November 2008, Interview with Alessandra Sanguinetti
Sam Mirlesse interviews Alessandra Sanguinetti
Just last month Magnum photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti finished a near six-week long show entitled The Life that Came at Yossi Milo Gallery here in New York City the subject of which was a second look at the relationship of two young cousins, grown into young women, and that delicate transition from child to adult. The series is a sequel to the project entitled The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams. Alessandra Sanguinetti is a recipient of the Hasselblad Foundation Grant and was awarded first prize by Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship among other grants. Her work is permanently on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
After seeing her most recent exhibition in person, in combination with being a follower of her work in recent years, I immediately contacted her to ask if she might do an interview for Whitehot Magazine. Alessandra kindly invited me to her Brooklyn Heights home to sit down face to face. As a beautiful and cold November day swept through the neighborhood, I sat with the photographer and her dog Lunita with my tape recorder and list of questions. Here she recounts her early inspirations, her life spent between Argentina and the U.S., reflections on children and childhood, and of course her most recent project.
Sam Mirlesse: Could you tell me a little bit about how you first got your start as a photographer, and what your first inspirations were—how it was that you began taking pictures?
Alessandra Sanguinetti: Well I started when I was around nine or ten or so. Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I tell this story, but it is my only story…
My mother had a bunch of books. She had Wisconsin Death Trip, and a book by Dorothea Lange, a book by Lartigue, and a book from the best of Life from the 70s. She had those books on the bottom shelf… and at some point when I was nine or ten those books caught my attention and I would pour over them all the time. I was very much impacted by all those books, especially Wisconsin Death Trip—I don’t know if you know it. It is a book by Michael Lesy, where he recounts this story about this small town in Wisconsin, called Black River Falls, at the turn of the last century. The images are mainly of… well, there are a lot of pictures of death, well not a lot, but there are several pictures of dead little girls and of babies, and he just juxtaposed all these photos he found from a local photographer together with logs from mental asylums and newspaper clippings of that time in order to create this feeling and mood of this place, you know—very somber. The reason I think that book impressed me so much was… was that it was the first time I realized I was going to die. You know when I saw those cute little girls in coffins I realized, ‘okay that’s gonna happen to me’ …and then when I saw another picture of a very very old lady and then something clicked and I realized I wouldn’t know all those people if it wasn’t for those photographs. And… I guess I just went into a sort of panic. It became very literal for me. I asked my mother for a camera and I started taking pictures of my friends and my family.It was this little square Kodak thing—so I remember turning it around so it would form a diamond—my thinking was that ‘okay my best friends are diamonds and jewels’—you know that kind of thing. It was then that I really started to photograph. I continued with it through high school as well, always, even in seventh grade to chase around boys I liked (who were usually much older and therefore would pay me no attention)…I would photograph them from the windows outside while they were taking their motorcycles out of the parking lot—the camera was always my way of dealing with everything.
SM: And this was in Buenos Aires or here?
AS: No, here. I did seventh grade here. We lived in Buenos Aires since I was two but we came back for a year and a half later on and I did seventh grade here. And then we moved back to Argentina. While I was in high school I was doing some outside workshops and was introduced to Salgado. And then at the opposite end of the spectrum I had also met this Hamilton guy, who did all these soft focus pictures of beautiful girls—I’m not really drawn to that work—but I know it was in my head—that kind of aesthetic, because you can be influenced by things that you don’t like. I studied anthropology for two years, because I never thought of becoming a professional photographer. I didn’t think… I mean, especially in Argentina then, photographers were mostly bohemians with beards, you know [laughs], so it wasn’t something that I thought would be a career. So I studied for two years but I wouldn’t really pay attention, I would photograph students, and use the camera as an excuse to talk to people I was too shy to talk to, and photograph them during the breaks. Then I did these workshops with another photographer, who held workshops at his house, where he [had] many photography books that weren’t acceptable at the time there. And that I think was the first time that I saw photography as work. Before that I just took pictures and took pictures, but there I met people that were taking photography more seriously, and had been in it for a longer time, and they were talking about the concepts and the story they were trying to tell, so that was like a whole new thing for me.
SM: How old were you then?
For me taking a good picture was taking a picture that looked like a Cartier-Bresson. I was really happy during high school if my pictures looked like those, because it meant that it was a good picture. So there I got introduced a little to doing one’s own thing.
SM: And this was in college?
AS: At the time I was studying anthropology at the University of Buenos Aires. These were private workshops I was taking at a photographer’s home. That’s also where I met my husband, Martin Weber, who was assisting the teaching photographer at the time. So also meeting him… I mean he knew that he wanted to do that, and with him I also learned that it was hard work, that it wasn’t just snapping along. And then we came to ICP (The International Center for Photography in New York) together in ’92. I studied in the General Studies program. And…after that I just knew. And I realized you could make a life out of it.
SM: One of the themes I have noticed that your work seems to touch on is that of what a local existence or even a home is, and how identity is inevitably so tied to that locality, whether its your photographs of children in Palestine or of cousins, Belinda and Guille in the countryside of Argentina. I was wondering, as someone who has split their life between the States and Argentina, do you yourself feel you belong in one place or another? Do you feel as though this part of your own history is reflected in your work?
