The painful beauties of Adriana Lestido
Text by Josefina Licitra, photos by Adriana Lestido
Translated by Ted O’Callahan
âIt all happens through simplifying,â she says. âThat simplifying is my work.â
Adriana Lestido is facing a large window in a ninth-floor apartment. Through the glass she can see a sliver of the San CristĂłbal neighborhood. The ceilings, the terraces, the window sills: the whole city is touched by a pale light that reaches, like a weary hand, toward Adrianaâs face.
âSometimes I compare it to a writer confronted with a blank page. But for me the page is never blank. It is always full of things, and I must purify it. It is almost like the task of a sculptor. After the purifying, all that remains to be seen is the essential.â
Her eyes: shadowy lines still veiled at the arrival of the day. Her face is dark even now, at eleven in the morning, in San CristĂłbal, the sun falling quietly on the shoulders of the buildings.
âAt this point in my life, I feel the need to take on a big project. Iâm not concerned with anything else. The only thing that I believe in is necessity.â
âThe necessity to simplify myself.â
There were many long years before Adriana became one of the most influential documentary photographers of recent decades. Before she became the first Argentine photographer to receive the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship (1995). Before she won grants and prizes from organizations like Hasselblad and Mother Jones. Before all of that, there was one first photo. It wasnât one of Adrianaâs own but a picture by Dorothea Lange. One of the many that Lange made while recording Americaâs Great Depression: a woman with her children, sunk in the hopelessness of those terrible days.
Adriana saw that image and knew, in her body before the rest of her caught on, that she was going to be a photographer. By the end of the â70s, she was taking pictures of children in the plazas. And in 1982, she took a job as a photojournalist for the newspaper La Voz, where she worked until 1984, when she joined the Diarios y Noticias (DyN) Agency.
In the midst of all that, there was a morning.
A morning in 1982, when Adriana had been assigned to cover a protest where thousands were demanding answers from the military dictatorship about the âdisappeared.â Adriana â who had joined La Voz just a week earlier â was twenty-seven years old. She carried her one camera. That was enough to see: a mother and daughter, white handkerchiefs on their heads, crying out their pain and fury over a man â husband and father â from whom they waited for some sign of life. A sign that would never come. The scene rewrote, in its way, the Dorothea Lange photo: the emptiness, anguish, and solitude felt by the women captured their time and place.
Adriana took the photo.
And with that she had begun.
Infants and Childrenâs Hospital (1986/88); Adolescent Mothers (1988/90); Imprisoned Women (1991/93); Mothers and Daughters (1995/98); Love (1992/2005): these series and essays, taken over the course of three decades, were reedited in 2008 to comprise What Is Seen (1979-2007), a retrospective exhibition that Adriana worked on for two years. Each of those photos, tied to one another by sutures, formed âÂ and they continue to be made âÂ the postcards of a broken universe; of a solitude like a game of Russian dolls in which inside each emptiness is another emptiness. And where, at the bottom of it all, is beauty.
âThe truth is beautiful, however terrible it might be. I look for the true thing because, sadly, thatâs where the beauty will be. Although I also look for the light. I enter the darkness to move beyond it. Thatâs the reason to enter hell, right? To move past it.â
Editing these photos was an archaeological exercise; an exquisite work, done to discover, with just the aid of a brush, the bones of the thing. From the piles of images, the discarding, the months of confinement, the finds, the meditation, the readings, from memory and from the unspeakable, Adriana finally arrived at herself.
They moved past it all â Adriana and her bones.
âI always look for the same thing,â she says. âI always go to the same place: to the center. In some ways, I believe that all the work that came before was what I had to do to get inside. To empty myself, to get free of myself. Just now, with the two series Love and Villa Gesell, I am finishing with that stage.â
This period that she is finally finishing with was made up of photos of women. But more than that, each of the people portrayed was suffused with suffering. A trip to the edge of ashes, to a place where the soul of things shines â sad and singular.
Adriana says yes, that is some of what the work is about. But torment is also tied to tenderness.
âYes, yes, I suffer a little,â she smiles. âIt is not that I take photographs of suffering, but I connect with the pain of others and translate it. Mine is almost the work of a medium, of channeling, and because of that, I need to be light. Thatâs why I spoke of needing to be simplified. Somehow I connect from the emptiness. And from there I see. But the seeing is not an intellectual process. It is more unconscious. I do not photograph what I see, because if I have already seen itâŠ why would I want to see it in on paper? In fact, what I want to see is what my eye hasnât seen. What I perceived but didnât quite see.â
Adriana worked on Mothers and Daughters, the essay that appears in Nuestra Mirada, for three years. During that time she followed four women and their daughters closely â Eugenia and Violeta, Alma and Maura, Mary and Stella, Marta and NanĂĄ â and she managed to enter the sacred place of an inviolable relationship.
