Photographers on Photographers: Evaluating the Sense of Personal Precariousness in Rineke Dijkstra’s "Beach Portraits"

© Rineke Dijkstra

Post by Lin VanderVliet

Rineke Dijkstra's Beach Portraits will always hold a fond place in my heart. It is a series which, inevitably, takes me back to the time during which I wore boys' clothes and would sport T-shirts and surf shirts over my bathing suits, appearing nothing short of pants-less but comfortably secure in avoiding any of the (unwelcomed) changes my body was met with from ages 10-13.  Though I never physically changed a whole lot, I greeted puberty's arrival with a stubborn defiance, refusing to comply with its demands in any way that I could.

In digging up sentiments of budding teenage discomfort, Beach Portraits issues churning feelings of self-consciousness by way of a lingering uncertainty regarding the placement of limbs and containment of pose. Depicted against a backdrop of sceneries—coursing waves, horizons of varying heights, smooth sands and gravelly shores, teens and preteens hover before the camera's lens with a range of expressions. Some pose formidably, while others in an exaggerated contrapposto so severe it might as well be mimicking Botticelli's Birth of Venus. However, these are not the portraits of mythical gods and goddesses. They are youths in the throes of adolescence. Whether desperate to advance beyond their years or still clinging determinedly to the threshold of innocence, Dijkstra's images serve as reminders of a growing up long forgotten yet surprisingly vivid in recollection.

Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli

Displaying figures head-to-toe in a vertically composed frame, the photographs which comprise Beach Portraits depict a visual unity of sorts. Held together by way of a cohesive and consistent visual presentation, the images are technically adept if not banal seeming at first. While they initially tempt us to "finish quickly" in the way that portraits often do—photographs of people displayed without context—the images give way to a residual scrutiny as well. In an article I once read, Dijkstra's style was described as being akin to "ethnographic photography of colonized peoples," however notably absent of criticism as subjects "are not, at least apparently, strongly differentiated from their viewers."1 No overt attempts have been made to objectify or exoticize the bathers, and the artist's efforts have been described as being favorably void of any irony.2

But nonetheless, there is a vulnerability which permeates Dijkstra's images. Wind blowing and sand sticking to nearly every crevice of your skin, I might venture to dispute the myth that beach usually connotes "sexy" (or carefree exuberance to say the least). The contraption of bathing suits—with their elastic bits, ties, colors, and prints, are an assortment to comprehend, and posing in one as a teen inevitably sports a challenge in itself. In an interview, Dijkstra comments on the bathers' nationalities - comparing and contrasting differences in their attire and pose. For example, in Poland she states, many of the subjects wore old or outdated bathing suits ("some even just wore underpants"), comparing this to the Americans who, by extension, were far more self-conscious in their presentation. 3
Others have commented on a "blurring of national identities," though I'm not sure that distinction isn't (in at least some of the photos) quite easy to discern.4

Take, for example, the blonde teen in the orange bikini—posed defensively with one hand on her thigh and the other holding back her hair, her stomach sucked in with poised apprehension. She wears eye make-up and a small assortment of jewelry, all of which appear to suggest the miniature embodiment of a quintessentially American ideal of beauty. In my introduction to Dijkstra's work, I recall once having heard from a classmate that the orange-bikini-wearer (upon being approached by the artist) was so fraught in knowing she would have her picture taken that she went home to prepare herself for the photo. Now, I can't reinforce the validity of that statement, and I know tons of people would never stoop to such lengths; as such, I'm not sure if it's that effort alone which distinguishes the girl as being so unmistakably American, however I can certainly think of a time in my life where I might've once been tempted to do the same—averaging an hour and thirty minutes just to get ready each morning. And while in the case of other subjects, their assumed preparation (or lack thereof) is seemingly discernible through accessories, attire, and pose, each figure appears strangely deliberate in presentation - grounded by the stability of the horizon and accurately centered within the frame.

