With her highly praised book Moisés (2015), Argentina-born and Mexico-based photographer Mariela Sancari managed to find an exceptionally strong balance between rigid design and autobiographical content, between the conceptional and the emotional. To achieve that, she worked obsessively on the dummy, experimenting with form, turning the book making process itself into a significant part of the work. Mr. & Dr., published last year with her husband Adolfo Córdova, a writer specialized in children’s literature, can also be considered an experiment. A weird experiment even, Sancari says, as together they test the boundaries of photobook expectations in an audacious and elegant attempt to challenge the overriding illustrative relation between text and images in children’s books; one of the most provocative statements of the book in fact being that it is aimed at children and youngsters.
Mariela Sancari: “The idea of childhood was born in the XVIII century and it was back then when a ‘children’s culture’ began to grow. This culture – and its new audience – demanded its own particular needs, including books that was believed should always teach them a lesson. Although, from the beginning, there have been writers who challenged this convention – what was considered ‘good and understandable’ by children.”
“For this book, we ourselves were interested in expanding the idea of what is suitable for children and wanted to challenge the relationship between images and text, trying to get away as far as we could from images that illustrate text. Especially in photobooks, you would assume that photographs are the main feature, but whenever there is text, it creates such a complex relationship with images – often times as a restrictive anchor – that it’s very hard to get away from the illustrative.”
“We thought of this book as an experiment, and considered it would be very interesting to focus that experiment on young people and children, referring to children starting from ten or eleven and on. Because in children’s books this is even more of a common thing: in the few cases photographs are used, it is usually in a literal way. And also because we think children nowadays, born into an image based world, might have more tools to understand them.”
“The history of the literature for children and youngsters is a history of reversals, adaptations and rewrites and our book is part of that tradition. We appropriated the classic horror story The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starting from Robert Louis Stevenson’s original text in English. We approached it not from the duality of good and evil, as is almost always the case with this story, but from the idea of fear of the unknown. The images are cryptic and vague; you don’t really see anything, there is no character, the narrative is very fragmented. We wanted to convey the idea that, since you don’t recognize anything in the pictures, they make you feel afraid. It also serves as a metaphor for people who fear the relationship between images and text.”
How exactly would you describe or explain this fear of the relationship between images and text?
Sancari: “Images are very difficult to understand. Even more so today, where we are constantly being bombarded by them and trying to make sense in whatever context we find them. As image producers and people who are interested in understanding them, I think we are in a special moment where it becomes an obligation for us to really think about it. We fear non-literal relations between images and text because we expect words to explain them, to elucidate their meanings. That is how we process them, through language.”
“Once images are put together with text, the relationship becomes so complex that we have this tendency to placate images and to let them be controlled by words, instead of letting them explode in all their abstractness.”
“I realize this book is a weird experiment – we might even not be successful; it might be a failure – but still, we believe it needed to exist. Just to pose the question, for ourselves and for likely readers: what if we let images and text coexist in more loosely interactions?”
“Once images are put together with text, the relationship becomes so complex that we have this tendency to placate images and to let them be controlled by words, instead of letting them explode in all their abstractness” (Mariela Sancari)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is in a way a story about two sides to one person, just as there is one reality but perhaps two ways to present it: through language and through images. The difference between the two however can be striking.
Sancari: “At the end of the book, Dr. Jekyll confesses that he was taking the potion to become Mr. Hyde and that he was actually enjoying his ‘dark’ side, to the point where he decided to let go and completely become that side. Yet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are one and the same person. So though extremely different, they are not that far from each other.”
“In that sense you could say something similar about words and images: they are very different, but not that far away from each other, actually. There is a whole fairly unexplored area in that sameness we were interested in approaching, even if only for the sake of breaking the hierarchy of text over images. We didn’t want to play good and evil game between images and words, that is why we didn’t work on the story from the point of view of the duality in the person.”
Working with the images, editing and sequencing them, did you have a specific idea for them, or did you mainly respond to the text in some way?
