Can you explain your series and the choice of its title?
« SQEVNV » is a series that deals with violence in Latin America, or rather a certain urgency to live. I began this work in 2015 in Venezuela, the country at that time was entering a great crisis of violence and I confess that I was overwhelmed by the electric atmosphere that Caracas could have. The danger extinguished palpable at every exit and I began to develop a kind of fascination with the adrenaline that it gave me.
The title of my series is an abbreviation of the sentence « Siempre que estemos vivos nos veremos » which means « as long as we are alive we will see each other ». That was the last sentence Yair said to me, he was a gang leader from Caracas. It’s a phrase tattooed in my heart. The awareness of his own end had something terrible and sublime at the same time. Yair was murdered two months later. I returned several times to Latin America (Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil) my eyes were alert to the scars of this continent. I met other people there and all of them had to teach me about life and death. All of them led me to try to understand why this continent was prey to a kind of Eros and Thanatos violence. Photography allowed me to translate this insolent sensuality that sweats.
« I wanted to know, to dig, to immerse myself… »
How did you come up with this idea of a subject and how did you manage to integrate the camera
into this sensitive terrain?
Let’s say that this is the subject that came to me. These are encounters that pushed me to go further. I was shooting a feature film in Caracas inside bloques, a kind of social housing of Latin America. To put away the camera equipment, I had to pass in front of the gang holding the building. They hung around, kept a be on the watch, and tried to intimidate me with their guns and hand grenades and I fell in love with one look, that of Yair, the gang leader. I couldn’t believe that such a gentleman could be capable of so much atrocity. There must have been something else.
I wanted to know, to dig, to immerse myself. So I started seeing Yair on the sly. He’d send a motorbike after me and we’d meet at night on the roof of the building where he sold the drugs. He’d tell me his story, his life, their lives. Yair’s beauty was inhabited by a wound and a bewitching fury ready to break at any moment. I was magnetized by his words and overwhelmed by the situation. The country and the system that had been set up had created time bombs. It was imperative for me to bear witness to this violence.
We can feel the influence of cinema, the universe in which you work, why did you turn to photography rather than documentary video to tell this story or your other series, such as « Silencio » and « Adiexodo »?
Indeed, my work as an assistant operator-led me to think strongly about the power of a still image compared to a moving image. Where I wish to go with a still image: to bring the imminence of danger, of an event, without revealing what is really going on there. Here only the photo remains to bear witness to a sensation. Photography has something of the order of residue, of leaving a trace that can be physically imprinted in our memory. The fact of having a cinematic approach in my work also allows me to leave room for the spectator’s imagination, the photo is there but the story before and after belongs to the viewer. This has real power over what we can offer to the other.
With photography, I also have something more intimate. Being alone and not in a team allows me to go further in sharing with my subject. To be more ready, more present, more alive. However, my work has many writings and video is one of them. It is like a compliment to my story, a detail that I would have liked to dwell on. For example, « SQEVNV » is accompanied by a short documentary film called « Jaula » (Spanish for « cage »). It is an experimental vision of cockfighting that is not so much shown in the series.
« I’ll be honest, I have no limits, I can’t set any limits… I dive into it »
We perceive the compassion you had for these men and especially for Yair, their leader. How do you put a limit to sentimentality in the subjects you take?
I’ll be honest, I have no limits, I can’t set any limits. When I decide to testify about what affects me, what moves me, I dive into it and I no longer make the distinction. What is offered to me is precious, these people open their door to me, invite me into their intimacy and I must do the same. It becomes my life at that moment. It’s a real immersion for me and too often it damages.
The subjects you deal with revolve around the upheavals of men, the overwhelming misery of daily life, and the suffocating disorder of cities. Why are these dark subjects of particular interest to you?
It’s hard for me to answer this question of why… I think I’m trying to bring out the stories that touch me. Everything starts from an encounter, from a look that carries a wound and pushes me to dig. Each time I have the impression of being immersed in myths and tragedies and being able to witness these stories by bringing another dimension to them are like being able to pay homage to tragic heroes unable to escape their destiny.
Can you tell us the story behind one of the photos in this series?
All the photos have strong stories. It’s hard to choose. I will tell you about the green picture with the motorcycle I took in Guatemala in a very small village surrounded by volcanoes. The biker was going to help his brother who was being attacked with a machete by the villagers opposite because he had slept with the sister of one of them.
What were your influences for this project?
I was inspired by real-life, I observed a lot, waited a lot. Each place has a palpable universe, I try each time to be the closest to it in my photographic work. I am also very influenced by Luis Arteaga, the cinematographer I work with. He has always led me to go further in the image, in our search for textures and colors. And of course, there is always reading, a painting, a film that resonates without us noticing it.
« The photographic act for me goes from the order of the animal impulse »
When, how, and why did this series end? Which camera do you work with to get this blurred rendering and landscapes of violent chaos?
I finished this series in December 2019. How and why I couldn’t really tell. I think I went through with myself. I work with a Canon 5D Mark II. Beyond the device, there are the places where I am in the emergency I’m in. This is part of my approach, nothing is posed, nothing is premeditated. I am in the same imminence as the people I accompany. The photographic act for me goes from the order of the animal impulse, it is like an imperative, this way of doing allows me to translate the real state in which we are but also to transcribe a tangible atmosphere. I like to be as close as possible as if it allowed me to get inside people, their bodies, and the photo is like the residue of what I see of what I am living at that moment. I also work mainly at night, without flash, it’s a way for me to make the invisible visible, to let the black invade us and draw things…
What is the next step in this project? Do you already have other ideas for subjects?
The next step of this project is hopefully the realization of a photo book. I have many other ideas of subjects, but the closest is « Mala Madre » which is none other than the continuity of the sociological work already carried out in Venezuela with my series « SQEVNV ». Here I deal with abandonment, in the form of a personal and intimate tale.
Your top 5 photobooks?
It’s hard 5 books, I love it so much and I have so much to discover.
I’m going to list the ones that touched me the most.
« Ice » Antoine D’agata
« L’Algérie » Dirk Alvermann
« Anestesia » Valentina Abenavoli
« Meat » Olivier Pin-fat
« Tosca » Gilles Roudières
Interview by Valentine Zeler