© Rineke Dijkstra

But I do think that Dijkstra's approach could perhaps have benefitted from a wider spectrum of body types, skin tones, etc. While I appreciate the vastness between subjects' socio-economic statuses and presumed cultural upbringings—a more encompassing collection of figures apart from gangly pre-pubescent girls and Speedo-clad boys with hairless bodies and pruned white skin would be nice. Like the artist, I tend to view these images as being loosely biographical—if not solely representative of Dijkstra's own personal experiences, then additionally of mine as a viewer.5 I don't (necessarily) read these photos as meditations on shyness per se, in spite of all the bare limbs and bathing suits—poses that might have you doubly evaluating yourself the next time you step into a bikini or catch yourself naked before the mirror—but rather in the precarious sense of the subjects' age and how I presume their place in the world. I think of the histories I invent to go with them and how they reflect upon my own.

© Rineke Dijkstra

© Rineke Dijkstra


Lin VanderVliet recently graduated with Honors in Studio Art from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Her work seeks to promote a sense of  underlying anxiety by combining photographs with typed text. Reoccurring themes include: a fascination with performance, absurdity, the uncanny, and expressions of personal catharsis. Currently, she lives in New Jersey.

1 Julian Stallabrass, "What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography," October 122 (2007): 71, accessed April 14, 2014, doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40368490.
2 Rineke Dijkstra, Rineke Dijkstra: Portraits, (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2001), 76.
3 Ibid., 80.
"But the poses of the Americans are really different. I think that in Poland it reminded me of the '60s…I was very sympathetic to this attitude. They were very easygoing. The Americans had very fancy bathing costumes and the poses were more self-conscious. One girl was really holding her belly in and her mother was behind her yelling 'You’re too fat.'"
4 Ibid., 80.
5 Ibid., 79. 
"With the bathers it was very clear to me that they were more or less a self-portrait. They showed what we don't want to show anymore but still feel."


Mexico Notebook: Interview with Mariela Sancari

From Moisés © Mariela Sancari

Hannah FrieserJaime Permuth and I are collaborating to explore contemporary photography in Mexico. We're looking at trends and how they relate to traditions; events, institutions and venues; as well as pursuing conversations with curators, academics, gallerists and photographers on what's happening currently. This collaborative project will feature a variety of types of posts including interviews, book reviews, published letters, portfolios of images and more.

Hannah Frieser is a curator, photographer and book artist and former Executive Director of Light Work. Jaime Permuth is a Guatemalan photographer living and working in New York City and a Faculty Member at the School of Visual Arts.

Today we continue this series with an interview with Mariela Sancari.

Other posts in this series include:
Q&A with Eduardo Jiménez Román
Q&A with Claudia Arechiga
Q&A with Nahatan Navarro
Contemporary Photography in Oaxaca
Q&A with Aglae Cortés
Q&A with Maria José Sesma
Interview with César Rodríguez
Q&A with Nora Gómez
Q&A with Melba Arellano
Q&A with Jorge Taboada

Mariela Sancari was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1976. She has lived and worked in Mexico City since 1997. Her work revolves around identity and memory and the way both are mingled and affected by each other, as well as by time and space. She examines personal relations related to memory and the thin and elusive line dividing memories and fiction.

She has received numerous awards for her work: she was named one of the Discoveries of the Meeting Place of FotoFest 2014 Biennal, was winner of the VI Bienal Nacional de Artes Visuales Yucatan 2013 and the PHotoEspaña Descubrimientos Prize 2014, and her work was selected for the XVI Bienal de Fotograía from Centro de la Imagen and XI Bienal Monterrey FEMSA. She was recipient of the Artist in Residency Program FONCA-CONACYT for a project in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2013.

She has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Mexico City, Madrid, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Guatemala City, New York, Sao Paulo, Caracas, Fort Collins, Houston and Cork, Ireland.

She is represented in Mexico by Patricia Conde Galeria.

From Moisés © Mariela Sancari

fototazo: Tell us a little bit about where you are based, what you do for a living and how you began with photography?

Mariela Sancari: I am Argentinian but I have lived in Mexico City for 16 years now. Actually, I studied photography and began working as a photographer here many years ago. I began studying after I saw the images of a friend of mine in Buenos Aires and got so fascinated by them that I wanted to learn and do images myself.

For a living, I work as a freelance photographer in magazines doing assignments on life and style, portraiture and travel.

From Moisés © Mariela Sancari

f: Your projects The two headed horse and Moisés are intensely personal bodies of images. First, tell us just a little bit about them.

MS: As you mentioned, both my series are self-related. In the first, The two headed horse, I tried to explore notions of identity and memory through the relationship with my twin sister and the strong bond between us. It was the first time I've ever made self-portraits, which was also a very interesting and challenging way of dealing with the subject.

