The Lestido Universe
by Miguel Russo
Adriana Lestido says she doesn’t seek to represent anything when she shoots with her camera, that the meaning reveals itself in time, like the layers of an onion. There’s always been a tension in her work and her life between the intimate and the natural, the tender and the rough, work and freedom. A distinguished figure in Argentine contemporary photography, she recalls her childhood with her father in prison, her political activism and life in the 70s, the days with her disappeared husband, her beginning as a photojournalist, her iconic photographs. The worlds of Adriana Lestido, her obsessions and her doubts about the present: how to continue taking photographs?
The photograph is simple, typical: a couple of sweethearts walk through a path in the forest of Villa Gesell in the summer of 1976. She’s just turned 21 and smiles as only a 21 year-old women in love does. He’s a 26 year old guy and he hugs her as you do when you’re 26 and in love. The camera is a Kodak lent for the occasion: four or five days of sheer love, an escape to the seaside in a country that was about to become a danger for everyone, but even more so for a young couple in love with the dream of different country.
He’s Guillermo Enrique Moralli, Willy, an advanced student in engineering and activist in the Vanguardia Comunista; (Communist Avant-guard) a devoted reader of Marx, Lenin and Mao; a union delegate of Molinos (the Mill). She’s Adriana Lestido, nursing student, activist in the Vanguardia Comunista, who loves Pink Floyd and Sartre, and does transcriptions of Psychology theory for a living. In the photo they’re like kids. It’s heard to imagine they’ve been married for 2 years. Even harder to imagine that Willy would disappear only 2 years later on July 18th, 1978. And even harder to imagine, as Adriana says 40 years later that she’s never smiled like that again.
That is a first photograph. Obviously she didn’t take it, but it’s her. There’s another version of “her” first photo: one that earned the place of second worse photograph on her graduate trip to Bariloche, it was so bad it should have won. Another is her first “serious” photo: one of her mother, taken with a Voigtländer that her sister got her through a friend who’s father was a photographer.
But there’s no doubt about that smile.
Adriana Lestido was born on January 7th, 1955 in the heart of Mataderos, Avenida del Trabajo between Larrazabal and Oliden, fifteen blocks from Parque Avellaneda. She was the eldest daughter of Serafin, a salesman for La Malagueña, a hard-headed dreamer full of projects and Laura a lover of music and passionate reader of Garcia Lorca.
She lived the life of a normal little girl in a normal family y a normal neighbourhood, running around, games and mischief. She used to play with her friend, the owner of the house the Lestido’s rented. She had no connection to photography except for a small bellows camera of her father’s hidden in a cupboard in her parent’s room. “I had some photos of my childhood in black and white, with the typical frilly edges. I think they were taken with that camera. My dad probably took them. But I don’t recall seeing him taking photos, him or anyone. I do remember the image of the camera in the cupboard”, Lestido says.
That’s things were like until 1961. Like the barbed wire fence that went up on the morning of August 13th of that year when the East German soldiers came off from trucks in Berlin separating communists from capitalists. In the life of the six year old, Adriana Lestido, saw another wall lifted before her eyes. A wall that split her life in two: “In 1961, my father went to prison. It was a new phase. My life was one thing until the age of six and another after that”.
Six years. At six years of age, Adriana Lestido understood that on one side was happiness and on the other injustice: “My dad went to prison for embezzlement. He worked at La Malagueña. My father was a good guy, but he was a bit crazy and he was always making up great business plans that fell apart. To get them started he was always needing money. He was a really good salesman, but he was a looser and fidgeted with the checks of the Malagueña. That was his weakness. Him and a partner of his from work were the ones who got into that mess. They both ended up in prison”.
The other guy had a good lawyer and got out a few months later. Serafin had to stick out five years. “It’s crazy! To think there are homicide sentences that last 5 years. I could feel the injustice, beyond the fact of it being my dad. Five years for me, when I was only seven was a life time.” says Adriana.
She thought her father would never come out. “When he went to prison my mother was pregnant, so I had a new role to play in my family. It’s as if it were the end of my childhood. I had that feeling. My whole time in primary school was marked by all that”.
