Adriana Lestido

The theory of the iceberg

By Guillermo Saccomanno.

In 2011, in her house in Mar de las Pampas, Adriana Lestido met a biologist who was going to the Antarctic and who helped her make her way to the continent at the end of the world. So after doing the compulsory survival course in an Antarctic base, she took off with her cameras in search of absolute white. But nothing turned out as expected and she ended up in a base in Deception Island, a landscape that’s more black and grey than white. The result of the expedition and its hazards was the photographic adventure of Black Antarctica, a collection of images of a rough, puzzling beauty and Black Antarctica, the diaries, a recording of the journey to the Antarctic with its accidents and an internal journey with its inevitable consequences.

"22/11/2011, Tuesday, 6:30 pm. I’ve been chosen. The course is between the 30th and the 3rd. The exam is on the 5th". That’s how Adriana Lestido begins her travel diary to the end of the world, a handmade notebook given to her by a man in prison. "The Antarctic is cleansing. Something new begins, a new phase. To clean and make space. That’s what the images will be. To travel light, follow my dreams. I’ll ask the scientists at the base to tell me theirs. Will the dreams of others help me? To dream again. To listen to the wind. To go to the white. What’s the limit?" This beginning full of hope and queries is an introduction to a creative process that has ended in two unique books. To ask: What limit is she referring to? Is it the borderline between language and silence? How do you set references for the reading of a book of images that not only questions the very essence of the image but also words that cannot express it.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is listened to in Black Antarctic: the travel diaries that Adriana Lestido kept. The emotional impact of the photographs that Lestido drew out of the ice, their light, darkness, generate a similar effect to the second movement of the symphony written as a tribute to the fallen in the Battle of Leipzig. Let me explain; similarly to what occurred to Lestido listening to Beethoven while she was captured by the beauty of the end of the world, I’m writing these notes under the empire of emotions. Such is the influence that her photos produce to begin with and then complemented with reading of the diaries. I want to be precise: the photos of Black Antarctic is a narrative book, perhaps the one that most reflects the quest for beauty. It’s true that Lestido’s photographic intention is supported by a narrative, yet it’s an implied one, without words. Meaning? Women in Prison can be valued as a choral novel about confinement and the female condition behind bars. Mothers and daughters can be read as a series of short stories centred in the different levels of family and gender relationships ranging from torment to tenderness. Now if Adriana’s photos of the Antarctic are presented as a literary interpretation (I’ll tell you what I think in a minute), the diary on the other hand threads a sequence of narrative records in the vast openness at below zero degrees.

It’s a known fact that Lestido’s work has caught the attention of writers. In her book of photographs she has quotes from John Berger (with a very enthusiastic opinion of her work) and Raymond Carver (her favourite author). Like here in her photographs of the Antarctic and her diaries she has called upon authors of a variety of origins. Her quotes range from names such as Sara Gallardo, Clarice Lispector or the inevitable Alejandra Pizarnik. Far from their use as an element of prestige, they’re more like subtle signals that suggest the path this artist has chosen. They’re invitations to read on. The repertoire of quotes guides the eye through a reality that emerges beyond the first glance. The surface of what is seen (the title Lestido gave to her magnificent retrospective collection in 2012) is just the tip of the iceberg.

And here’s where the theory of the iceberg (so appropriate considering we’re talking about the Antarctic) sustained by Ernest Hemingway, comes in: "I always aim to write according to the principal of the iceberg. There are nine tenths of the block of ice under water for every bit you see. You can eliminate anything you know, all it does is strengthen the iceberg". So in consequence Lestido’s work records what’s invisible, alluding to the depth that will vibrate, like a message in the heart of whoever approaches her work. There’s a message more than any other word that describes the function of her work. The world would be a better place if we payed more attention to its images.

There’s another matter left in the air: even though Lestido quotes writing, I’d like to underline that her profession as narrator, from the beginning as a photojournalist, implies being there, in areas of danger, be it the repression at a demonstration, the violence in a prison or her venture into the wilderness. The landscapes of the Antarctic with its history of expeditions, has now become the new peak. Let’s recall just one precedent, Ernest Shackleton’s imperial journey between 1914 and 1917, with the records of those fantastic images taken by the Australian photographer Frank Hurley. There is another paradigmatic name in this tendency towards the extreme: Werner Herzog. Herzog’s Antarctic and Amazon, the icy and the tropical jungle and why not the journey on foot from Berlin to Paris (read: Of Walking on Ice, that treasure of travel literature). I refer to the type of journey that represents both a personal surrender (the search for purity) and enlightenment (the conquest of asceticism). Lestido writes: "Today I thought that what matters is what you do with what you’re given. To recognize what’s good, develop it, give it space. And to see the bad not to justify yourself or criticize it or complain but to transform it. To know that’s the marrow of the battle you’ll fight in this life. To see the bad within us".

