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 the FotoFest 2014 Biennial, 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 Fotografía 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 Galería.

From Moisés © Mariela Sancari

fototazo: Tell us 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 a 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 up 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 (her own life as well being 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. Tell us 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 three 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 opposed 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 afterwards, if at all?

MS: I consider them completely united and autobiographical. I think both address the same issues in different forms and I 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 so.

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 , 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 see how it affects (if it does) the narrative. On 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 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 Prize, 2014 and you were also selected for 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?

MS: 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 jurors 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