When Adriana Lestido says “all that” she means; her father in prison, her mother deranged by the circumstance, financial problems and a new-born sister. “In primary school, except for another girl who lived in Ciudad Oculta, (slum area) I was the poorest in my class. What saved me was that I was intelligent and so I had good grades. That helped me, but the surroundings were difficult. I remember I’d pay the school cooperative with the pocket money for snacks because I wanted to be the same as the other girls.”
“Had you already taken the bellows camera out of the cupboard?
“No, never. The camera was there, hidden away. I had nothing, no aspirations of anything beyond the immediate. I was fascinated by the woman who had a shop around the corner in Mataderos. I loved the way she delicately folded the sweaters with silk paper. They were probably ordinary, cheap sweaters but they were completely out of my league, they belonged to another world. Anything outside was another world. And when I went there to buy anything, a button or some thread, the woman was always there folding those sweaters. I fantasised about being a shopkeeper.
Five years of visits to the yard of the Caseros prison to see her father. Lestido remembers the stairways, the frisking, and her father’s sad face. She forgot how often she went. Initially, she’s convinced they were frequent visits that later were more spaced out.
“When I was eleven my dad came back home and life went on as normal. My other brother and sister were born and things sorted themselves out. However things were never the same. When I was twelve, when I finished primary school and started secondary school a new phase began. I was a lot more confident, stood my ground. I had a new role, was strong and ‘independent’”.
This independent girl went through secondary school knowing geography and history wasn’t her thing. She was more interested in what she was forced to understand more than study: maths, physics, chemistry. When she finished she started working with her father selling spices: “At the time it was very hard to be employed. My greatest aspiration was to be an employee in an office. I always had something of a yearning for the immediate, what was just a step away”.
From that day on there would be a defining feature in her life: need.
Without any awareness, or any idea of what photography would mean in her life, Adriana Lestido summarized in the word “need”, something the English critic John Berger developed in 1968: “A photograph is the result of the decision the photographer makes of what event or object is worthy of being captured. If everything that exists were constantly photographed, there would be no sense in photography. The photographs do not celebrate the event or the capacity to see in itself. They’re a message about the event recorded. The urgency of that message doesn’t necessarily depend on the urgency of the event but isn’t entirely detached from it. That is to say, the decoded message means; ‘ I decided what I’m seeing is worthy of being recorded”. In other words: need, as Lestido says.
In 1973, Lestido decided to study engineering. “When I travelled from Mataderos to university I went crazy: there were signs everywhere, slogans, commotion. Shortly after I got into politics. They hooked me in a week. I walked over to a sign that said “Bag of books”. It was the Tupac group a branch of the student Vanguardia Comunista (Communist Avant-garde). I joined straight away”. She soon also realized she wasn’t interested in engineering. The classes of theory with hundreds of students bored her, she couldn’t understand a thing. But her presence at university was useful for her political activism. “I was very strong, popular, I’d rally groups, speak in public for the cause”.
At the Faculty of Engineering she met Willy. Willy, Guillermo Moralli, a leader from Vanguardia Comunista. He was six years older. He was in his 4th or 5th year when Adriana was just starting. It was love at first sight. “My parents had moved to Villa Madero, Adriana tells. “I lived with them a bit longer but then Willy and I decided to rent an apartment in the city centre of Buenos Aires, on 9 de Julio, just metres away from Avenida de Mayo, and we went to live together. We got married soon after in 1974. Looking back it seems crazy, I was only 19 and Willy was 25. But at the time it was quite usual. Being 19 then is different to what it is now. Not better or worse, just different. It was a very intense period”.
Lestido had a predominant role at the university during Ivanissevich’s intervention at the end of 1974. The students took over the building and she stayed over night many times in the Dean’s office. “The Triple A (paramilitary group) was already at work. I was at university when they kidnapped Daniel Winer, who led the student’s centre together with Willy. We were all very upset because he was nowhere to be found. I remember doing the rounds with the spices in the suburb of Lugano and at a grocery store I saw the front page of Cronica newspaper and on it was Daniel’s face, all swollen. He’d been found dead in a vacant lot. At that moment my world was completely turned around, I could feel everything that was to come”.
