Ways of seeing what what is not there
Separation and absence are the key issues in the work and life of Adriana Lestido. From the street to intimacy, a book collects the work of the Argentinian photographer.
By Leila Guerriero
It is one day in 1982, and the dictatorship that started in 1976 still rules. The Argentinian photographer Adriana Lestido is at that time 27 years, two-week experience as a photojournalist. In a suburb of Buenos Aires and working for the newspaper she works for, she covers a demonstration of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who claim for their disappeared relatives. Now, in the middle of the crowd is stirred by a six or seven year old girl she has close to her. The girl´s head is covered by a white scarf tied under the chin, held by a young woman that also has her head covered with a white scarf: the symbol of Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The girl cries and dozens of photographers shoot, attracted by the power of the image. But not Lestido. She can´t: she feels shy about it. After a while, the photographers leave, she stays around as if she weren´t looking. Suddenly the woman picks up the girl, sits the girl on her hip, raises her fist and shouts. And the girl reproduces, with a disturbing preciseness, that adult gesture: raises her fist and shouts. Adriana Lestido then, knows what she has to do: shoot. The following day the photograph – the woman, the girl – appears on the papers front page.
Today, 30 years later, Adriana Lestido is one of the most prestigious names in the photographic profession in South America. She has been awarded the Guggenheim scholarship, the Hasselblad, the prize Mother Jones, and her work is part of private collections and museums in Sweden, Spain, France, and United States of America. Time, scholarships, prizes pass but the photograph – the woman, the girl – remain. Lestido included it in all her exhibitions, in all her retrospectives, and it is the picture that opens What is seen, a book that stands as an anthology and that has been published by Capital Intelectual in Argentina (Clave Intelectual in Spain) with the support of Insud Group. The book will be presented on June 7 at the Casa de America in Madrid as part of the program of PhotoEspaña 2013 and has been chosen for the exhibition The best books of photographyof the year that takes place until June 23 at the Hospital of Santa María la Rica, in Alcalá de Henares. It includes the photographic works of Children´s Hospital, Adolescent Mothers, Imprisoned women, Mothers and Daughters. Love and Villa Gesell, and starts with that photograph: the woman, the girl.
- It is said I photograph women – she says now very precisely and firmly. And it is true. But it is not that I chose women for gender issue. The drive comes from another place.
Adriana Lestido was born in Buenos Aires in 1955 and the eldest of four siblings, the daughter of Laura and Serafín who was a salesperson in a manufacturing company, later on sold spices. In 1961, when she was 7, her father, accused of fraud was detained and jailed till she was 11 so that her childhood took place under the presence of that absence and in the middle of an important precarious economy.
- In 1973 I started studying engineering. It was all madness, but I loved Mathematics. There I became an activist for Vanguardia Comunista. And I also met Willy.
Willy is Guillermo Moralli, an activist she fell in love with in 1973 and who married in 1974. In the winter of 1978, with the dictatorship in force, they had been separated for a month, and in mid-July they met again, chatted and it was clear they wanted to be together once more.
We agreed to meet, and that he would call me. But he didn´t. In the second or third week I got the news: he had been kidnapped. I thought he would be given a legal status. I had the fantasy he would be appearing and that would be able to visit them in jail. But it didn´t happen. Ten years after the kidnapping, I started my divorce papers. The military had invented something called “presumably dead” to end the legal attachment. For ideological reasons, I did not do it. I believe I started the divorce because I wanted to be a widow; I didn’t want to pronounce him dead.
- And what is the cause of a divorce in such a case
When she says that, Lestido´s voice sounds prudent, calm, the voice of someone who knows what she wants to say and she says it.
- I think the fact that we were separated when he disappeared, helped me love again without guilt. In fact, I had other relations. But I never had children. I believe is mad but it is a question of being faithful to him: if it was not with him, it wouldn´t be with anybody else. A short time ago I realized the connection about Willy´s disappearance and the time I started taking photographs. I began with it a year after his disappearance. Almost immediately.
A year after, Lestido made things appear.
In 1979, while I was working at a custom´s officer place, she started studying filmmaking and she knew the wanted to be a photographer. Shortly after that, in 1981, she resigned and became a photographer in public squares.
