"Negli corso degli ultimi anni decine di migliaia di africani hanno raggiunto le coste delle Isole Canarie e migliaia di loro sono morti tentando di arrivarci, probabilmente per disidratazione e esposizione al sole.
Ho immerso le lastre fotografiche che avevo esposto dentro lo stesso oceano che queste persone hanno cercato di attraversare.
Le immagini che vedete sono quelle che sono sopravvissute."
Il fotografo argentino Seba Kurtis usa queste parole per introdurre la sua serie Drowned, ma in qualche modo possono riassumere tutto il lavoro fotografico che ha realizzato fino ad oggi: una lotta per salvare deboli tracce di esistenze invisibili, un mondo di volti graffiati via dalla superficie delle fotografie, memorie logore di vite logorate.
Ci siamo conosciuti circa un mese fa all'ultimo SiFest, abbiamo parlato (e riso) di tante cose e la logica conclusione è stata di continuare la nostra conversazione via e-mail. Buona lettura.
"Tens of thousands of Africans have reached the Canary Islands in recent years, thousands or more are believed to have drowned or died of thirt or exposure in the attempt.
I drowned the boxes with the sheets of film off the shores of the same ocean that they crossed.
The images represented are those which survived."
This is how Argentinian photographer Seba Kurtis introduces his series Drowned, but these words can easily sum up the spirit of all his work so far: a struggle to preserve faint traces of invisible people, a world of faces scratched away from the surface of the photographs, of worn out memories from worn out lives.
We met a month ago at the last SiFest, had fun, talked about a lot of things and decided to hook up again by e-mail for an interview. Enjoy the read.
HIPPOLYTE BAYARD: Your work deals mostly with immigration and you’ve been an illegal immigrant yourself during your first years in Europe. What can you tell us about those years and how and when did photography become part of your life?
SEBA KURTIS: An old friend of mine left me his camera for two months when he went traveling, I fell in love immediately. I always wanted to be a writer and at that point my writing was motivated by strong feelings against the fake democracy and the past regime... but it didn’t feel natural, it felt really forced, in contrast I felt really comfortable with the camera and I knew that it was the right medium for me to express all of that anger. The problem was that me and my family had financial struggles that were getting worse every year, so I found a free night course once a week for beginners, It was great, most of them attending were pensioners and maybe just 2 people had a camera, so the tutor have to make us do collages and stuff like that instead of shooting… but the same year I decided to leave and become an illegal immigrant in Europe, in order to try for a better life and help my family. So life gets put on hold temporarily as the daily fears and insecurities take over and prevent you making any plans, the first 3 years were really bad… I had to work on big construction sites in Spain and get used to long hours, hiding, sharing small flats with 12 people, watching friends being deported and sometimes we didn’t even get paid. After 5 years I got married to an Italian friend to get my papers, at that moment I was sleeping on a sofa where I used to work and had been for nearly a year, I was drinking too much and had lost all future direction… Until I met Clare, my “real” wife, she gave me the opportunity and encouragement to pursue my dream of becoming a photographer.
HB: The issue of immigration is raised by your work in different ways: as a border you try to cross, as a country that will never really accept you, as a place you leave to go elsewhere, and probably more. Which is the thing that affected you most and inspired your work?
SK: It was definitely the experience of working and making relationships with people from Africa. I never imagined they experienced such a difficult life…They try for years to get a passage to Europe in overcrowded boats that have a high risk of drowning at sea, some loose family members on the voyage, have had to sell their house in order to pay the human traffickers and many face getting sent back after spending a few degrading months in refugees centers… It’s not just that, it’s the racial abuse they have to continually suffer for the ones who do actually made it. I remember two new guys from Senegal, who were working with us in a building site in the middle of nowhere and after 40 days of hard work they got paid with photocopies of Euros! What do you do? The guy who contracted them said that if they make a fuss he would hand them over to the immigration police, so they are helpless, without rights and beyond which afraid to go back to the misery of no prospects and poverty in their homeland. They end up just putting their heads down, losing self respect and try to get another job so that they can send money back to their struggling families, as they are the only hope back home… I saw lots of things in those years man, people are dying… it’s so sad. I think the anger that results from witnessing these kinds of experiences motivates and animates my work. The frustration that we as a society accept that someone can be illegal and thus without rights just because they are temporarily living in another country, is insane… as when you and your family are hungry, you… anyone would do whatever was in their power to change that situation…
HB: I remember you saying once that your images are different from the conventional documentary or news photography about immigration and that your approach was more ‘romantic’ than the usual one. What do you mean with ‘romantic’ and what do you think of news photography and they way it usually deals with the same issues you work on?
