Adriana Lestido

Land of no evil

The last exhibition of Adriana Lestido displays a barren, foggy landscape full of questions: Mexico. She spoke to Las 12: on how she arrives at this state of minimalism in her art and in her life, on violence and her mythical photography workshops.

By Flor Monfort

The question regarding the chosen place springs up like water from a waterhole, small, aquatic, smoky volcanoes in a mysterious village, “Hierve el Agua” (Boiling Water). Yet Lestido responds with the calmness obtained through daily meditation, that it’s the wrong reading, or at least not what she saw. So best be guided by her and listen to her story of that journey that took her, in 2010, to exotic havens of land that spits violence and also reveals a striking diversity in its landscape.

“I’d been to ‘Hierve el Agua’ in 1999, I went for the day. There are some wonderful natural pools, I bathed in them. There’s a beautiful petrified waterfall and different communities fighting over who exploits it. That may be why the Mexicans put it down so much, but the place is incredible. There are three groups of shacks, a few lead on to the cliff, above the clouds, it’s wonderful. When I saw that I decided to stay overnight, even though I hadn’t gone prepared. There are a few posts to get food; tacos, tortillas, the basics. There are generally a lot of tourists, some people from neighbouring towns go on weekends, to swim in the pools. When I went back in 2010, I was told not to go, that the roads were blocked. It was in fact hard to reach because it was the wet season and the roads gave way to the precipice, but I took the images of the series ‘Hierve el Agua’ there”.

Lestido tells that she took the photographs without any specific intention. She’s generally attracted by the magical atmosphere of foggy, rainy landscapes. The third journey took place that same year. It was an invitation from the group Expansion to travel throughout the country photographing forests. They started in Durango where she took the photographs of the carbon factory, which are in the second series, the only ones with any human presence.

“We then made our way down and into the jungle, to Quintana Roo. First we went through Tulum and then Nob-Hec. We spent the night in a simple shack and spent the whole day there in virgin jungle. That’s where the photo of the 500-year-old mahogany tree is from. What struck me most was that it was a place that had not been tread much by humans. And the intensity of the jungle obviously. Then we went to another place where I photographed the gum collectors, the wounded trees… I had absolute freedom, that’s my condition for commissioned work. After the initial selection that I handed in as soon as I got back, I kept working with the photographs and arrived at a more personal series, the one I’m showing now. It’s generally a light and bright series, even though it has its density, especially the photographs at the carbon factory. But the light shines through and I like it that way.”

After all these years do you feel more attracted to photographing landscapes than human beings or is it just chance?

–Nothing is mere chance, it’s more related to what I need to see or express. There’s also a degree of shedding off the old. I wouldn’t photograph women in prison again, for example, I don’t need to. The things I’ve seen, I’ve already seen. I’m not saying I won’t photograph people again, but at the moment my needs are different. In the last series, the one in the Antarctic, there’s no one there at all. For a while there was a photo with a single man, but in the end I took it out. They’re stages, I may go back.

What comes after the Antarctic? The moon?

‘After the Antarctic that’s it’, she laughs. ‘I move on to another stage, don’t know quite what but something will appear. I was there for a month and a half at the beginning of 2012. I’m still working on those photos, adjusting the final edition’.

What’s your editing process?

‘First I develop, I make contact sheets and I choose the photos to make work copies. I have those photos in boxes for a while and look at them and show them to close friends ( Gabriel Díaz, Dani Yako, Valeria Bellusci, Constanza Niscovolos, Pablo Reyero). They’re different observers who help me take a distance and see the images beyond what I believe to have seen in them. Then comes the editing, finding the thread to build a story that runs underneath, that is revealed in the association of images, like a melody, to try to get closer to the original image generated by the creative impulse. I do that alone, then I look at it again with my friends. Even though I may start off with an idea or a thought, the image always goes beyond that to reveal something. Perhaps the secret is being sensitive enough and open enough to see what the images say, and let them guide me to understand the way’.

Do you make the prints yourself?

‘I often do, yes. I like to, for it to work you have to be very present, it’s like a meditation. To be in the lab is to be alone with the image, there’s a great connection with what you’re doing, you’re in the dark, you can’t do much else. It demands a great deal of concentration. Each copy is unique. That’s also a wonder of working analogically, there are never two copies exactly the same. That human energy, the time the manual copy takes, is a part of what the image transmits. There are days in which it all flows easily and others when you can’t achieve a descent copy. For me it’s very valuable because it makes you look within your own image. Apart from that the lab has something of a mother’s womb; the darkness, the liquids, the silence. It’s like being in a cave. Time ticks away at a different pace’.

Coming back to Mexico, why does it attract you?

‘It’s a very powerful, intense place. It’s naturally priviledged. I went many times and connected with the desert, the sea, the mountain and the jungle. It’s not the same experience with or without the camera, but it’s always a strong experience. What I do bare in mind is the respect those places inspire: the wild animals, the serpents, the places you can’t go to, the sounds. Yet it’s clearly a territory that does not belong to man and that imposes a great deal of respect. It’s beautiful, especially the light filtering through the thick vegetation in Michoacán, Oaxaca or Ixtlán...’

Do you live in Buenos Aires or at your house on the beach?

‘ Both here and there, but more here. I take my cats even if it’s just for the weekend. When they come back they cry, especially Pochito, the male, he cries like a pig. Sometimes I give the workshops there.’

Your workshops are mystic. What do you do exactly?

‘I prefer not to talk a lot about them because what matters is the experience. We work on the images that people take, but beyond that it has to do with the experience of being there for eight days, living together, the exchange of energies, opening up, sharing and transformation. I love doing them, I feel it’s an essential part of the work I do, like taking photographs. It can be exhausting too, but doing the workshops always connects me with what I believe in. It allows me to be more in touch with what I’m truly interested in. At the same time that exchange is a form of love, of understanding we are not alone. Over the years, it’s been 20 years now since I started, a network of people has developed, like a big spiritual family, it’s beautiful. There’s always a feeling of deep, selfless love within the group, between very different people, who may not know one another. The majority are into photography but not always. The only thing that matters is that you give yourself into it.

Do you meditate?

‘ I do Vipassana meditation (Vipassana means to see things just as they are). I meditate twice a day, an hour in the morning and half and hour in the afternoon. I also go on a retreat once a year for eleven days in complete silence.

Are you a disciplined woman?

‘You could say so. I’m happy when I’m in contact with nature, that’s where my spirit is happiest yet there’s something of the business of the city that still attracts me. I think that some time in the future I will settle in a more natural place, but not quite yet. I’m slightly in crisis with the question of where to live, but it will clear up.

For you it may not be a desired effect but for those of us who work in the field you’re something of a model. There’s something about what you’ve captured in those women that’s unique. You illustrate the spirit of the tribe that we revere in this supplement.

‘Yes, I admit, I’m a woman and I have looked at women. I’m happy that happened however it goes beyond me, it’s not something I sought. It happened naturally, out of my own thirst for what I needed to see at different stages of my life’.

What’s you’re view on violence today?

‘It hurts me to see the violence children are submitted to and men too, all living beings, including mother earth. However I think that gradually there’s more awareness. There are a lot of people working towards that aim from different sectors, slowly but surely. I have a very positive nature, I move towards the light, I’m an optimistic fighter, as my mother-in-law used to say’, she laughs.