Sancari: “A bit of both. I knew I didn’t want them to be straightforward images, in the sense of classic storytelling. They are digital photos from my archive that I made many years ago. They went through a process of printing, photocopying, scanning and printing them again. In a technical way I was trying to get away from the figurative aspect of the image as well, giving it a more graphic sense – more graphic than photographic.”
“Before publishing it, we exchanged a lot of ideas with an editor specialized in books for children. She thought, somehow, the book should be a little bit more understandable but we didn’t want to compromise the concept in order to have more easy-reading images. So instead of sharpened photographs, or add a character or any other element in the images, we included a red ink. We used color to create something of a narrative.”
When reading the title of the book I immediately placed it in London. So there’s context. The fence you recognize on the cover becomes the entrance to the house where the experiments happen. We use language as soon as we see something we can give meaning to, as soon as something familiar, even the slightest hint, is evoked. But then when you go further into the book, the images become more abstract, more faded. They no longer serve as a visual guide – as if we are still hearing the story, but walking around inside the book (inside the house?) and holding our hands out in front of us because we can’t see anything clearly.
Sancari: “Yes, indeed. That is a nice metaphor and exactly the experience we were trying to convey. In the beginning of the book, just like you mentioned, you get the sense you are entering into the story –and into the house – but as you move forward you begin to feel agitated, as when going deeper into a labyrinth. Repetitiousness and fragmentation in the pictures play a significant role in creating this nightmarish atmosphere we were looking for.”
“When doing the book, all the time we tried to keep in mind the inceptive concept of the project: how far can you take an image and still trigger imagination in the reader’s mind?”
Moisés, where you try to create a portrait of your father through portraits of men of the same age when he passed away, was a very different book, yet also experimental in terms of narrative. It’s an autobiographical and emotional subject. However, you didn’t want to get sentimental. So you made a typology of men, and in the book you present them in diptychs and triptychs, which actually is quite an analytical approach.
Sancari: “I was really aware of trying to put these two together – the emotional and the analytical. In a way I think it’s an interesting metaphor, not only for my personal history, but also for the way I approach autobiographical work. Conceptual and self-referential can coexist in the same project. Autobiographical work doesn’t need to be sentimental. Trying to achieve that, for instance, I refrained from using text in the book: when you’re making autobiographical work, you’re always compelled to explain yourself, or at least that was the case for me. Because being exposed makes you self-conscious and afraid of being misinterpreted.”
“I felt like I had managed to find a good balance in making these detached, distant portraits, while still appealing to something very personal and emotional. And for the book, the structure I used enabled me to problematize the topic, not by making it universal but by bringing the subject of the work into another level through conceptualization.”
There’s a lot going on here, in terms of concept. But in the end, as you once said, the simplest way turned out to be the best way.
Sancari: “Yes, although reaching that simplest way entailed a very long process. You think everything over and over again, until the very minimal details. But at a certain point, you have to leave all that thinking behind anyway. To me, the most interesting works are made with very basic ideas. It’s much better to keep one focused and clear idea than many random ones. Because one focused and clear idea can explode in the mind of the reader into many more. When you try to put in too many things, you might get the opposite outcome, it just becomes chaotic and too difficult to follow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to simplify things, I’m just trying to be honest and direct.”
There’s a lot of suggesting of experience in the book. The experience of seeing a crowd and seeing your father in that crowd. Then the crowd opens up and one man comes to the front, staring at you with big eyes and suddenly it becomes a very intimate scene. And all of this is realized within what ultimately is a very rigid book structure, a form where you really have no choice but to follow through until the end.
Sancari: “I was reading an interview with Richard Linklater, director of the movie Boyhood, who filmed his cast over a period of twelve years, following them as they grow older. He talked about structure replacing narrative. Then I realized: this is what I need for my book. But you just mentioned something very important: once you commit to that use of structure, you have to go all the way. You really have to make it work, so it has to be really thought-out.”
“I decided that the structure of the book would resemble my search: two booklets put together with interleaving pages, so the reader has to turn the pages, one from the right, one from the left and so on, creating the sense that you are looking for something (someone) and defining the way the story is told.”
