[box type="note"]If you haven’t had a chance to check out this past weekend’s Portfolio by Alfredo Srur, please do so before you read the interview. Juanele is very excited to present Srur’s photographs and this extensive interview.[/box]
In general, the conventions of documentary photography, associated with the “neutral” discourse of journalism, have been employed to throw an image of truthfulness and objectivity on stories and features. Aware of the multiple contradictions of this approach, Alfredo Srur has set out to do photo essays focusing on the complexity of human relationships, often at the margins of society, where culture seems to stop making sense and where its contradictions become the body and flesh of its inhabitants.
Conscious that his own perspective and observations affect the images and the persons he depicts, he constantly asks himself about the observing position, its meaning, its function and how it changes his own way of looking and thinking. The purpose of taking pictures responds to his obsession of somehow fixing thoughts and feelings in time. He could, perhaps, take notes or shoot video instead; but it’s photography that has led him to explore territories, sometimes far and exotic, others very near, always unexpected in the sense of knowing that images will make things different, at least for him.
Juanele: Why photographs?
Alfredo Srur: It’s what I can do best. I don’t know if this is related, but the first thing I liked [as a young person] was astronomy. I started taking pictures of the planets at 15. I had gotten a telescope, so I looked at Venus. I could see Saturn, Jupiter, the Moon and I bought a camera that I attached to it and shot in bulb setting. Those were actually my first pics. I don’t know if they came out well; I don’t remember the images. I’ve still got the equipment.
Afterward, I wanted to go on studying astronomy. So I went to La Plata University to talk to the students. But they gave me such a bad impression: They said that it would take me ten years to finish my studies. They remembered a guy, the students’ hero, that had done it in seven years and they told me that at the end of the lessons you would have forgotten where you were, that the level of abstraction required to study was that high. I pictured all the problems I had at home, eight more years depending on my family and I told myself “No.”
Then I went on with industrial design because some times I had ideas for inventions and I didn’t know how to carry them out, but I was very bad at drawing. That was a great limitation I had. By coincidence, a minute-video festival came up. I had written some short stories. I applied with one of them and I won the festival. So I went to L.A., where I wanted to study cinema and to pay for my studies by playing ball. But then my knee broke and I almost couldn’t study.
After that, I bought a photo camera with some money that my grandmother had sent me, I don’t really know why. It was a Nikon with a zoom lens. I began taking photos without knowing the technique or anything about photographers and I felt comfortable. I was obsessed about learning the technique. But then, just when I had become friends with a printer who had shown me the darkroom process, I had to leave the US. I fell back onto Argentina and I never got a job in the cinema industry; but I did find work as a photographer, with the pics I had shot. I don’t exactly know why, I felt comfortable doing that, it was like…
J: But it was a process of elimination.
AS: Yes, by elimination and by chance, because I got that camera by chance and I became obsessed with the image and with taking pictures. But it was by chance, yes.
J: Anyway, there must have been something [within you that held an affinity for observation.]
AS: Yes. When I was three of four years old, I went to kindergarten in Miami. My first memories come from those times. My reasoning was similar as how it is nowadays, you know? Not the vocabulary, but the way of thinking, I see that… as thoughts in silence.
I remember that classes were in English and I didn’t understand. I think I could already speak Spanish, children can talk at that age a little bit. I had to observe everything and I was so ashamed , I didn’t want the others, the teacher or my schoolmates, to realize that I didn’t understand, so I stayed silent, observing, I guided myself by the sounds or the reactions of the rest of the class. When the bell rang for the break, I saw everyone go out and I went out as well, pretending to act normal, without calling attention because I didn’t want anybody to realize.
I recall having to observe and manage to conceal that I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. That lead me to look at people’s attitudes and to hide a little bit.
J: And do you relate that to your approach to photography?
AS: I believe, yes. Because this way of observing stayed in me, automatically observing things with a little distance, beyond words: little details, gestures, the way people behave, something else. That’s why the word is harder for me, I think it’s necessary and I like it, but it’s not the first thing for me.
J: So you employ photography also as a tool to approach people, be it that you follow someone’s life in photos or whatever. Taking a camera is for you, perhaps, your own form to get close to people or things, while keeping a distant perspective.
AS: Yes… And the fact that it’s stayed with me and perhaps means something, that I find a sense for it, you know? It’s perhaps the fear that everything you feel and think melts in the air. Well, at least, perhaps, there is a photograph.
Photography makes me more productive because it’s the result of the process of observing, of relating and of being in places. It’s how I feel most productive. But I could do the same and take notes or make video too. Photography, together with writing and painting is a solitary task, towards the inside. Then, also to the outside — you have to relate with the world and with people.
J: Just to mention an example, you’ve been taking pictures at Ciudad del Este. I’ve the feeling that you would have gone there, even if you weren’t be a photographer. I say this because I remember someone had once accused you, very ironically, of being a tourist. Not that I agreed, but what do you think about that?