In Moisés, which I consider to be a continuation of the first series with a different approach, I focused on the father figure. I started with a syndrome that my sister and I felt (from not seeing his dead body) that made us doubt his death and believe we would suddenly meet him in the street, I "searched" for him in different men with similar physical characteristics. This project has a performative side to it: I placed ads in the newspaper asking for men the age my father would be if were still alive today (around 70 years old). I photographed them in the same way, in a street studio I set in my childhood neighborhood. This typology's intention is a double standard between the anonymity of being part of a typological study and the explicit intention of looking for someone in particular in the crowd.

From Moisés © Mariela Sancari

f: Have you always, since your start in photography, worked with personal themes?  What have been the challenges and rewards of working with such intimate themes personally? Has working with photography on these projects changed your relationships with your sister and father?

MS: Until 2011 I worked as a staff photographer in a newspaper in Mexico City, doing mostly documentary and life and style photography. Although I had been, shyly, trying to approach personal themes, it was only when I was selected to participate at Seminario de Fotografía Contemporánea at Centro de la Imagen (and resigned my job at the newspaper) that I began working only on projects addressing personal issues under the guidance of Ana Casas Broda and Alejandro Castellanos among many other tutors.

Initially, it was very difficult and messy to work with personal themes. For me, it was complicated not to try to "explain" my story and emotions in the images and just let the viewer fill in the blanks. I think that when an artist works on personal issues there is a high level of self-consciousness that compels us to try to explain or clarify our work. I find this to be an obstacle to overcome in the artistic practice. At least it was for me.

From Moisés © Mariela Sancari

On a personal level, working with my twin sister doing self-portraits was an intense experience. First of all, photographers are usually solitary artists and working in collaboration with my sister (being her own life as well the theme in the images) demanded patience and understanding from both of us. The rewarding part of working with her was the surprisingly good communication on a creative level that contributed a lot to the project to the extent of her becoming co-author of the images.

And although I don't really like the word "catharsis" (because of its possible derogatory interpretation) I have to say that working on personal themes did change something in my own understanding and experience of my past. Having always had an attitude of denial towards my personal story, the possibility of relating it to my creative process felt liberating to me.

From The two headed horse © Mariela Sancari

f: You mention that working with your sister was a collaboration. Talk with us a little bit about your process working with the models from Moisés. How do you engage with them before taking pictures? What is your way to get these men, who are initially strangers, to take on the role and relationship of your father and facilitate the tone of the project you are looking to establish?

MS: I began working on the Moisés project last year during an Artist in Residence program in Buenos Aires. I spent 3 months there, working in the neighborhood I used to live in when I was a child. As I mentioned earlier, I placed ads in the local newspaper looking for men with specific physical characteristics. I received many calls. I would talk to them for a few minutes, explaining the project a little bit so that they'd know what we were going to do. I would also ask them to bring their regular daily clothes and set an appointment to meet in my street studio.

I met with some of them many times, depending on their availability and also how well we got along to work.

Once we'd met, I would tell them about the project and what I need them to do but, oddly enough, many of them did not really care what the whole thing was about. They just wanted to talk and tell me their own stories. This was a big surprise, something I never expected when planning the project: facing these men's needs, loneliness and aging processes. At this point, the project changed my way of thinking about it: it gained a profundity I did not foresee and made me confront directly against my own idealization of my father.

This is when I decided to include myself in the pictures, with them.

From The two headed horse © Mariela Sancari

f: Can you expand on that? Why exactly did you make the decision to include yourself?

MS: I made the decision of including myself in the pictures because I needed to have a "real" experience with them. I understood their indifference as the confrontation with the real, as oppose to my idealization. It was a clash, a collision against the structure of what I thought and it paralyzed me. I had to stop, rethink it and approach it from the truthfulness of my interaction with them.

My initial proposal was to create a typology of portraits of men, which as the project evolved seemed a little too detached. It was a thought through decision to expand the typology and include self-portraits created from exploring specific actions that included these men.

From The two headed horse © Mariela Sancari

f: How do these projects overlap and interact? Are they part of one spectrum or idea, united in autobiography and in collaborative portraiture? Or are they very separate for you? How does The two headed horse and the experience of making it first inform Moisés, the project you created second, if at all?

