 after trying several other things.
I’d never taken photographs. I started studying engineering, after that nursing. It was in line with my active involvement in politics. I also sold spices, I worked with my father. That was my first job. Photography came in 1997, when I was 24. That year I began to study filmmaking and for the first time I felt it was really something I could relate to. That’s when I discovered photography. The only photos I’d taken were snapshots with a Kodak Fiesta a friend lent me during our school graduation trip. They were awful!
Did you keep them?
Yes, they’re awful! After that I went to a Festival in Villa Gesell with my classmates from film school and one of them had a camera. I’d look at the camera and think to myself "I can’t not know how to take a photograph". So I did a photography course, but I thought about it more in relation to film. It was a revelation and so I decided to devote myself to photography.
And how did you get into photojournalism?
It was a way to earn a living. Photography became the language I could express myself in. That’s what I felt. At the time I worked in an office, as a customs officer and when I tried to make a living with photography I quit my job and started taking photos in public spaces. I did children’s’ portraits. I started to look around for other options and among them was photojournalism. There were hardly any women at the time, it was hard to get a job. I found it fascinating. However it was clear to me it was only going to be a part of the road. I never saw myself spending my whole life in journalism. It was wonderful in my formative years, it helped me a great deal. Especially the time I worked at the DyN agency. It was a great period for photojournalism and the best photographers were in the agencies. We worked on the images with enormous care, which wasn’t that common. The work for the agency had a definite bonus; it forced you to resolve a situation in one image. Then I began to work in La Voz newspaper. At the agency as opposed to the paper you had to focus on the one image. It was key for learning. Yet I knew there was a time limit. I stopped working in journalism in 1995 and never went back. The last job was at Página/12 and then Página/30. After that I did the supplements for a while, Metropolis and Primer Plano. It was a very happy time because the photos themselves didn’t matter much, so I had enormous freedom. I really enjoyed it. However in 1995 I left with a clear feeling that it was time to turn a new leaf. My first work was more related to reporting, but gradually I moved away from that.
What was that change like? Going from an agency where you had to resolve everything in a single image to working on series or photo-essays?
While I was with the DyN agency I was sent to take photos at the Borda and Moyano Psychiatric Hospitals. I went there three or four times. It was for a story that a newspaper from a province had requested. While I was at Borda, I kept looking at the windows of the Infant-Juvenile ward, that are next to Borda, surrounding a courtyard and I was motivated to do something there. Perhaps, inside me, I also had the influence of a Sara Facio photograph that I loved "Between Heaven and Earth", from her book Humanario. Whatever it was, I had the urge to go and photograph there. However I soon realised I didn’t want to photograph the way I had been doing, I wanted to go there without any time restriction. At the time I didn’t really know what a photo-essay was but I felt a clear need to photograph in that hospital without time or publication restraints. That’s how the series on the Infant-Juvenile Hospital began, when I was at DyN. I was there for a whole year with the adolescent mothers. That was the time I went on to work at Pagina 12.
Among your photos, there’s a renowned one; "Madre e hija de Plaza de Mayo"(Mother and daughter of Plaza de Mayo). How do you handle the repercussion that image had?
I took it in 1982, a week after starting at La Voz. It’s the founding image of everything that followed during the next 20 years. The mother, the daughter, the strength of the daughter, the way they protect one another, the abandonment, the power they generate together, the absence of a man, the pain, the defiance. It’s all there. Beyond the personal journey that followed that image, I find it beautiful that there are more people who know that image than who know me. What more could you ask for? As a creative person you can’t hope for more than having what you created to have a life of its own. The same applies to "La Salsera", (The Salsa Club) which I took when I was working for Página 12, it relates to my personal work. Beyond that there are lots of photos I love but they’re something else. In any case when I went out as a press photographer I gave my all. I can’t photograph if I’m not there 100%. The last few years I did feel it was the end of an era. So in 1995, I also started giving workshops, something I could relate more to as a means to make a living.
Do you still run workshops?
Yes, I do, but they’ve changed in structure over the years. One way or another I will continue to do them. The workshops relate to the transmission of who I am without any compromises. It’s who I am, I’m not exactly sure how, but my workshops and my work are a way of serving.
Do you take photos everyday?
No, I don’t, not at all. I don’t know what follows either. I feel that the Antarctic series, the diary, its some sort of turning point. So, I don’t know, I take photos aimlessly. I don’t see myself taking on a new photographic project like I’ve done up to now. I feel something in me has exhausted itself and I need to try other things. That’s why I was so moved when I started working on the travel journal, to work with words. I need to be a learner again.
In your diaries you mention several projects that roamed around (translating the book Eisejuaz by Sara Gallardo for the big screen or going around the line of the Equator). Are they still in your plans? Do you have new plans?
‘Eisejuaz motivated me in order to try to explore with cinema. Pablo Reyero and I have the rights but we haven’t found a producer yet. It’s something I’m very keen on. Photography has been very generous with me, it helped me become who I am. But now I feel it’s time to let go. I’ll always take photos but I have the need to do something new, open up to something new. It doesn’t matter how good or bad I might be that’s not where the value lies for me. It’s like a form of cleansing, to leave photography aside and approach something else, another language, other things or nothing at all…You don’t have to be doing something!’ She laughs. ‘Looking at the sky is pretty good! To do something only when the need emerges. In the meantime, to practice ‘not doing’ can also be a challenge’.
Among numerous awards in 1991 she obtained the Hasselblad Grant, given for the 1st time in Argentina. In 1997 the Mother Jones Prize and in 2009 The National Award and Acquisition in Photography.
How do you get on with the digital era, or the Instagram boom, for example?
I don’t have Instagram. I get on fine. I have a lovely little digital camera that I use a lot. I even take photos with the cel phone sometimes. But I have a different relationship with the digital compared to the analogical. If I lose a file of photographs in my computer, even if I like them a lot, it doesn’t worry me too much. On the trip I lost loads. I regretted it but that was it. However if I lose a roll of film, even if there’s nothing there I’m particularly interested, it hurts. If there’s something that drew me to photography it’s the magic. There’s magic and alchemy. The latent image, the light that goes through the gelatine plate and creates the image, the time that image is in a latent state before revealing itself. The rolls of film waiting to be processed, the work copies, all the time and human energy that the process involves, from the moment the photo appears up to the time when it’s blown up to an image in which you feel there’s something there, all that is life. That life is in the image and that’s what you feel. You don’t get that in a digital image. It’s different to have an inkjet copy, even if it’s more perfect than the other one. The organic aspect of analogical photography appeals to me. That does not mean I don’t get on with digital. In fact I celebrate it because it opens an array of possibilities. Someone said; "it’s the same but without the magic". I believe that’s true. There’s a magic in analogical and magic attracts me more than anything.