AS: It is so funny that you say that because I never thought of my work in those terms. But I’m sure it’s there because until recently where I’m just starting to do some work here because some things are inspiring me a little, I really couldn’t… no I couldn’t do my own work outside of Argentina. And not only does it have to be in Argentina, but it has to be around the area where I always go, the farmlands where I’m usually at—if I travel to another province, and the farmland is just a little bit different, the landscape is just a little bit too hilly, or I don’t feel that much at home, I already have trouble connecting. So that part is true. Even the task of taking a portrait of somebody inside their house in New York would be more difficult for me than to take a portrait of somebody in their house in Argentina, in Buenos Aires. It’s just that feeling of when I am there—I feel connected to everything.
SM: And is that because you grew up in that countryside?
AS: I didn’t really grow up in that part. I just felt drawn to that area. I was a city girl that would go to the farm in summer.
And then Palestine was strange—I went there really out of sincere curiosity, for myself, very naively— I don’t speak any Arabic at all, and I wouldn’t say I felt at home because that would be exaggerating, but I will say that I felt very comfortable. I loved the geography, and even the people, I mean the language is a huge barrier, but I didn’t feel foreign. You know, sometimes I feel more foreign in a place like Paris or... I think I feel more uncomfortable in Europe for example than I did when I went to Palestine. I don’t exactly know why.
SM: How do you feel about New York?
AS: New York? It just changes depending on my mood and personal situation. When I was your age, in my twenties, I would come to visit my grandfather—this is my grandfather’s place—I would just eat it up, you know? I would go all over the place, photograph the street all day, get up at 8 o’clock. Now with a child, I prefer to be in Argentina. So it just changes. Regarding your original question, I usually don’t start out to say anything in particular with my photographs. I just do it because I have to, and then I sort of realize, why I am doing it and what I am looking for. But I’m sure it's there, in them.
SM: Do you think the moving back and forth has had an affect on your work?
AS: It probably has had a negative affect. Because when I go back to Argentina my time is concentrated into two or three months, all at once. When I get there I feel like I really want to get to work, because I have a pressure to get a lot of work done—and that isn’t how I work. I like it when it comes out of the flow of life, and not just when it is a goal in itself.
SM: Why do you take photographs of children?
AS: [Smiling] Why not? They are half of the population! No, I started with Sweet Expectations and I think that work overall—now when I think of it in fact— was sort of like a disillusionment with the adult world. I’ve always been a bit immature…and still am. I can’t get over that I’m not a kid anymore, even though I’m going to be forty. And I think I grew up in this bubble, thinking that when I would be twenty-one, suddenly I would be this marvelous person and that my life would start, and then I turned twenty-one and I realized it was really up to me, and that there was nothing great or magical about the world, it was really up to you to make and find your place in it. So there was a period of time when I was disappointed with everything, and when I looked at children, you know…all I saw was doom. I just saw little adults. I thought then, and I would say to myself, ‘they will grow up to be adults, full of disillusion’. That is what I was dealing with when I took those pictures. The photographs are anonymous too, they’re not about the child I was photographing. Some were kids of the street, some were neighbors. And then afterwards I didn’t take pictures of kids for a long time. I was doing all the Sixth Day animal work and then in 1999 after having been very ill while we were abroad doing an artist residency for Martin, we came back and I went back to the farm to go on with the Sixth Day project, but I just couldn’t relate to the animals, and I didn’t want to be around animals being killed, or blood, and I also felt that I was repeating myself. So I started spending time with Guille and Belinda, the nine-year-old granddaughters of this woman I had spent a lot of time with who had a lot of animals. I spent time with them and began actually filming them—filming them with an old camera the way I would film at home, not with any particular idea in mind. Then I started to photograph them in color, and then I developed it, and said “oh maybe I have something here.” But actually when I was photographing them I thought I was wasting time. I thought I should be working on the animal series. So it wasn’t a decision “oh I am going to do a project about these two little girls.” I really just enjoyed being with them. One of the first things that attracted me to them, was to spend time with their voices, you know Belinda has this very high-pitched voice [Alessandra imitates a phrase in Spanish, shrill and girlish] it was just such joy to be with them, I felt alive… since I had been so sick and scared before. I just felt really alive with them. So it was never a decision to photograph them, it just happened. I guess I feel more comfortable with children. But not really. No, I don’t feel more comfortable—maybe now that I have a daughter I know how to relate better, before I didn’t really know how to talk to kids. To photograph them is a completely different thing. You know, that is exactly the way to deal—no, to relate to somebody when you don’t know how. I think many photographers do that too. But actually I would feel uncomfortable, I didn’t know how to talk to them or play with them. I didn’t especially like them or dislike them but I never had that thing like—“oh babies!!” When I had friends with kids I would love them, but I would just get very bored. You know, I’m just a horrible person [laughs]. But now I understand because I have a daughter. But before… so it wasn’t really that I enjoyed being with children, I take that back. I enjoyed being with them. They had this very special thing about them, they really enjoyed the attention I gave them, you know, they were alone—to have somebody coming and saying, “you are the center of the universe… play” was… for them, for a time, fabulous.
