Rather than documenting underworlds or the marginalized, he decided to turn his lens on an unexplored territory for photography: the well-to-do. Thus was born â€śA Diary of Before: 1996-2003,â€ť an essay that recounts the daysâ€”the fights, the sadnesses, and the boredomsâ€”of a normal group of friends in Mexico City. Dante Busquetsâ€™ friends. He is the owner of the idea and the camera, the artist who, with equal doses of curiosity and care, lifts the veil that normally shields the young and wealthy of Mexico City.
By Josefina Licitra
Translated by Ted O’Callahan
Dante Busquets puts himself into his photos. Literallyâ€”heâ€™s in his photos.
Itâ€™s him embracing a nude woman, frowning and perhaps crying. The image is entitled â€śBreaking Upâ€ť and that is what you see: Dante ending a relationship.
There is also another photo, Dante looking at the camera with his then girlfriend. It is a closeup, but you can intuit that they are both naked. Faces: dry. The photo is entitled â€śOne Last Time for the Memories.â€ť
â€śWe were breaking up,â€ť says Dante, as if itâ€™s necessary to explain something. â€śIt was very hard and very intimate.â€ť
Dante took these photos ten years ago, as part of a larger work in which he decided to portray not only his life but the segment of society that he is part of: the upper middle class. Through a prism that is both truthful and fragile, friends, relatives, and Dante himself appear in the photos, without masks.
â€śI decided to include myself as a subject because, if I didnâ€™t, it felt like I was using people, exploiting their feelings. The truth is that I am part of that group. If the idea was to show a delicate intimacy, it just seemed honest to include myself in the work too.
What elements of privacy did you want to show?
â€śThe most real. Although perhaps ours is a life thatâ€™s well-off economically, the truth is we all have problems, and we all have moments when we are fragile, weak, happy, or bored.â€ť
Dante explains that â€śthe expressiveness of the trivialâ€ť is normally not shown. And that, he says, is what he is determined to convey. â€śThroughout my career as a photographer, I’ve noticed how little attention Mexican documentary photography pays to the middle and upper-middle classes, given its tendency to use social exclusion as a thematic framework,â€ť he writes, in the introductory note to his essay entitled â€śA Diary of Before: 1996-2003.â€ťÂ Dante continues, â€śThese shortcomings led me to a change in the content of my photographs and to an effort to explore the depths of my privileged environment. I had no desire to be judgmental. It was all done with affection, in situations that, for me, represent the importance of being part of a circle of people united in friendship.â€ť
Dante’s work is in some ways a collaborative project. He explained to his friends what he wanted to do, and asked permission to be a fly on the wall observing their lives. He even made his camera available to anyone who wanted to use it to take pictures. The first portion of this project, which is presented here in Nuestra Mirada, covers 1996 to 2003. Itâ€™s in black and white, and was shot with a small 35mm. camera. There is a second phase that continued until 2005, and that is in color.
Dante didnâ€™t let a day pass without taking photos. Periodically, he gathered his friends to show the photographs and, eventually, to agree on an edit. The collaborative approach also became a means of disseminating the work. Dante posts the images on Flickr, a social network widely used by amateur photographers, but generally dismissed by the artistic and professional circuits.
He says, â€śFor some, using social networks detracts from the value of the work. But I’m interested in these networks, because the people who see my work use these communication tools. I also think itâ€™s more democratic than an art gallery. I think it’s interesting that anyone who wants to see the photos can do it from their computer monitor.â€ť
Thereâ€™s an interesting contrast here: you show your work using a tool that is outside of the artistic elite, while this work itself is about an elite. Why did you choose to work on this group?
â€śBecause I think, generally, press and documentary photography, which is where I started, tends to work on the exotic, strange, and unusual. It seeks to bring people to places unknown. But the exploitation of poverty itself, I think, is completely exhausted as a subject.â€ť
The Mexican school of documentary photography classically saw poverty as a means of expression, even a means of denouncing injustice…
â€śAbsolutely. But I think that’s it. It’s over. And to continue with it now seems too much. I think the middle and upper classes havenâ€™t been and arenâ€™t sufficiently represented in Mexican photography, and I think that’s an indication that people donâ€™t want to see the other, unless itâ€™s exotic. I did the same thing when I started in photography. I looked for issues at the margins.â€ť
Dante grew up in an upper middle class family. His mother is an economist and his father managed companies. Despite his provenance, or perhaps precisely because of it, one of the first essays that Dante did was on a gang in the city of Zamora, in the Mexican state of MichoacĂˇn. Like many other gangs, the group was connected with several icons of the underworld, including drugs, violence, and prison tattoos.
â€śI felt that this work exaggerated reality. At one point I was looking for the viewer to think that everyone in that gang was all bad when in fact, most of the time they werenâ€™t in this ecstasy of gang life, but were, like all teens, bored and a little angry with life. They were rebels, but because they didnâ€™t work or go to school they got together to chat. They didnâ€™t have super exciting and dangerous lives. After I spent a lot time with them, I began to feel that when I photographed them I was exploiting them. This created a personal conflict for me. I came from a totally different life and environment. What could I bring to their lives?â€ť
So you didnâ€™t find a point of connection with them? That connection thatâ€™s so fundamental to photography…
â€śWhat could I give them in return? Was I right to talk about something that I really knew nothing about? That’s why I found it very difficult to keep photographing things that had nothing to do with my life. Later, I was in a workshop with a Magnum photographer who gave us an assignment. We had to photograph situations that have to do with food. And so I began to photograph my daily life: my mother, my brother, my girlfriend, and my friends in moments related to food. Then I realized that I could find an artistic eye to the things that I was closer to.â€ť
You felt that the relationship was not so uneven between you and your friends…
â€śYes I felt I could talk about that world in the first person.â€ť
Did you find commonalities between the life of this group and the gang?
â€śI think at some point, everywhere, life is exciting and fun and sometimes a bit boring and dull. Belonging to a higher economic class does not indicate that your life is automatically fun. There are people who are in the same situation as those guys in the gang. I mean they are searching to fill an emotional emptiness.â€ť
The difference, says Dante, is that he and his friends have more money in their pocket.
Speaking of similarities and differences, on your website you have a phrase from Bernard Shaw: â€śI would willingly exchange every single painting of Christ for one snapshot.” Do you think that there is a hierarchy among images? Is a photo better than a painting?
â€śI think they are different tools. The phrase is a joke …â€ť
A joke that includes a serious idea.
â€śSure. Between admiring a beautiful painting and seeing a bad snapshot of Christ, I think most people would prefer to see the photo, if only to get past the curiosity about his face. The documentary value of photography is greater, of course.â€ť
Today, with the vast number of devices that lets anyone “document,” if only as an amateur, what future do you see for classical documentary photography?
â€śItâ€™s not about to go extinct. But I do think it should change. If you want your photos to spark a little interest beyond the classic photo-documentary audience, you should give it a twist. And in that sense, it is important to turn the camera towards things that people have not seen. Photography hasnâ€™t yet paid the middle and upper classes the attention they are owed. That is why it so important to turn a little. And to look there.â€ť