AS: I think you can function as a tourist in many cases, but that, in itself, it means nothing. It’s stupid because it’s not about being a tourist or not, it depends on the circuit of tourism you follow. When you’re out of your place of origin, unless you stay for years somewhere else, you are always a bit of a tourist.
At Ciudad del Este I spent ten days going all over the city from dawn till dusk; but you don’t stop being a tourist somehow. To be one that carries a load of lived experiences, that’s the difference. And also, the way in which you relate to things. I’m not interested in the most classic and conservative touristic circuit, in terms of physical safety and security, that’s usually what happens with tourists. If anyone thinks that of my pictures, it’s because they don’t know how they were made. Or perhaps, it has to do with a certain personal problem the person has [laughs].
J: With you!
AS: Or with him or herself.
When I did the exhibit Heridas (Wounds) at La Plata Museum, groups of high-school students were taken to see the show. I remember one of the guys looking at the pictures, while the whole group was looking at them, suddenly asked me: “And why do you make pictures?”
So I answer: “I don’t know. I came to the barrio for this and this cause and I was interested in how life was like there and I had buena onda with one of the boys.”
“But why do you make pictures, do you have money or don’t you have it? Why do you depict poverty?” He told me something like that. I tried to answer that it doesn’t matter where you come from, but rather how you understand life.
Coming back to the tourist question, it’s about the way you understand things. So I tried to explain that and the guy looked at me with hatred. He started crying and embracing the teacher. There was a scene at the museum and then they went out and it was raining. The boy told me crying that he had liked the pictures very much. We hugged each other and he told me “What happened is that they reminded me of my own life.”
That was the greatest thing that could happen to me with someone who has seen the exhibit. And most probably, the boy didn’t have a great cultural knowledge about art or photography, but he had the other one, about life; and the pictures evoked that part for him. It was the exhibition Heridas (Wounds) about San Fernando, in 2006, at the Museo de Arte y Memoria de La Plata, the same that was been shown at the photo gallery of San Martín theater that year.
I’m interested, above all, in the human being: the mentality, psychology, what people think, what they feel in different situations, different places, how culture affects them and what the essence is…
Perhaps, what I’m most intrigued about is the essence of persons and what the preconceptions are and how that takes people apart. My obsession lies in the people; so, if I spend ten days, a month or many years, I attempt to keep the relation with the person always stays the same way, I don’t know…
J: Certain projects of yours have taken years to complete. The case of Ciudad del Este is special because you went to a specific place, but your work has to do with people, life situations. I refer to the fact that you’ve lived under the same roof with the persons you’ve photographed, you’ve shared a lot more than a photographic moment. Your approach to documentary style has to do with a life experience.
AS: I think so. That said, I believe I’ve never shot the best pictures. I’m not interested in the precise moment of a specific thing. I think you can achieve the precise moment through living and with another kind of representation, without the pressure of having to think of that, but inspired in reality, in people and in my own life story.
I would like to do books, so that the photographs remain printed and I don’t need to worry about that anymore. To leave a document, it is my obsession with time and with a material register. I don’t know if it will matter or not, no idea. It’s about my own obsession, that the images don’t get lost [Note: Srur has published Geovany no quiere ser Rambo, 2010, Dilan Editores, Buenos Aires].
J: How was it that you went to Colombia?
I went there with a grant of the García Márquez Foundation to do a workshop with an Italian-Cuban photographer called Ernesto Bazán. In that context, we had to choose a subject from a list and I picked a women’s prison in Cartagena, where I took pictures for a week. It was my first time at a prison and it was before the digital era, so I was using film, which we developed in Cartagena. I remember the heat was terrible, the chemicals’ temperature was skyrocketing. Anyway, it’s still possible to make acceptable prints from those negatives.
From there, I headed to Medellín on my own. I’ve stayed for a month at the Comuna Nororiental, the Barrio, at Geovany’s home. There, I did the project published by Fotógrafos Argentinos. The experience has deeply changed me.
I took the inspiration to go there from the film “Our Lady of the Assassins” (La Virgen de los Sicarios, 2000), which I went to watch with (photographer) Diego Sandstede. The movie made an impact on me, it showed the Comuna. It caused a great curiosity in me. I wanted to see it myself and to be able to be there and make pictures. What most interested me was the psychology of someone who had been born and raised in that place. I don’t know if I was thinking of staying for some time at that point. I wanted to go take a look, see what was happening.
So I went to Medellín, where I contacted a journalist from a Colombian newspaper, Alejandro Castaño. Years later he was awarded the Rey de España Prize. He was covering the gangs and he introduced me to Geovany, who had done a couple of features with him. We met at the subway and from there we went to his place. Then I got back to my hotel and the next day I went to Geovany’s again and he suggested that I stay with them. He said, “Listen, maybe, instead of spending your money at the hotel, we can buy food and you just live here.” I’ve lived there for twenty days in 2000 or 2001. It was a complicated moment because there was a war going on. And I could satisfy my curiosity, but I had other doubts.