SM: How did Belinda and Guille look back on the experience of being photographed? Have they commented or reflected on it, particularly in light of your most recent gallery show at Yossi Milo?
AS: No, we don’t have those types of conversations.
First of all, Belinda, the one who had the baby…she doesn’t reflect. She’s intelligent and she is really funny, but … she only looks forward, not even forward, she lives in the present day-to-day. She doesn’t really, or at least she doesn’t communicate, any reflection on her life, which makes her a very … I don’t know if happy is the word, but a very satisfied person. Everyday she deals with whatever happens everyday. Guillermina yes, she is much more romantic and emotional, and doesn’t really know what she wants, and if she wants something she usually can’t have it. She’s more like everybody else. She has more of an idea about the project, she doesn’t know about this show yet, because I haven’t spoken to them in a few months, but she would probably have something to say, but I don’t know what it is. Belinda, she wouldn’t have anything to say. I don’t even know why she lets herself be photographed. Because she is very private, we don’t talk with Belinda much. She doesn’t talk. She is the kind of person that won’t smile to make you feel better. I wanna be like her in my next life. Really, she is rock—in a good way.
SM: Has she always been that way or is that something that has come with growing up?
AS: No, she has always been that way. She was always sure of herself. She always knew what she wanted. She knew she wanted a family and kids. That’s all. She wasn’t interested in anything else. So she has that. I don’t think she ever doubts anything, and I find that incredible. And her cousin is the complete opposite—but complete opposite, not only physically. In every way they are opposites.
Now they live in town, but before they lived in the countryside, about ten kilometers apart. Their parents worked in other people’s farms, taking care of them. Ten kilometers in the countryside is nothing, but it’s enough so that you need a parent to drive you. So they would get together more when I was there. And now they live in the same town, but Belinda is so private that they hardly see each other. They see each other more when I’m there.
SM: I wanted to ask you, because you are someone who has been distinguished among photographers of the last several years, as a major talent, by your critics and peers, what, if any advice might you offer from your personal experience to young, still emerging, yet to be distinguished artists regarding their work and careers?
AS: You know I could think of a million things I could suggest, but as soon as I think of them, the few times I’ve said them, I would just see the words tumble of out my mouth, and I realize how ridiculous it is to give general advice. General advice, no, it would be only what works for me, and everybody is different. I couldn’t.
SM: How do you feel about being photographed?
AS: Now, I don’t want to be photographed. My image doesn’t match my… well, physically, you know at thirty-nine you are changed, and when I look at myself in the mirror I just don’t recognize myself anymore. I have to start adjusting and putting all the things together. I feel twenty-five, and I don’t look twenty-five anymore. It’s not about looking pretty, it’s about being young. My husband wants to photograph me all the time, and I don’t let him. But I never liked being photographed that much either. I know, especially by some photographer, and not by family, because I know how much you can be…changed.
SM: In an image?
AS: Yeah… And… yes, I do that all the time. For example on the playground, if someone wants to take a photograph of my daughter—I do what I hated to see people do before… I freak out. I feel protective. I don’t want it! And then Martin…he is much nicer person than I am…he let’s them. But I have this reaction, the same reaction that parents had toward me. And now I wouldn’t be able to take pictures of children in street anymore, before you could do it. Now it’s impossible. People get very upset.
SM: Do you think it’s impossible here in New York, or in Argentina as well, and everywhere?
AS: No, actually in Argentina it has also grown more difficult. There was a rumor going around while we were travelling through the provinces that there was a white van with people photographing children and later stealing their organs! [laughs] So we would be looked at suspiciously, even though we drove a tiny grey car. But it’s not impossible. I mean, it’s just in the way you approach it and how you explain. You just can’t snap and leave. Nothing is impossible, actually.
SM: Alright, last question: Are you working on anything right now? Is there anything you are interested in for future projects? You mentioned you don’t really make specific plans when it comes to creating a series, but—
AS: —No, now I have some plans. I mean, like the animals from the Sixth Day for example, it was a plan in the sense that I knew I wanted to do something with animals but I just didn’t know how, and I didn’t know why yet. I remember being at ICP in ’92 and having images in color of animals and very vague things that I knew I was drawn to—it just didn’t have structure to it. With the girls, no, with the girls it just happened. And now, I have images in my head of things I want to do, subject I want to photograph, but I can’t really…and I have begun to two or three projects but I don’t really want to talk about them because I might not go through with them, I don’t want to put that pressure on myself. But there are a few things floating around.
I mentioned to Alessandra that I’d brought along my own camera to take a snapshot of her for the article, but assumed after listening to how she felt about having her photograph taken that that wouldn’t be possible that afternoon. However she calmly replied “yes, of course” and told me it was because she had decided all the same that she must get beyond her dislike for it. She picked up her dog, Lunita, and I asked her to stand by the window for a moment.
Thank you for your time Alessandra.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief