Adriana Lestido

The soul in the air

Words and interview by Angela Pradelli and Guillermo Saccomanno.

She does not like talking about her job. Probably perhaps because her photographs are so expressive and intimate that they do not need the addition of any more words. Because they can narrate their stories without any help, on their own, self-contained. But now, shortly before her great retrospective exhibition of 160 images, called Lo que se ve 1979-2007, it was important to start a conversation that reveals its history, conclusion and reflection. And in those words there appears her father, imprisoned in Caseros, the disappearance of her husband Willy that in some way led her into photography, her need to picture relationships, absences and loves, her favourite artists, her searches. Adriana Lestido, then, in first person, talks about her pictures and about herself.

Adriana Lestido completes 30 years of work when she opens, on March 11, in Recoleta, a great retrospective. Lo que se ve, the title the photographer takes from Sara Gallardo, one of her favourite writers. For Lestido, the real creator is that one who complies with the disappearance of the self in their own work. What matters are the atmospheres, the characters, and the vision. Not the authorship. Hers is an indispensable narrative piece to understand not only the victims of injustice but also the relationships, not always apparent, between what is intimate and what is social. According to John Berger, Lestido´s pictures, apart from being soaked by separation, they are full of narration , and they are so intimate that any word would be redundant, and according to her own words “a third voice would be profane.” Both intuitive and silent, Lestido does not talk much about her work. Without any narcissism or vanity, pain is the subject she works with. Not her own, not at least her own pain, so much in fashion nowadays in a world of exhibitionism, but the pain of others. Despite her reluctance to talk about herself, during a whole morning in February, in her apartment in San Telmo, we interviewed her and here we translate, as a love history, what she told us, a simultaneous crude and delicate alchemy between experience and creation, a real ars poetica that introduces her work. But also, as a declaration of principles of a major artist.

A fire in the sky.

1 - I was born in Mataderos. 1n 1955. Mi family lived on Avenida del Trabajo, between Oliden y Larrazábal. In the house, there was a camera. It was my father’s. It was small bellows camera. But we did not have enough money to take pictures. That small camera called my attention and I always looked at it. I was practically all the time with a friend and her family. And her father took our pictures. As an amateur, of course. On the one hand, they were the owners of the house, but on the other hand, they were my second family. Because when I was six, my father went to jail for fraud. That family went out on Sundays and I squeezed in. Sometimes I think those pictures I took of women prisoners probably have to do with that situation during my early childhood: the absence of a man.

While he was in jail, I went to Caseros to visit my father many times. When I was working in Women Prisoners, I went to the women´s prison in Los Hornos during a year. Last year I was at Ezeiza`s prison running a workshop. Since those visits to my father in prison, I had never gone back to a men´s jail, and a short time ago they asked me to go for two days to show Mothers and Daughters to the men´s jail in Ezeiza. I carried the projector and the screen on my own. When I went in, I recalled my father. If he were alive…, I thought. Then, something clicked. I realized how young he was. He was 31 at that time. I saw the prisoners from behind, their bodies were tense. But as the photographs moved on, a tough man stood up and told me: “In fact, the truth is I have to congratulate you”, and immediately after, all the others started clapping excitedly. Among the pictures I include in this exhibition, there is one of a sky that seems to be on fire. It is the day of my father’s burial. At sunset, that was what the sky looked like, the day we were coming back from his burial.

The first Pictures and the disappearance of Willy

2 - Willy and I met in 1973 during the entrance course at the university. We studied engineering. Activism was his life. We were in “Vanguardia Comunista” . He read Marx, Lenin, Mao. I read all that material as something compulsory, but it bored me. Instead, I liked Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Cortázar and listened to The Beatles, Pink Floyd. Willy criticized that aspect of mine; he called it the small bourgeois.

Willy had become a proletarian, he worked in a factory. I had worked before with my father, I had sold assorted spices in grocery stores, but I could not stand being a proletarian. I could not stand more than one day in a textile factory. Then I started studying nursing and I worked in a hospital. I also typed the transcripts of the theory lectures of Psychology. I did it together with Celeste Carballo and Martha Ferro, the journalist of the police section and leading character of the documentary Red Ink. After a time, we made a deal and we worked, one at a time, sharing the money with the other members. In 1978, for safety reasons, Willy went to live with a mate. When the mate was abducted, Willy was also taken with him. None of the two appeared again. They were abducted together and they must have been killed together as well. At that time, he was 29 and I was 23. I tried to put the pieces back together. There were people who had been abducted together with him and were able to get through. I wanted to reconstruct the story to recover something, no matter how small it could be. If they could tell me what clothes he was wearing at least. That kind of thing. One day, I read in Página/12 that Suarez Mason was being accused of celebrating his birthday in Argentinos Juniors. In the article, there was the testimony of a survivor of El Vesubio, a detention center Suarez Mason was in charge of. This witness knew Willy, and he told me that when he arrives in El Vesubio, they recognize each other and that Willy, tortured and devastated, had asked him how Argentinos Juniors was doing. This survivor told me he thought Willy had been killed in one of those death flights, because the abducted ones were taken in groups of 11, all dressed in brown and carried away. In the exhibition, I include the picture of our wedding. This is the picture which I cut in two to extract his picture alone, the picture which is used for the mementos about his disappearance. I dedicate this retrospective to him. Because I started taking pictures the year Willy disappeared.