The order came down from the Vanguardia Comunista to join the workforce. Lestido abandoned engineering and got a job in a textile factory: “I had to cut the threads of the cloth and make sure there wasn’t thread missing in the stitching. Replacing goods, something like that. You only had 15 minutes for lunch before going back to work carrying the threads from machine to machine. It was like a silent movie. I only lasted a day. Then someone suggested I study nursing. I got in and liked it. I didn’t want to be a doctor, I wanted to be a nurse, it was more immediate”.
Lestido thought at the time that nursing could be her vocation. She saw herself working as a nurse. She arrived at Cecilia Grierson school in the Duran Hospital at 7 am and got out at 1 pm and went off to work transcribing psychology theory. There were 3 of them at work, one crazier than the other; Martha Ferro, who shortly after became a well known writer and journalist for Cronica (newspaper), and a leading character of the film Tinta Roja. The other was Celeste Carballo, who dreamt of being a singer and Adriana Lestido. Each worked for a different company but as soon as they met the three agreed to take turns transcribing and pass around the transcriptions to the other two. “But we got caught: There was a mistake, I remember, it was my fault. A teacher was talking of the Bula Papal and I wrote ‘gula’. So that appeared in all three texts and we got into trouble. The three of us ended out on the street”.
Then came the mini holidays of January 76 and Gesell and the loving couple walking through the forest and the borrowed Kodak and the photo. “The last holiday we had together. We didn’t have many. They were generally just a few days at the beach. It was a very casual photo with Willy, on a road in the forest. I’m laughing. There’s an innocent happiness and openness that I’ve never seen in my face again. That happiness never came back”.
Immediately after that came the brutal military coup.
Adriana had finished her first year of nursing and began a residency at the Ramos Mejia Hospital. “There was an old man in hospital who I became very attached to”, she says, “May be he reminded me of my grandfather, who knows. The old man died soon after and I was in charge of preparing the body. It was very difficult and it made me realize that wasn’t for me. I only had a couple of exams to go before graduating as an auxiliary nurse but I dropped out”.
In 1977, she stopped her political activism and split up from Willy. It wasn’t a definite separation. They stopped living together but kept seeing one another. Meanwhile, the following year Lestido decided to study to become a teacher at the Normal 4 school. “I went in full of beans and I don’t know exactly what happened but I was fired. I was something of a leader in the course, I guess it must have been related to that”.
After her separation Adriana Lestido went to live with a friend. The one Willy blamed for the separation, but in the middle of 1978 the friendship ended. Adriana met up with Willy on a bus, by chance. They sat together on the same seat and chatted away. She told him about the fight with her friend. He seemed glad. They both thought there could be a new beginning. “We really got on and both of us felt we wanted to be together again”, Lestido tells. They agreed to speak the next day, give it another shot. But that call never came. Adriana still thinks, almost 40 years later that he must have been kidnapped that very day or the next. “1978 was a very hard year. All the group of people I knew disappeared that year. From the time I met Willy to when he was kidnapped only 5 years had passed, but it’s as if it had been 30 or 40 years, a lifetime”.
“In 1979 I decided to study filmmaking with Rodolfo Hermida at Escuela de Cine de Avellaneda. For the first time I felt it was something related to my vocation. While I was studying filmmaking I did my first course in photography. It was basically because I felt I ought to know how to use a camera. I also imagined it would help me to make films”. It was a free course, four lessons in Casa del Fotógrafo, (the House of Photography) with a very kind teacher, who’s name she can’t remember. “I was always drawn to the projection of images. Beyond the printed photograph I love seeing photos projected. I have an unforgettable memory of being in the dark in a class, while some photos are being projected. I loved it. I started dreaming with photographs, to dream I took photographs. I was completely absorbed by it, nothing like it had ever happened to me in my life.
In those days she saw the photograph “Migrant Mother”, by Dorathea Lange. She recognized something familiar in that image that confirmed her new path. It was the photograph and Lange’s way of photographing. “I didn’t want to imitate her, I’ve never imitated anyone in anything. I think it’s stupid to imitate but she did inspire me, the way many people have since. That photograph was something like a lighthouse for me. It’s Dorothea’s way of seeing, the humane approach to her photographs. They’re very strong, but at the same time they’re absolutely loving”.
