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Photos by Gaby Messina, Text by Roka Valbuena
Translated by Ted O’Callahan
Gaby Messina is a photographer who has very large teeth and laughs about every twenty seconds. Moreover she looks like she just stepped out of a fashion show; her hair is perfectly mussed, and her outfit stylish. In short, she is a photographer who is ready to be photographed. And she doesnât just saunter through life looking extremely photogenic, she is brimming with questions. Her artistic talent is born of curiosity. So, one morning in a cafe, a photographer and an interviewer are fighting over who gets to ask the questions.
“The thing is, everything intrigues me,â says Gaby Messina, the emotive photographer. She is drinking a lĂĄgrima â a tear â the name Argentines give to milk with a drop of coffee.
Also, right here, we discover that Gaby is dangerous. Every day she heads into the streets with a heavy weapon â a Hasselblad camera with a beautiful crystal, and with it she feels safe in the city. With her weapon, this woman wanders in search of the first sucker that enters her sights. If a character crosses in front of her, the warrior crouches and fires. Click. And the unwary person passes into eternity.
“When shooting a gun, you kill. However, with photography, when you shoot, you actually ensure that person is kept alive,â she clarifies, to the relief of Art. Her Hasselblad immortalizes people. In this way we discover Gaby Messinaâs militant slogan, something we should pay attention to since she has a degree in advertising after all and ten years experience working as an agency account executive. The slogan: “The camera is a weapon of immortality.”
Seven years ago, Gaby, with immortality slung over her shoulder, began to walk through the streets paying close attention. If an older woman entered her visual field, Gaby, ever the efficient officer of photography, would certainly fall to the ground, roll across the cement, and mercilessly shoot a picture. Seven years ago, she only wanted to take photographs of old women. And that seemed to make them turn up everywhere. Her âGreat Womenâ show went up in March 2004, with 32 ladies in the foreground. Gaby gave interviews and said that all of these women were special, including her maternal grandmother who permitted her to take the portrait as long as she didnât show a single wrinkle. Gaby Messina, at that moment, at age 33, became an important photographer. And her life, as they say, changed. Not because of fame. Her life changed on the inside.
What is it about the old ladies, Gaby?
“They are wise. They have real stories. I donât know, they have lived,â she says.
Her first encounter with old age came through her motherâs side of the family. Gaby, before she was a talented photographer, was a wonderful granddaughter. Her maternal grandfather, a former policeman, was her greatest spiritual influence. This extroverted man would take her on walks down the street that amounted to marathons of greetings. Her grandfather was very popular on the block and everyone stopped to talk with him. Covering 100 yards could take an entire morning. At that point, Gabyâs calling hadnât become clear, and she enjoyed playing the rebel. Her sister was the white sheep and Gaby, the second daughter, was the despairing black sheep. Her most unconscious works date from this period. Pastoral landscapes shot with a plastic camera foreshadowed her future profession.
“And one day my grandfather died,” says the photographer.
The former policeman died just before Gabyâs fifteenth birthday. Two days before the party, not knowing he was saying goodbye, her grandfather tried a waltz with his granddaughter. And then he died. Here, perhaps, a mysterious process began in Gaby. The mental shock was so sudden that it turned into a mystical bond with elderly people.
“Whenever I saw older people, I looked at them and, although I am not religious, I gave them a blessing,â she says.
“Mentally. I watched and blessed in my mind. Just thinking, âGood luck,ââ Gaby says.
In the cafe we immediately see an elderly man walking slowly. Gaby looks. She sighs, sits there silently, and seems to give a blessing. Then another old man is reading the newspaper. Gaby looks, she notes that he is handsome, sighs, and it seems that on behalf of contemporary photography, she gives a blessing. She is fascinated by the elderly. It appears that a few gray hairs will speed up her heartbeat.
There were those ten years in advertising. “It’s good because art is half spirit and half marketing,” she says. She left the business, studied photography, set up a studio with two friends, learned that each person is a different universe, and after a year the trio opted to go their separate ways. Gaby persisted. She took another workshop, this time with Marcos Lopez. In short, she perfected her technique enough to become an artist. On one occasion Lopez asked her to write on a topic of interest. Without thinking, Gaby wrote on old age. The teacher then gave the instruction: “A work.”
Her first model was Bobe, her husbandâs grandmother, a serious fan of the Racing soccer team. She is regularly glued to her radio, listening for goals. Then Gaby did a portrait of Baba, who, dressed in a blue robe, sits beside her figurines. And so she began building the pillars of her project. She put up a solo show in her own living room. And Gaby, who has a gift for the otherworldly, or at least a passion for spirituality, became the fortunate victim of magical events. For the duration of the project, old age chased Gaby. Wherever she went, she ran into old women who were willing to let her fire her immortality weapon.
Once, for example, she had been invited to an event. Gaby opened the door, and she found herself in paradise. It was a ladiesâ tea. She remembers excitedly, “I saw old ladies everywhere!” She began to fire her flash in a trance. Around that same time, she took a course in Art History. She was the only young student; the others were the epitome of maturity. Gaby concluded that something was leading her; an invisible energy was facilitating the process. So in the course of all this, from her grandfather to a cup of tea to a course in Art, Gaby Messina had no choice but to assume she was the favorite granddaughter of photography in Argentina.
At first, when the ladies invited her into their homes, Gaby was grateful but she wasnât sure what to do. She relied on the strategy of artistic spontaneity, that is, she based the portrait on whatever psychic waves she received at the moment. The old ladies, carefully put together, waited for direction. Gaby learned to ask for mĂĄte tea, which created an opportunity to listen to their stories. Stories filled with unusual events, sorrows, and determined effort. The first wave of spontaneity, therefore, could pass, and, after a while, she would think of a pose. She would get behind the camera and the subject was at her mercy.
“When I grab the camera, Iâve got the advantage. The other person can no longer look at me. I’m behind a shield. That’s the sense in which I have a gun,â she says.
“I donât know if they like being old. I donât even raise the issue. I donât seek out their pain. I want to connect with their young souls, not the old bodies,â Gaby explains.
Berta was pictured with her remote control in her hand. Rita playing cards. Yuyi knitting. The 32 women were arranged as they allowed themselves to be immortalized. Thirty-two worlds synthesized into one exhibition. And this is how the life of Gaby, the black sheep, has changed. Seven years have passed since she began her experiment. Gaby married, had twins, got into other projects and has become a white sheep. But she always knows that those women, out on the final edge of life, were her best lesson. They made her an artist. So perhaps thatâs why she laughs every twenty seconds. Because she is happy.