What intrigues me about this kind of books, is that handling them feels like digging or unfolding, hoping to find something at the bottom or at the end. And there must lie something interesting. Even if it’s nothing, it must be nothing for an interesting reason. In the case of Moisés you find completely different, intimate portraits, with a different background and even made in another place.
Sancari: “Right after you see the close-up of the advertisement I ran (looking for men between 68 and 72 years old, the age my father would be if he was alive), you begin to see the sequence I call ’the beginning of the end’ or the coming to terms with the impossible search: the pink portraits. Those portraits are the only ones I shot in Mexico (the whole project was shot in Buenos Aires, my hometown, while I was in an artist residency there). That fact alone has an emotional meaning to me since I have been living in Mexico for the last 20 years and I went through my grief process there.”
“I intended that last triptych to be or state my position as the author and person: in a way, to be in control of the situation but at the same time acknowledging the vulnerability of my position, of my necessity – to see an image of my father. Although these portraits are not really the end of the book. At this point, the reader faces the dilemma of how to close it – both literal and metaphorically – how to finish the story. This is really the most challenging part, having to put the pages back together in whichever way you might do it, with all its narrative implications.”
“To me, the process of turning back the pages and arriving again at the very beginning is actually the end; then you see, for the second time, the deconstructed portrait of my father spread in three pages. At the start of the book, this works as an anticipation of the impossibility of the search. Now, having gone through all the pages and back, the deconstructed portrait closes the cycle.”
There’s something very neurotic about handling a book like this. Take for instance Beyond Here Is Nothing by Laura El-Tantawy, which is a book consisting of three interwoven volumes opening in three directions. Although she says she wants the viewer to put the images the way he or she wants, I, as a viewer, really want it to close again in what I think is the correct way, the way the author intended it. I don’t want to mess it up!
Sancari: (laughs) “I know what you mean. That is a very difficult decision to make. You’re working on a project for so long, and then leaving that door open is a very risky decision. In my own book I decided to place a sentence that is a suggestion at the very end: ‘to go back, begin from the right’. Following it will not necessarily guarantee that you end up having the same edit I propose as an author, but it works as a guide.”
“Although you read this suggestion, you can actually turn the pages in numerous different ways with diverse outcomes and find or get lost just like myself when doing the project. I considered Moisés – both the series and the book – an impossible search; trying to create a picture of my father through pieces of portraits of other men. So there is no right or wrong in how you turn the pages: I did not find what I was looking for.”
“On another note, what I find significant about how you and many other people feel about the book (and my intentions behind the decisions I made) is how we relate to stories and stories in a book. Are we always looking for resolution? Is resolution something attainable? Or is the structure of the book a poignant way to stress that we, the authors, are somehow in the same position as the viewer, in terms of making sense or understanding of our private stories?”
You made a 7-minute video of the process of making the book, which you consider as part of the work. What’s interesting here, is that it shows the book as a process instead of a final object.
Sancari: “I recorded all the process of making the first physical dummy of the book. I set an overhead camera on a tripod on my working table for weeks and registered hours and hours of me working on the dummy. Then I edited and comprised the material into a 7 min. video. My initial intention was to show it in class, to my students but soon enough I realized it was also part of the work.”
“I see the book as a sentence in a longer story. When I saw how obsessive the video was – as well as everything else in the project – I realized there was more there than just the mere documentation of the process of doing the dummy.”
“The French artist Louise Bourgeois said something that I really like about her work: ‘I do, I undo and I redo.’ It is what artists do all the time: numerous iterations of one idea, one obsession. Throughout her work you can find this idea that she is looking at it from different angles; doing, undoing and redoing it constantly.”
“That is what this video is also about: a different side or exploration of the same idea. I guess I might say the same about Moisés is not dead (a free downloadable xerox copy version of my own book) and Moisés/Landscape (an ephemeral installation turning a single portrait of the series into a poetic landscape) where I do, undo and redo my own series in an attempt to delve deeper into my own ideas and obsessions.”
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