Lestido went to Hermida’s school until the end of the year, then she began to take photographs intensely and the following year she dropped out of film and enrolled in photography at Escuela de Avellaneda. It was a time of great turmoil for her. She tells: “A very intense relationship began but I was also extremely frail. If either photography or that relationship fell, I was completely lost. I felt very vulnerable. The relationship lasted long enough to allow me to support myself and photography became what I’d dreamt of ”.
At first she went out to the street to take photographs, to practice. She photographed her brother and sisters, her neighbourhood. She did the exercises her teachers set. She worked as a customs officer but she was hoping to make a living with photography, so how? She started taking photographs of children in parks, portraits. “Selling was never my thing. I didn’t ask much for the photographs, if the mothers liked the photograph they could buy it, if they didn’t that was it. I never tried to convince anyone, but I was selling. I knew the work in the parks wasn’t going to be forever”.
She began to approach the media to see if she could get anything: “There were very few women photojournalists at the time, I didn’t have much to show and kept being rejected”. One day at school she saw a sign offering work in a newspaper in Lomas de Zamora and she went. “I went to take photos of a flood that occurred in Villa Albertina and put together an article. Shortly after a friend told me about a left wing paper called La Voz (The Voice). So off I went with the photos of the flood”.
The head of photography at La Voz was Oscar Paglilla, el “Negro” (Black). He loved the photos and took her on as collaborator. Adriana felt she’d gone to Heaven! But on the first day at work she came across the editor: “Aram Aharonian, a nice guy who played the bastard. He said he didn’t agree with having women on the team, no two ways about it. He wanted to see my photographs everyday before publishing anything. After a week at work, which was a nightmare, the Lanusazo occurred and everything changed”.
On November 24th, 1982, thousands of neighbours from the district of Lanus marched to the Council to hand the Mayor, Carlos Gregotti a petition demanding lower taxes. Gregotti, who had been appointed by the dictatorship, refused to see them. The police force was out in mass and covered 100 metres around the Council, and began to repress; tear-gas, clubs, rubber bullets. There were 50 people injured and 40 detained.
“When Aharonian, heard that I’d been sent he was furious. ‘What do you mean, you sent the chick? She’ll come back empty handed, it’s chaos out there. They’re beating everyone up’. Yes it was chaos. When the repression began I was caught in the crossfire, the police kept pulling from my lenses hanging around my neck, my zoom and wide-angle lens were stolen, but I kept going. I came back with good photos and so he respected me a bit more”.
On the following day there was a march with Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Because of all the repression the previous day they decided that instead of doing it at Plaza de Mayo they’d go to Plaza Alsina in Avellaneda. The paper sent Adriana to cover the event. She went with what equipment she had left, that hadn’t been stolen. She just had a normal lens. “In the square there was a little girl with a head-kerchief. She was crying. She as surrounded by photographers taking pictures of her. I felt uncomfortable about raising the camera but when the event began all the photographers went over to the stand to photograph the speakers and I stayed next to the little girl and her mother who must have been my age. At that moment she picked her up and they were both shouting and that’s when I took the photograph, just 2 shots. I’ve always been very fond of that photograph but over time I realise was a founding image it is. It’s the origin of all my work. Everything comes from there. Because of her age I felt the woman couldn’t be crying out for her son, I thought it must be her man and the little girl’s father”.
“Did you feel it was like seeing your mother and you as a seven year old?
“I didn’t think of it at the time, but yes, it’s a cry for injustice. In fact I always related it to Willy’s disappearance, but it’s also my father’s absence. Years later I discovered that the woman, Blanca Freitas, was claiming for her brother, Avelino, the little girl’s uncle. I also found out that Avelino had been a union delegate at Molinos (a Mill). Willy worked at Molinos and was also in the union. They must have known each one other. Crazy, isn’t it? But I wasn’t trying to represent that with the photograph. I wasn’t aiming for anything. It’s meaning was revealed in time, like the layers of an onion. It’s always like that.
Her photograph “Mother and daughter of Plaza de Mayo” made the front page of La Voz.
Shortly before La Voz newspaper closed, Adriana was looking for new horizons. Need. The word, the sensation, the definition of “need”. One afternoon Dani Yako, chief editor of the photography department of the DyN agency ( newspapers and news) called to ask her to join the team. Founded in 1982 DyN was a dream come true, an avant guard news agency with the best photographers in the country: “Working for an agency you learn to resolve situations in a single image. It was an incredible learning experience”.
Every now and again the agency also did feature articles for newspapers in the provinces and more photographs were needed. “Once I was sent to cover a story at the Borda and Moyano Psychiatric hospitals. I spent a couple of days in each. Right next to them was the Infant-Juvenile Hospital and I had the impulse to work at the hospital, to look inside but in a different way, without restrictions of time, to have as much time as needed to see what I needed to see. I had no idea what a photo essay was, but I knew I had to go about it some other way. To go in and understand from my experience in there. That’s how I did the first series of the Infant-Juvenile Hospital. I developed in the DyN lab. Yako helped me to edit and as always one thing led to another”.
One if the girls at Infant-Juvenile Hospital was pregnant so she was sent to a Maturnity Home. Lestido wanted to follow her but wasn’t given authorization. She spent the whole of 1986 photographing the Infant Juvenile Hospital. She had her exhibition in 1988. Her interest in adolescent mothers was still very much there. She decided to work on maturnity. She’d heard that in prison mothers were allowed to stay with their children. So she started with the Amparo Maturnity Home in Flores. One day, then another, then another. She realized she couldn’t stop going. It became a piece of work in its own right, that’s how the series “Adolescent Mothers” came about.
In January 1989, she enrolled in a seminar in La Plata (Province of Buenos Aires) with leading photographers: the Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado, the American Fred Ritchin, the Iranian Abbas and the Mexican Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Adriana took her work on the Infanto Juvenile Hospital. “It was an unbelievable week, wonderful! At one moment Ritchin took my work, he moved a few photos around and it became another story. That’s when I learnt how to narrate with images. For that seminar I wanted to work on women in prison in La Plata, but I couldn’t get the authorization. I ended up taking photographs at Casa Cuna (Children’s Home) in La Plata”.
In 1990, she accepted a voluntary retirement from DyN and got into Página/12 newspaper. After a few months, when she came back from a week’s holiday she understood she couldn’t stand chasing after the news any longer. So even though the heads of the paper implored her to stay, she quit. Need again.
Unemployed, free, living from the compensation she got from DyN, she didn’t work for a while until Página knocked on her door again. There was a new magazine, Página/30: no more chasing the news, absolute freedom. So Adriana went back. But in 1991 she won the Hasselblad grant to carry out the work on mothers in prison. She asked for time off to get straight into her project.
Free again, and answering to her need: “I went in with a very romanticized idea of maternity in captivity. But the reality is much tougher. Having your child with you in prison is secondary to the fact of being confined. So the angle shifted and ended up as, ‘Women in Prison’. I understood we all suffer imprisonment even without going to prison”.
Once at a court in San Martin (Province of Buenos Aires) Adriana went to a public hearing with a woman who had been arrested. She was the only “public”. An officer said to her then: “to be in prison means not being able to decide anything”. She’ll never forget that.
“Doing that project was very tough, much tougher than I imagined. I had moments of strong crisis when I was in the middle of it. I thought I’d never be able to finish but fortunately I did, and I got a load off my back. It was the tough, dark presence of prison inside me and it came out. I couldn’t do it again. I few years ago someone from the Ministry of Justice came with the proposal of a book about the prison of Ezeiza. Instead of taking photographs there myself what I proposed was doing a workshop with the inmates, for them to take their own photographs. We did it and it was wonderful. It was perhaps a way of giving back all it had given me”.
After “Women in Prison”, Adriana Lestido decided not to work in institutions any longer. She wanted to be outside, capturing light and birth. While she was trying to connect with a midwife to work on natural births Amy Tan’s book: ‘The Joy Luck Club’, about mothers and daughters, fell into her hands. It was like a bolt of lightning: that’s what she wanted to do. She felt everything she’d done before led the way to this. A mystery to be revealed. He she threw herself into the series “Mothers and Daughters”.