A mother and her daughter

3. One of the first Pictures I took was with a Kodak Fiesta, on a school trip to Bariloche. The pictures were very, very bad. We organized a contest for the worst photograph. Mine came in second, but it was worth being the winner. The first I really took was one of my mother. With a Voightlander. But there is a picture of Dorothea Lange I consider the foundation of my work: it is that picture of a woman with her children at the time of the Depression. As soon as I saw it I knew I was going to be a photographer. Probably, that is the reason for the photgraphs I took at a demonstration in Plaza de Mayo (May Square) in which a mother with a scarf shouts with her child in her arms. I took it during the dictatorship. It was 1982 and a week before I had started to work in La Voz. At that time, the first demonstrations were beginning to take place in neighborhoods. In the newspaper, every photographer had to make the coverage of everything. I was new but even so I was sent to cover a demonstration in Lanus where it was known there would be a repression. The moment there was a clash between the demonstrators and the police, I stayed in the middle. I was with the camera, I had little experience and my glasses were hanging. They stole de telephoto and the wide angle. The newspaper made a scandal out of this. The following day I recovered everything at a police precinct.

For me, this is the photograph that left an imprint in all my works. All the photographs that I took after were triggered from this mother with her daughter. The woman is not shouting for her child, she is shouting for her disappeared man. And the child for her father. About 10 years ago I wanted to contact this woman, but I could not. It seems she participated during those months and then she left the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Group. Perhaps now, we can meet.

Work notebooks

4. I love both literature and movies. I believe they are the two means closer to photography. I also write very much though I do not have many expectations about it.

They are notes that have to do with those things that happen to me, with what I think. Work notebooks. Writing is what I do most. I have piles of notebooks. I will not spend more than a week without writing. Narration, like a diary. If I am exhausted, writing helps me to see. Writing keeps me around my axis. It is my self analysis. I write to see, to understand what is happening to me. But when the time comes, I feel the photograph has a life of its own and I need it to come out. I admire North American literature, Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner. And mostly Carver, first for the way of narrating, capturing a moment, and second for his simplicity. But it is not only capturing the fleetness, but also what he does with that. In photography, I believe the image is just a small part. Immediately after, you have to see how that isolated picture gets together with other images, what other images it is associated with.

Your own master.

5. First I gave classes at Escuela de Avellaneda and in 1995 I started with the workshops. I never give assignments to the students. Each of them does what they have to do. If I intervene, it is to make suggestions in connection with what they are doing: The real teaching is to accept everything that life places in our way. In the same way nobody cures anybody, I believe nobody teaches anyone anything. The point is to create a channel among all of us for healing and teaching to come. Heal together, create with the other. For me the teacher does not exist, or perhaps it is inside of us. In any case, learning is to help each to find our own master.

Personally speaking, I greatly thank Juan Carlos Distéfano. He is very generous; he helped me in my worst moment. For me he is the greatest living artist here, and as it cannot be in any other way, an exceptional human being. I do not care about any creator who does not interest me as a human being as well.

Among women

6. It always seemed to me there was a mystery in the bond mother – daughter. I was always obsessed by the mother`s fingerprinting and the obsession every woman has with her mother. I believe it is the most complex human relationship. Everything is contained there, in that bond. I looked for those women in my circle. I was interested in watching daughters of different ages but I did not want them to be as distant as that of the women prisoners, though not so close either, because it becomes more difficult to understand when the tie is strong. As I spend my time taking photographs of women, I have been classified as having “the feminine look”, a label I dislike. There are many men who have the feminine point of view. Much in the same way many women have a masculine vision. I am a woman, I have my conflicts, I look at women. But we have to look beyond gender. I am interested in the human conflict, be it from a man or a woman.