I’m always obsessed by discerning truth and lies, when someone is being honest or lying, but there, I stopped caring. And that was the only time I could experience that. Everything was so intense that I wouldn’t care if this or that had happened, I was more interested in human relations, nobility in spite of everything is something that interests me very much, and how it’s possible to reach such an extreme situation.
And from the human perspective too. One thing is to go cover a war with the blue helmets [United Nations] or working for an agency, working with a lot of restrictions and trying to devise a way to leave your own imprint on the work, you name it, but there’s a great limitation. It’s different when you are there, relying on yourself and the person who is with you and that’s it. It makes you really take part during the time of project.
What I intended was to stay there and follow Geovany’s story, but I didn’t have an aesthetic plan. He was the leader of the barrio’s gang, Los Rambos. I wanted to see the daily life, and, at the same time, the violence. I wanted to live there and document what happened with myself and with the images.
There is a certain prejudice among so-called modern guys about the black and white documentary style, that it could be a formula… I think you can’t make generalizations about that. It’s true that violence has been repeatedly documented in classic, black and white style. But this work is deeper than that.
My motivation was to see how daily life was, what that provoked in me and how it affected my relation to the person I lived with and the images coming out of that. Afterward, it took me many years to edit it and to find the images. I’m conscious about the fact that this is a high-impact subject and the work could have easily fallen into the clichés of that kind of topic and narrative. It was complex because it wasn’t just the violence. There is a contradiction: violence and, at the same time, family, daily life, values, a specific cultural context.
Or is it less violent when kids live in a country club and they can’t go out? And they go to school in the country and it’s a territorial, sectarian thing, I think it’s super violent, and that no one has done it yet. Perhaps I would love to start a project like that. But perhaps I’m more interested in the other for a personal reason.
J: It’s true that we’re used to images of violence, be it on tv, whatever, but they are usually isolated. Violence is shown in order to shock the spectator, not in a context that explains or at least gives an account of its contradictions. I believe you want to distance yourself from this model.
AS: Yes. And it’s a personal sort of editing process because it doesn’t show reality either. It’s a selection about an experience and a reality, but then I can’t explain what “reality” is. It’s a way of “framing” the photographs that intends to show some genuine concerns, nothing else.
I’ve told a friend, a British photographer called Julian Germain, that at night, when everyone else was asleep, Geovany and I talked a lot, without the camera, about his life and mine and it was a strange situation that both of us, coming from such different places, were chatting in the comuna.
I wasn’t taking pictures all the time. I was experiencing things and letting that inspire me to take photos. So Julian suggested to me, when I showed him the images, to start a correspondence with Geovany to represent his feelings and way of thinking, besides the pictures. That’s how the letters came about, with the intention of adding another layer of information. I’ve asked him specific questions about life, existence and his thoughts and that material went with the photos.
This relates to how information affects the reading of the images or if the image can stand alone. In one way or the other, this is how it turned out. It’s the result of many years of extremely careful editing work.. There were very strong images.
It’s mystery, what happens with the pictures. It’s true that when a person looks at photography having information about who did it or about the work and its context, then he or she can “understand it better,” between quotes. But perhaps somebody comes with nothing and can understand something similar.
J: But nobody comes with nothing.
AS: I don’t know. There are formulas to make a picture that will be liked by the people who have less information. I’m not sure. Some photographers use those formulas. The (Bernd and Hilla) Becher’s School, which is now being very much imitated in digital or big formats, perhaps it had a kind of formula, a way of doing things. I’m very fond of the Becher’s work and it has even honestly moved me.
Today I’ve been talking to Pablo Reyero, the documentary film maker, who has shot Dársena Sur and Cruz del Sur. He has also followed very social stories, related to delinquency very much from the inside, showing personal histories. It’s important to have a deep motivation. And we talked about the difficulty of following someone’s life and that I didn’t want to do it any more.
Because it’s exhausting, crazy and, at the same time, it has to do with something personal. It’s good to do that at a certain moment, but when it turns into routine and into the way to pay off your costs, then it’s even stranger. I think it can work when there is an deep motivation and an authentic curiosity about things. But when you start repeating formulas, the mystic disappears and it becomes boring. The most interesting is research, doubts above certainties, you know?
J: So where are your doubts now?
AS: I’m always inspired by people and the forgotten ones of society to make pictures. I like the misunderstood persons, the ones that don’t make it… Perhaps somebody who is socially very consolidated would interest me as well. But misunderstood people make me curious because they are separated from the system.
Perhaps it’s an obsession, I think it’s always returning to the anecdote at the kindergarten. I have the memory of looking and not being able to talk to anybody and not trusting anyone to know what I thought, my own lack of understanding. Then, after many years, my father told me that, in fact, the problem had been discussed in class and that one day the teacher made me sit on his chair in front of the group and that was it, a moment of integration, which I don’t remember (laughs). So I have to believe in my father’s words…
J: Or in pictures.
AS: So, to me, the person who inspires me, in general, has to have a trace of that lack of understanding or an original and authentic thing. Anyway, it’s the system, the persons, that I’ve a passion for.