“I spent three years photographing mothers and daughters. In some way the project on mothers I’d thought of doing in a year ended up taking 10 years”.
After that came “Love”, “Villa Gesell”, “Mexico”, “Antarctica”.
The Need. “Photographed exercises of love”, as Marcos Zimmermann said. “What makes us feel the mundane conflicts of today with tenderness, emotion and honesty”, as Sara Facio said. “A testimony without concessions, its roughness, but always its intimacy”, as Juan Forn said. “An experience of life, suffering and joy”, as Guillermo Saccomanno said. “Her photographs are no longer glances; now they are touch, smell, noise, movement: sensations”, as Martin Caparros said. “The opening of a flaw in the mundane mystery that you can spy through to recognize yourself”, as Marta Dillon said. Or as Adriana Lestido herself says, as she defends tooth and nail Dorothea Lange’s photo “Migrant Mother” that helped her find what she wanted for her life: “What matters in the end is whether what you do moves the wheel forward or backward, if it has some meaning for anyone. To step out of ‘my image’, be it that of a model, or author and be able to understand the deeper meaning of what you do”. Like Francis Bacon’s phrase that Lange had pinned on the door of her darkroom and Lestido quotes off by heart: “To contemplate things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or slander is in itself nobler than an entire harvest of invention.”. Needs.
Now, after the awards, the exhibitions and the retrospectives at the Centro Cultural Recoleta and the National Museum of Fine Arts (2007), and her books that travel all over the world, after the exhibitions she’s curated and coordinated, after her images have become symbols, Adriana Lestido reviews her needs. For example in the work of her favourite photographers: after Lange comes; Robert Frank, Graciela Iturbide, Nan Goldin, Sergio Larrain. Of Larrain, to be precise, this Chilean who one day said ‘enough’, Lestido says: “Aside from his photographs and his small texts, he’s something of a guide in the path he led. More than anyone he’s something of a mentor for me. He was a star photographer at Magnum and left it all. First he followed his teacher Öscar Ichazo to the north of Chile and then went to live in a small, lost village to be in touch with his soul. That’s the path I’m interested in. I’m not interested in the permanent exposure, or the market or the success”.
Or, for example, the decision to open the windows: “Leave, love, nature”, she lists.
Or something she thinks about more and more often: to stop taking photos. “At least for a while. My last work was ‘Antarctica’. But I find it hard to let it all out. Maybe it’s because I feel it as an end of something. It’s life as a rite of passage. The end of the world and the beginning of something new that is still unknown. What I do know is that I want to be a learner again, the unknown implies a challenge. Maybe it’s the moving image, I don’t know. I’d like to write so that I wouldn’t need anything more than a notepad, but I suspect the image is still my thing”.
Those “notepads”, as Lestido calls them, are piles of notebooks in which she has written things. That’s another need: “They’re vital for me. They keep me sane. You might think and say anything but you don’t write anything. Whether they be moments of confusion or not. I try to maintain certain regularity with my notebooks. They relieve me, they help me understand. It’s hard work to read old notebooks. It’s not something I do often and only to find something in particular. But when I do it helps me put things into context and that’s always revealing. My notebooks help me understand. They’re another way of seeing and cleansing. Creation is cleansing, it’s making space. I wouldn’t bring back the things I’ve cleansed: that’s done. That’s what my notebooks are for. Something private that helps to clean”.
That cleaning process is another need.
Inexhaustible trotter of her own path, seeing the sunrise over the sea at her house in the middle of the forest in Mar de las Pampas. Or arranging everything in her new house in the “depths of Barracas”, where she will move to after the presentation of her exhibition “Lo que se ve” (What is Seen) at the Haus am Kleistpark in Berlín.
When she returns on one of the walls of her new house in “deep Barracas”, perhaps as a founding act to her need, she has the idea of hanging an image. “A very dear friend Valeria Bellusci, sent me a photo she took in Parque de la Memoria, it’s wonderful. It has very pale colours and you can see a woman, very small surrounded by a great deal of sky and water. I’ll put the photograph right there.” she says and the smile that seemed lost appears.