Adriana became them. Through the lens, Adriana saw them as they see themselves.
âSomehow, I try to be what I am watching. I forget myself and connect with what is in front of me, whether it is a person or a tree. I must stop being present, the ego cannot be there, because then the photos become just narcissistic self-confirmation. I donât want to be felt. If somebody sees the photo they should think they could have taken it themselves. I believe that the creator should be anonymous, because a true creator has connected with something else. A true creator should give thanks for having been there.â
The first time that Adriana saw her photos of the women it was in a room â her darkroom which is now lit by the sun. She always develops at night, in silence, with the large window covered by heavy canvas blinds. Now the images are leaving this confinement, without any protection, the images: a three-year-old consoling her mother; the hopelessness in the eyes; hugging forever.
One day the women saw the photos. Adriana says it was a hard moment.
âI photographed Eugenia from the time her daughter was born until she was three years old. She is a single mother, it is very difficult; she realized just how difficult only when she saw the photos.
âMarta was deeply impressed. She is the only one I showed the work to when it was about sixty percent editedâŠ it is one thing to see some loose photos, it is another to see a tight edit â the story. Marta looked at me and asked: How does it end?â
Sometimes, looking at the photos, it is possible to intuit that the bodies â the forms â are, for Adriana, the result of a transaction. Bodies are the condition that lets the soul appear. Without them there wouldnât be anything. Adrianaâs images â mothers, daughters, children, and jails then show what cannot be said.
âMore than looking at the feminine, my photos emphasize the constant absence of the masculine,â she says. âThatâs what I want to see. That men are absent. Even the last series, the one on love, where there is a man, and it has to do with a man, the idea of absence is strong. And I believe that if there is anything that was healed, if I can use that word to describe what is coming out of putting together this retrospective, it would be that.â
It healed what it is absent.
The first camera in Adrianaâs life was her fatherâs. It was kept in the wardrobe in their house in the Mataderos neighborhood, just a few minutes from the Liniers market, the place where the cattle are slaughtered in Buenos Aires. The camera had bellows, and presumably the photos Adriana took as a child â she began at four or five â were taken with this artifact. But she doesnât remember her father with the camera.
She does remember something else. In 1961, he went to jail for swindling. She was six years old; he 31. He was in the Caseros jail until Adriana turned twelve. She visited him. Then she grew up. In 1973 she began studying engineering. She liked mathematics, but in a matter of months engineering just devolved into a nightmare. Adriana did not understand anything. At the same time she was growing increasingly interested in radical politics. While hanging out at a bar popular with students, she met Willy, a student who read Marx, Lenin, Mao.
âI read them, too,â she remembers, âbut only out of obligation.â
They joined the Communist Vanguard. Adriana did not feel valuable as a student, but she did as a militant. In the engineering program there were few women, however, and it was important that Adriana remain, filling the quota for women.
âThe people in charge wouldnât let me leave. I wanted to study psychology, but they said to me it is full of young women, you wonât do any good there. I stayed in engineering. The years went by. Now I donât remember if I was studying or not. Then, in 1976, it happenedâŠ I finally left the school because the proletarian movement started.â
Adriana laughs. Her mouth is small: an eye of light in a face of shade.
âI left the school because I had to start working in the factories. My God! I began to look for work. I worked one day in a textile factory, but I couldnât stand it. I had never in my life used a sewing machine. My work was to cut the threads from the fabric and to hand the pieces to the next person. I said to my fellow workers: I canât do this. OK, they said to me. Then study nursing; the revolution needs nurses. Canât I study to be a doctor? I asked. No: nursing, they said.â
Adriana studied nursing for a year. Until the day that, during practical training, an old man died and she had to prepare the body. This is not for me, she said. Then she fled. And in some way that she doesnât entirely remember 1978 arrived. Which is to say a black year.
âMany friends disappeared, including Willy. He was 29 and I was 23. At some point later, I decided to study cinema. That was â79. Not long ago I realized that his absence has somehow shaped my work. The need to record things in images, I suppose. To put an image in front of the absence. I began to take photos the year Willy disappeared.â
The portraits taken during the course of those decades are, always, in black and white. And she says that this aesthetic choice allows her to recreate the language of dreams. Dreams are rarely in color. Because images of the soul, like Adrianaâs photos, can only happen thus: naked of everything.