I worked for three years working hard with the four stories of Mothers and Daughters. I stayed for a month with each of them. I started to sleep in their homes. To become part of their lives. And everytime I returned, I took them boxes and boxes of pictures. They all have myriads of pictures.

We started to travel together. We went to Bariloche, Mar del Plata, Mendoza, Pinamar. Those were trips they used to make and I encouraged them to make them come true. I ended taking photographs of Alma and Mara in Rome where they now live. For me, working with images is vital. Before, with Women prisoners, I had taken lots of pictures and I had to find their foundation within that endless number of pictures. Instead, with Mothers and Daughters, I was working on the editing at the same time. At that stage, I liked to see the pictures on walls. I was associating images and stories on the pinboard. Gradually, I began to find the shade, the voice. This kind of project takes a long time. The most relevant times have to do with my own inner world. I started Mother and Daughters in 1995 and I finished the editing in 1998. The strongest time was in 1996, I think. A hard time, obscure, with deep connections within my life. Most of the images came from there.

Taking photographs is narrating.

7. I started preparing this retrospective two years ago. I summoned Juan Travnik and Gabriel Díaz as curators. All through 2006, I was revising old works, all my photographs, from the ones of the Tobar Garcia Hospital for both children and adolescents to Love, the most recent series. I revised contacts, copied photographs I had never copied before and I prepared new editions. I included brief texts because I like the exhibition to be seen in image and at the same time have a textual accompaniment. In some cases, there are brief quotations, fragments I have kept for a long time. Three years ago I discovered Sara Gallardo. There are things in her that have to do with my pictures. In fact, the name of the exhibition, Lo que se ve belongs to her. There are also a couple of texts by John Berger, Pizarnik, Jung and Lispector. I also included a poem by Pedro Salinas, La voz a ti debida (The voice you say), my favourite poem. I feel all these texts have a lot to do with my work. I organised the writing following a thread. In the same way I have my photographic references, Dorotea Lange, Robert Frank and Nan Goldin, I have my literary references. Because taking photographs is narrating, telling a story. Then, the texts. I opened up with a phrase John Berger sent me together with a picture his son drew, a white silhouette that I perceive as the image of healing. Because, for me, creation heals. Taking pictures, as any other artistic expression means to get rid of the darkness over you and fulfill oneself somehow. The point is that in order to reach the light you have to go down to the roots. You must go down to darkness.

My most important task was cleansing. Creation for me is cleansing, I just kept what I considered to be essential. I feel my first mature endeavour was Women Prisoners. Young mothers, the pictures al the Hospital for both children and adolescents were the first series, more adolescent, to say in some way. Now, after all the road trodden, I looked at them differently and made another edition. My idea, with this new exhibition, was neither to gather nor to show all I have done these years, but just to give it a twist and recreate it and to find in it a deeper sense to my observation. I have the feeling I am going to give a large leap. A leap I do not know where to. An internal leap. And doing this was looking back again into the foundations of my observation. What are the foundations of seeing, what did I see? To understand what I was seeing in order to move on to something else.

Getting lost to become what you are seeing

8. To begin with, I believe in need and nothing else. It is the only parameter for me. The need is urgency; it organizes an impulse that wants to trap an internal image. The point is how to find it, to reconstruct it, to take it out. It is not that I am there and say that there is something there. In general, I am not aware. It is as if something triggered the process or the attitude. I pay attention to something. I look at something. And I picture it. And in that observation, all of a sudden, other images start coming as if the trigger were inside.

I feel the image is in some way already built inside. There is where the internal image comes from. I do not believe in a blank page. White is full of things. Such as with writing, when I am taking photographs, cleansing helps me to understand where I am going, what I am trying to see. Sometimes I compare photography with sculpting; trying to find shape within a piece of stone. I feel the artist is not a real creator when the self is present in the work. You must go beyond the self. You must forget it. That which I am seeing must go beyond myself. For that exhibition, I copied photographs again and I found some I had never edited. And I enjoyed copying them in the lab. I like those photographs to be there, that someone made them. If they forget about me, I do not care, because the pictures exist and they will go on their way. I just think it is good that someone took them. Sometimes it happens that when I see my pictures, I think someone else could have taken them. And also the other way around: when I see somebody elses´s pictures, I think they could be mine. It is necessary to get lost to become what you are looking, to become one with what you see. So that creation comes down as teaching, as healing.

Several times I thought of working in a medium format but I always end up with my small Leica. It is not noisy; it is almost imperceptible, and so it is not invasive. It is enough with looking at something or someone. And with a camera and a big machine and lights to top it all. I want to be there but not to interfere and I do not want to be noticed. I would like to do away with the camera. Be invisible.

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