Adriana Lestido

Independent and genuine.

Matthias Harder

Adriana Lestido is a close, careful observer of situations and people. Many of her documentary-style photographs are characterised by a still and quiet poetry, autonomy and authenticity. The photographer was born at the time the controversial but nevertheless beloved Argentinian president Juan Perón was deposed by the military in a coup d’état. And it was during Perón’s time that through her frequently published avant-garde photographs her fellow artist, the German-Argentine Grete Stern, a former student of the Bauhaus who had relocated to Buenos Aires, contributed to the growing recognition of photography in Argentina as an artistic medium. With the image content of her work and, in particular, her symbolic portraits of women, she also wanted to redefine the social role of women. A similar focus on women and their everyday life greets us in Adriana Lestido’s work. Already in 1982, at the end of another extremely bloody military dictatorship, her famous photograph of a mother and daughter on the Plaza de Mayo appeared. There on the central square of Buenos Aires the mothers of children who had been “disappeared” would regularly march in silent protest against the military regime of Jorge Rafael Videla. Lestido’s photo—as symbolic image—appeared immediately thereafter and was then republished in numerous newspapers and magazines. At that time, she was working primarily as a photojournalist, but she soon began to move onto more freelance projects. It is from this latter work that the group of works on display in the Haus am Kleistpark is comprised.

With her socially and politically engaged photography, she became known beyond the borders of Argentina. Visually she carries us off to places we would normally never see—for example, a women’s prison or children’s homes—and in doing so confronts us with people in crisis situations. Her gaze is always accompanied by a deep feeling of empathy. In these direct, intense images the secret of intimate human relationships becomes clear, as does our vulnerability and our occasional moments of overcoming it.

Let us examine one of the portraits more closely: Here we look into the open face of a human being, unmistakably a young woman, who is lying on a bed in a brightly coloured gown. Judging by the Rolling Stones and Beatles posters adorning the otherwise bare walls, the one in the photograph, taken in a jail cell, is clearly a music fan, and she is also a smoker. For even the empty packs of Marlboros have become a means of decorating the wall above the head of her bed. But the reason why, and for how long, the young woman has been and must remain in prison remains unanswered. We know neither her name nor her personal biography and are all the more surprised by the unmanipulated immediacy of the expression, increased as it is by our knowledge of her being imprisoned. Adriana Lestido is a political activist with her camera, and this image is yet another silent scream against an unjust fate, a fate which hits some people particularly hard. Perhaps just such an encounter, transformed here into an image, is only possible between women. For Lestido, in this particular photographic narrative it is not only a matter of truthfulness and dignity. Rather, the artist has given the incarcerated woman an image, her own, back to her; and behind this gesture likely stands the desire for a fundamental, essential making-visible.

Only a few years earlier, in the torture chambers of the military dictatorship, just such a project would have been inconceivable, especially considering the fact that the regime intended to have all traces of its political prisoners disappear. And from thousands not a single trace remains—it has only been through the active work of Victor Basterra, himself a former victim and survivor of the secret prisons of the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy Mechanics School) in Buenos Aires, that we have photographs of the torturers and the tortured at all. In prison, he was forced into taking pictures of its personnel and then, in an improvised darkroom, he found negatives of fellow detainees. Once released, he secretly smuggled out both photos and negatives. As a result, charges could be brought against some of those responsible when their true identities were deciphered from Basterra’s shots; the majority of them, however, have remained unpunished. Adriana Lestido has continued the search, if under a somewhat different sign, for justice and the struggle against forgetting. And though she did not, unlike her older colleague Basterra, have to do so in secret and in fear for her life, she has a number of her own painful stories. Her husband, who was active in the Communist party, himself disappeared without a trace in one of those very same military prisons.

In her artistic work, which also depicts children in hospital or very young mothers, Lestido ultimately overcomes the dualisms of distance and proximity, shyness and posturing, and transforms everything into a critical, narrative realism. In some of her portraits of mothers and their children we can feel a tenderness and intimacy, almost the merging together of two beings and bodies, the one born from the other. At first glance, these photographs may appear less stunning than those from the prisons, and yet they are of a comparable intensity and warmth. In addition to serious themes, we also encounter symbolic images almost completely devoid of people or atmospheric landscapes from the seaside village of Villa Gesell outside of Buenos Aires.

In the end, Lestido’s subjective eye onto the world is a form of artistic documentation. Consciously transforming chosen situations into effective and genuine images of profound stories, she is part of the tradition of humanistic photography, which first reached its peak in Paris in the 1950s. Beyond all sociopolitical content, Adriana Lestido world of images continues this tradition, demonstrating its kinship.