MS: I consider them completely united and autobiographical. I think both addresses the same issues in different forms and believe that Moisés was, in a way, the result of The two headed horse in the sense of the insistence and necessity of trying to understand and finding other ways/approaches to do it.

f: Talk us through your post-production process. How do you make your selections from the various images from a shoot? What criteria do you use?

MS: While shooting in Buenos Aires I decided to set some simple rules to work: I would photograph all men in the same positions, with the same background, each of them with their own clothes and also with my father's wool jacket, first looking at the camera, then turning, etc. So, I would take front, profile, back, 3/4 portraits of all of them and then, after doing this and breaking the ice a little, I would let my intuition decide which other posture or gesture I would ask each one of them to do for the camera. As I mentioned earlier, through the process I also decided to include myself in the pictures and that triggered other images, different from the ones I started with.

Then, once I got into editing, I did what many portrait photographers do: look for the portraits that stood out from the rest because of some intangible quality. I work with diptychs and triptychs a lot because I feel, many times, that one image is not enough to say what I need to say. Also because I think it is a way to insist and emphasize on an idea and the repetition of an image (or similar ones) is an interesting visual tool to do it.

From The two headed horse © Mariela Sancari

f: And talk with us about how you edit and sequence the selections into a body of images that form a unified project. Is it a virtual process on the computer? Do you print out and work with the images?

MS: For this project, just like with The two headed horse, Ana Casas Broda helped me do the editing. I would print all the images (4x size), scatter them on the table and discuss, arrange and move them for hours (days and months in my head). After having the final set of images, I enjoy making small changes in the sequence  whenever I present them in portfolio reviews and festivals. I think it is a very interesting exercise for the artist to experiment with their own images and seeing how it affects (if it does) the narrative. In my website, for instance, I included some images from my journal (the one I kept while working in Buenos Aires) and also the poster I pasted in my neighborhood looking for these men to photograph.

I am planning my next solo show, it will be the first time I will exhibit the Moisés series and I am very excited thinking and exploring different ways of showing it in the gallery space (at least new for me considering my previous experiences exhibiting my work).

From The two headed horse © Mariela Sancari

f: You've been very successful getting this work into festivals and reviews, and have recently won the PHotoEspaña Descubrimientos Pize, 2014 and were selected in the XI Bienal Monterrey FEMSA and XVI Bienal de Fototgrafía del Centro de la Imagen 2014. What is it about the work the people are responding to?

Regarding the recognition the Moisés series has been achieving lately, I would like to think it is because, somehow, it goes deeper into the very same subjects I am interested in and care about in my work. Many of the reviewers and curators who saw the work, an specially the ones who know The two headed horse very well from previous meetings, mentioned that they find Moisés to be more mature and abstract but still haunting. I can share a quotation from Greg Hobson, one of the juries from Descubrimientos PHotoEspaña Prize: "The photographs unfolded around their central subject in an unsentimental yet deeply emotional form of storytelling that was consistently involving and intriguing."

From The two headed horse © Mariela Sancari


Medellín and Coventry Image Exchange

Composite of images from the exchange - click to enlarge

During the last three months, seven fototazo microgrant recipients worked on an image exchange project with students of Matt Johnston from Coventry University in Coventry, England. They carried out the exchanges on Tumblr, with one side of the pairing posting three new images approximately once a week, and the other side of the pairing then having one week to respond with three more new images. The project aimed to connect photographers from two locations through visual conversations that provided an opportunity for them to share, interweave and react to their respective photographic visions.

The results can be viewed by clicking on the "Exchange" links below:
Exchange 1
Kat Ullman and Natalia Lopera

Exchange 2
Lucy Bartlett and Margarita Valdivieso

Exchange 3
Imogen Wall and Andrés Sanchez

Exchange 4
Stephen Ma and Edwin Ochoa

Exchange 5
Tom Tierney and Juliana Henao Alcaraz

Exchange 6 
Jonny Bark and Mónica Lorenza Taborda

Exchange 7
Jess Bell and Alba Bran

An online page with all images in the project can be found here.

Matt has curated a selection of  images on his site here. Below I have done the same, but in my case I have selected exactly one image from each photographer involved in the project from the exchange. We also asked those involved for comments about their experience in this project; comments from three involved from Medellín follow the images.