SK: Yes, I think the romantic notion evolved because I always shoot by my instincts, it has to feel right… as I don’t see anything wrong with combining aesthetics with feelings or passion. I can’t plan too much before hand in a contrived, institutional way how to execute my projects, it hinders the sincerity and creative freedom of my work. I am more interested in what my images don’t show with regards to trauma and conflict, as I want to stimulate and engage with the audience in a way that challenges them more deeply and the text to create internal dialogue and promote discussion. I have to be honest about my practice, that the work I produce is mainly for me and a photography/art audience… as I could do much more effective things to help these people.
HB: To me your images are often about what remains, about the impossibility of seeing or showing certain things, they look like faint traces of a life, a place, a time. Huge light leaks, damaged emulsions, burned sheets often return in your series. Why did you choose to give this kind of treatment to your film sheets?
SK: It started as an accident in a project I did in Chez Rep. the project didn’t work, but I felt that that the images represented what I was looking for… When you are illegal, especially after you have faced deportation a few times, you want to become invisible, so you start to believe that it is true, that you don’t deserve to have the same rights that a normal citizen possesses. Your life become really chaotic, sharing overcrowded apartments to save on living costs, accepting that you can’t make plans for more than a month at a time as you don’t know if you will still have your job tomorrow? So I found myself changing habits, loosing my spirit… And it’s not easy go back to normal afterwards, even when you sort out your situation… so I think that all this chaos was reflected in my project. I wanted to shoot in large format, but the only camera I found was in quite a bad state, the film was out of date, no changing bag, no light meter, no cable release… It didn’t really matter for me, I was used to imperfect things! When I saw the result I was more attracted to the damage than the sharpness and perfection, for me it was a good representation of that chaotic lifestyle, so I started to purposefully vandalize some of the film.
The Drowned series is a clear example how the work takes its own form, I was shooting landscapes basically, where the clandestine people arrived from Africa or the beaches where they worked… I thought it would be really clean and pretty. But in the process, before I finished shooting I saw a documentary in the TV where the Navy intercepted a boat full of people in the ocean and left them to drown… so I decided to drown the boxes with the film in the same ocean, before processing them…
Maybe the next project will be more “normal”, I wouldn’t want this to be the only formula for my work, but its works well for me at the moment.
HB: Did you ever work in Argentina or are you planning to do it in the future?
SK: I’m currently looking to get funding to go back to Quilmes, where I grew up, in the Suburbs of Buenos Aires. I remember when I was a teenager a new kind of violence emerged, where you could get shot for a pair of new trainers, a jacket or what ever change you had in your pocket.
Then, 2 years before I left, a new wave of crime hit the streets: ‘The kidnap express’… where you could be kidnapped in broad daylight for a few hours, whilst they made a call to your family and demanded a small amount of money (like Eu500) for your safe return. These threats and daily struggles, along with the stress of unemployment, no hope of a prosperous future or a way out for young people pre-empted my decision to leave.
For many years, owing to my irregular migration situation in Europe, I couldn’t go back to Quilmes to see my friends and family and check out how life was progressing. Now I have the resources and documents that give me the freedom to travel and the burning desire to not just re-visit my hometown, but realise my passion to record the journey… as an artist.
HB: Your use of the view camera is pretty unusual, often it is chosen to make neat and detailed images while you tend to throw it in the real world and let it be affected by it, like that image in A Few Days More that is almost just a white surface, and you told us the story of the people trying to prevent you from exposing the sheet. Why did you choose to use a view camera instead of a more practical and fast to use kind of technical gear?