—I took pictures of the children, and mothers bought them. In the meantime, I was looking for a job in newspapers. A friend told me to go to La Voz, a new paper in the market and I was hired. It was 1982. A week later there was a demonstration of neighbors against the dictatorship. I covered the event and came back with good pictures. The following day I photographed the mother and the daughter of Plaza de Mayo.
She worked for La Voz up to 1985, when she started to work for the Company DyN (Diarios y Noticias),and it was there where without knowing what I was doing, I found a method.
—I had to take pictures at the Borda Hospital, a psychiatric hospital. I liked it, but I said to myself “this is not this way; it is not just coming her for only a while”. Right beside it is the Children´s Hospital. I went there and explained I wanted to stay for some time. And I started. It was mere instinct. I didn´t know what a photographic essay was.
For months in that hospital she more slowly and quietly than what she had already done at the Plaza, with the mother and the girl; arrive, stay, look, melt and make a gesture ending in a photograph.
—What I try to do is to melt with what I am looking at. You have to disappear to be able to be what you are looking at.
In 1991 Adriana Lestido was working for Página/12 when she was given the Hasselblad scholarship and she started working on an essay – that almost kills her – about women prisoners at Los Hornos Prison, 60 kilometers from Buenos Aires.
- I was going there for a year, but at the end when I saw the tower of the prison, it made me feel sick. When I was with prisoners there was nothing better than being there, but it was a terrible feeling. It stirred everything in me all about my father and Willy.
Imprisoned Women was her first book (Dilan Publishers, 2001) and when it seemed there would not be a way of getting deeper to the core she was looking for, three things happened in 1995; she was the first Argentinian to get the Guggenheim scholarship in photography, she married the journalist Pablo Reyero, and resigned to her job in Pagina 12 to undertake a project called Mothers and Daughters. Her second book (La Azotea, 2003), turned out to confirm her art. She chose four mothers with daughters of different ages and for three years she traveled with them, she saw them sleep, bathe. She built a narration that starts with the photo of a birth and ends with a mother by the sea, covered with a blanket, walking away from the ten year old daughter who while putting on a pullover, follows the mother with her head hanging down. The image – the mother being a totem that walks with the certainty the girl is following her; the girl that follows as if accepting, relieved but with resignation, the presence of that powerful image – is run through the violence of separation and the powerful certainty of affection.
—Mothers separated from their daughters, imprisoned women, women separated from their affections. Separations and absence are the two aspects that run through my work.
But it was only in 2007 that she understood where she came from and why had flourished all that flourished.
In 2008 I did a retrospective, I saw the photograph of the Mother of Plaza de Mayo and the girl and I realized that it all originates there: the loss, the absence. I looked for both of them a lot without any results. I met them last year . And I knew that the disappeared was not the husband but the brother. I always thought that the woman was shouting for her husband and the girl for her father. But it was not. Still, it is the same: the man who is not there.
Before opening that retrospective she wrote to the writer John Berger proposing the writing of a text on the photographs. "(…) must tell you I cannot write about them – Berger answered - (…) They are intimate —a third voice will be inappropriate—. They are so full of narrative that words are unnecessary".
The last works included in What is seen are Love and Villa Gesell. The series Love, dedicated to her second husband, from whom she separated long ago, starts with a poem by Pedro Salinas ("If hands hold, if you embrace / it is never to part / it is because the soul blindly feels / the only possible way to be together /is a long, clear farewell. / And the safest thing is to say Good Bye”) and it is the only series that includes many pictures of a man: of that man. Rigid, standing by a spiky tree, squatting among the tall grass: a long, clear farewell. Villa Gesell, the final series, ends with Lestido´s self-portrait: her dark hair sprinkled with sand that seems to have reflections of light. Behind her, there is an arid tree.
- It was my tamarisk, the tree that protected me from the wind. It is a picture where I believe rebirth is felt. That is why I wanted to put it at the end. After the cleansing, the pain of parting.
The photograph is in black and white and the sky is actually grey, but Lestido looks like a nymph crowned with light. A woman coming out of the waters.