Natalia Lopera

Kat Ullman

Alba Bran

Stephen Ma

Mónica Lorenza Taborda

Margarita Valdivieso

Andrés Sánchez

Jess Bell

Imogen Wall

Jonny Bark

Lucy Bartlett

Juliana Henao Alcaraz

Tom Tierney

Edwin Ochoa


Comments from participants
This project has been very interesting because through it we all achieved a form of visual communication, a cultural exchange through images in which we have shared visions of the city, of moments, of people and of spaces. These are experiences framed in the context of two different locations that communicate and interweave stories from two worlds.

In my particular case, I focused my interest in the portrayal of people in everyday environments in order to document and share situations I encountered with my family, friends or strangers that I found in Medellín and its surroundings. In that sense, I have felt very satisfied with the responses of my partner because his photographs also shared his local context. Our images communicate and expose the differences of two places separated by geography, but united in the lens of two photographers that without meeting each other manage to tell a single visual history of portraits and culture.

Thank you.
- Monica

The experience we have had with the photographic conversation was quite rewarding, we have enhanced our visual and technical vocabulary. The interpretation and the answer to your photos is always something unexpected, like a verbal conversation that brings up secrets that few know and in the same way we can start a whole new topic with a single trigger that changes the conversation. We can see images made far from our own country that are stored in our mental library for future photographs, future trips or future conversations.
- Andrés

My experience as part of the Coventry/Medellín exchange has been very interesting, because it's a very loose and open exercise and we have had the freedom to choose what we want to post, but at the same time it has also required us to be very concrete as we have only three images each time to say something, to respond to what your partner has proposed and in turn to propose something new. This game allows you to react differently each time, to think of different possibilities to approach photography and to learn to be agile in your visual thinking.

I like the idea of ​​keeping a photographic conversation with a person on the other side of the world and seeing what could be built in this way very much. I think it would be good to continue this type of project for further improvement as photographers and to be able to build increasingly interesting and strong projects.
- Edwin Ochoa, Medellín

Comments in the original Spanish
Este ejercicio ha sido bien interesante, porque todos a través de este proyecto logramos una comunicación visual, un intercambio cultural en donde por medio de imágenes, compartimos visiones de ciudad, de momentos, de personajes y de espacios. Experiencias enmarcadas en el contexto de dos lugares distintos que se comunican y entretejen historias de dos mundos.

En mi caso particular, centré mi interés en el retrato de personajes en ambientes cotidianos, con el objetivo de documentar y dar a conocer situaciones alrededor de mi familia, amigos o de personajes que encuentro en Medellín y sus alrededores. En ese sentido me he sentido satisfecha con las respuestas de mi pareja, ya que con sus fotografías expuso también su contexto local. Nuestras imágenes se comunican y exponen lo diverso de dos lugares separados por la geografía pero que se unen en el lente de dos fotógrafos que sin conocerse, consiguen contar una historia visual de retratos y de cultura.

- Monica

La experiencia que hemos vivido con las conversaciones fotográficas ha sido bastante gratificante, hemos podido enriquecer nuestro vocabulario visual y técnico. Pues la interpretación y la respuesta siempre es inesperada, al igual que con una conversación verbal van saliendo a colación secretos que pocos conocen y de la misma manera podemos empezar un tema completamente nuevo con un solo detonante de cambio. Podemos ver imágenes que son ajenas a nuestro propio territorio y que se van almacenando en nuestra propia biblioteca mental para futuras fotografías, futuros viajes o futuras conversaciones.
- Andrés

Mi experiencia con el intercambio Coventry/Medellín, ha sido muy interesante, porque es un ejercicio muy suelto y se tiene la libertad de elegir qué es lo que quieres postear, pero al mismo tiempo te exige ser concreto ya que solo se tienen tres imágenes cada vez para decir algo, para responder a lo que tu partner ha propuesto y proponerle algo nuevo y ese juego permite reaccionar diferente cada vez, pensar en diferentes posibilidades de acercarte a la fotografía y aprender a pensar visualmente de forma ágil.

Me gustó mucho la idea de mantener una conversación fotográfica con una persona que está al otro lado del mundo y ver que se podia construir de esta forma y creo que seria bueno continuar con este tipo de propuestas para seguir mejorando como fotógrafos y poder construir proyectos cada vez mas interesantes y fuertes.
- Edwin Ochoa, Medellín