SK: You are right with the expression ‘Throw it in the real world’… just like everyday life in Latin America, where you go to work everyday, try to make it right, earn the money for the family and then one day the corrupt politicians made a pact with the banks (all Europeans banks only perform atrocities with banks of developed countries…) and they froze our money. So they throw all the families of a nation to the real world, to survive, without their own money, all the life earnings and then you have to go and beg to the bank for 5 pounds a day for food of your own money… that is the real world down there. My way of shooting is similar, I try to make it right, shoot in detail, like we expect when someone shoots on Large Format, the “perfection” of 10x8 or 5x4… and then throw it to the real world, like you said…
I choose work with plaque cameras to give to the performance and the relationship with the sitter more importance...
Pictures like the one you mention in Rashid, would not have been possible to shoot with a small camera. As by the time I put the camera on the tripod and the hoodie on to focus, I saw them coming and I knew that they would try to stop me… there was this physical tension so I didn’t have time to set up the camera, only to take out the darkslide and shoot, in effect the people who tried to stop me actually set up the camera for me, and that’s great…
HB: SalAM brings back once more many elements of your other series: a photographic studio full of old objects and found photographs. What can you tell us about this work?
SK: I was shooting in north Africa, in Muslim countries, where human traffickers had created new routes to smuggle immigrants to Italy and Greece... My fixer after 2 days gave me a knife to protect myself and then he disappeared, I don't speak Arabic, my 5x4 and I weren't welcome in those places, I felt the friction from the people everyday in the streets, even physical contact to try to stop me taking photographs...
At the same time I was fascinated by the photo studios that were in every village, I visited one just for curiosity and experienced first hand the universal language of photography. They loved my camera and I loved their passion... they even invited me for tea, whereas outside they tried to punch me… So in between the waiting for access or contacts to emerge I started to visit those local photo studios where people understood each other with out talking... Unexpectedly this project came alive…
HB: The overall feeling I get from your work is that it looks the story of a constant struggle to preserve memories and personal histories from all the events that can fall on somebody’s life, and you express this with images that look like they might disappear while you’re watching them, like fragile things. The subjects of your images are often elusive, whether it is the corner of a room or a landscape, there’s always the feeling that what you want to say is that photography should never show much, to leave space for the viewer to fill the image with his or her own feelings. Even people in your portraits look like we see them through some kind of veil, as if they might disappear any moment. Fragile subjects, fragile photographs: do you perceive your own work somehow in this direction?
SK: Absolutely, that is a great perception of the work. In a way it is what I want to communicate with the audience, by leaving them a bit of space to participate, interact with the work and to allow them to experience their own undirected feelings …
With regards to ‘Fragile subjects’… this relates to the instability of your future… at some point I was up in court for falsification of documents in Spain, and I remember the fear of being deported, the fear of having to start all over again from scratch, that everything can disappear in a blink… and I think that that is where the fragility of my subjects emerges. Imagine having to live where each day poses the threat of having to start over again, and again… after a few times that becomes part of who you are and your everyday life.
HB: What are you currently working on these days?
SK: I am putting together the photos that were found that you mentioned before with some super 8 film for a show in London. In the late 80’s beginning of the 90’s Argentina suffered another crisis, and my dad lost his business and our house, along with all the belongings inside. We got repossessed, so they even took the furniture, the only thing that belonged to us at that moment was a box that contained all the family memories. When I brought my parents to Europe, my mom started to work as an illegal too, in a hotel cleaning rooms and toilets and my dad worked as a night security guard … so it was impossible to go back to Argentina for a few years, now they are more financially secure and they have started their own little business and had the chance to go back and visit family and friends. They brought back the box with the photos and a few super 8 films, unfortunately they suffered a flood, but we can still see the beauty of them… I am also shooting a big commission in the UK, it is the first time I have shot in the place where I live, it explores the perceived romantic notion of living in a first world country that attracts people to risk everything to experience it. The reality is considerably different, so my shooting is based on that incoherence, those differences…
All images and video © Seba Kurtis