In the 90s Krakauer, a travel journalist for the magazine Outdoor begins to follow the track of Chris Mc Candless, a young idealist who detested the conventions of a normal family life and the establishment and ends up getting lost in the roads of Alaska where he ended up writing his diary in the pages of a Tolstoi novel whilst dying of cold and hunger in a battered old bus. When Krakauer began his investigation on McCandless he thought his motivation to write was the mystery surrounding this young man’s tracks, but no. After a few chapters Krakauer realized two things. The first, that his was an inner voyage. The second, that finding that young man he was finding himself, in his youth accompanying his father who had gotten him started in mountaineering. He titled the book Into the Wild (1995) and Lestido quotes Krakauer word for word in her diary: "A prolonged stay in a wild, unknown place sharpens your perception of the outer world as much as the inner. It’s impossible to survive in nature without interpreting its subtle signs and developing a strong emotional connection with the earth and everything that lives on it". Similar to Krakauer’s experience, Lestido’s in the south also evokes her father, her mother, her lost loves. Inexorably during the journey to that hypnotically white south, Lestido’s origins are there barging into her memories as she walks further into the snow, sets up her tripod, away from the camp and meditates. (Lestido meditates all the time during this journey, which leads naturally to this state). A quote from Eliot belonging to East Coker anticipates the part of the iceberg below: "What we call the beginning is often the end / and to put an end is to mark a beginning. / The end is the place where we begin".

If the photos of the journey are heart wrenching in they’re insinuation of that which is unattainable (what philosophers and psychologists call the soul), the reading of the diary becomes a rich complement to the photos and it rounds off some of the ideas. One, that of directors Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne: to capture what occurs in the moment it occurs which can be connected with another from the photographer Sergio Larrain, who after becoming a star of the famous Magnum agency, abandons his art to retire in a mountain in the northern Andes to devote himself to meditation and healing. Larrain was able to define his isolation: The present is not the path. The present is the goal. Larrain projects himself, the guru beyond the international award-winning artist. I’m referring to knowledge expressed as shamanic wisdom. Does chance exist? In the Antarctic la Chamana, (the Shaman) a mountain she never even imagined awaits. "To reach within me", she ponders about her journey and writes in the notebook given to her by a man in prison. Why not, if the body is the prison of the soul, now are body and soul not prisoners in the white?

Lestido consults the I Ching: "When you contemplate the shape of the sky, you can explore the change of the times. When you contemplate the shape of men, you can form a world. Love is the content and justice is the shape". It might seem I’m arbitrarily quoting from Lestido’s notes to sustain a hypothesis: in her work Lestido has displayed certain gifts. All you need is to name her workshops in Mar de las Pampas, which guide her followers to a deep review of their personal stories, a creative analysis but ultimately one that has an added twist and becomes a path of healing. For the urban individual to let down barriers, prejudice and resistance, Lestido proposes. That place and goal is in itself a crossing that recalls the Socratic premise: Know thy self.

At this point, I admit, my thoughts might seem purely metaphysical for the reader used to Lestido’s social photography, the one that cuts out our contemporary history in portraits of pain. That reader might find himself perplexed, transported abruptly to a place that is and isn’t recognizable, because the Antarctic landscape generates uneasiness. Some might associate this with the Lovecraft climax of the mountains of madness, others with the horror of emptiness. It’s the question Lestido asks herself from the start: " What am I seeking in the white? What can the white give?". The answer could be found into the chapter Herman Melville dedicated to the white of Moby Dick, the novel about the heart’s abyss.

In a more extensive review I would expand on what the diaries describe regarding the expeditionary aspects; the physical preparation, unexpected occurrences, the frights, the moments of tension or joy and how she equipped herself, not just with her camera but all the warm weather gear and above all and most crucially, the mental training for this adventure. This mattered not only for reasons of introspection, but the stamina to face rigour and fear, a ship that that tilts and sinks below threatening waves, leaving the ship down a rope ladder to step on to a speedboat in the middle of a storm, and above all the isolation, the lack of communication and the loneliness, sharing the confinement with more than just her fellow artists, but also with the military. What is absolutely clear is that this is no a tourist trip, with the glamorous scenery you see on a postcard. This shows another vision: the roughness of the territory that inspires fear and shudders. In any case, more than ever, the colours it shows (I should say describes) are black and white and the infinite hues from one to the other. This is how Lestido breaks away from the figurative Vulgate to reach a level of abstraction that, can leave you dizzy, feeling the confrontation between poetry and the eloquence and limit of silence. Salvatore Quasimodo’s text: Each of us is alone on the heart of the earth / run through by a ray of sun and suddenly it’s night.

Her photographs in black and white have a magnetic power that draw you to look. As soon as you’ve glanced over them you begin again to confirm it’s no illusion. In this sense reading the diaries is most convincing as a testimony of hypnotic charm. And it’s here where in the aim of revealing a mystery and explaining it to herself Lestido offers a key, that summarizes the literary nature of her visual ideology: "To strip everything away. Is that what the images I’ve taken over these forty days are about? To let go of my own images? My inner image? To let my identity loose. Relate to what is different, give in to what I cannot control. To honour the uncertain, the unexpected. To allow myself to be transformed. I while a go I thought I wanted to be a writer so I wouldn’t need a camera".