image by Alessandra Sanguinetti
The Couple, 1999
from her project:
The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams.
Sam Mirlesse: Could you tell me a little bit about how you first got your start as a photographer, and what your first inspirations were—how it was that you began taking pictures?
Alessandra Sanguinetti: Well I started when I was around nine or ten or so. Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I tell this story, but it is my only story…
My mother had a bunch of books. She had Wisconsin Death Trip, and a book by Dorothea Lange, a book by Lartigue, and a book from the best of Life from the 70s. She had those books on the bottom shelf… and at some point when I was nine or ten those books caught my attention and I would pour over them all the time. I was very much impacted by all those books, especially Wisconsin Death Trip—I don’t know if you know it. It is a book by Michael Lesy, where he recounts this story about this small town in Wisconsin, called Black River Falls, at the turn of the last century. The images are mainly of… well, there are a lot of pictures of death, well not a lot, but there are several pictures of dead little girls and of babies, and he just juxtaposed all these photos he found from a local photographer together with logs from mental asylums and newspaper clippings of that time in order to create this feeling and mood of this place, you know—very somber. The reason I think that book impressed me so much was… was that it was the first time I realized I was going to die. You know when I saw those cute little girls in coffins I realized, ‘okay that’s gonna happen to me’ …and then when I saw another picture of a very very old lady and then something clicked and I realized I wouldn’t know all those people if it wasn’t for those photographs. And… I guess I just went into a sort of panic. It became very literal for me. I asked my mother for a camera and I started taking pictures of my friends and my family.It was this little square Kodak thing—so I remember turning it around so it would form a diamond—my thinking was that ‘okay my best friends are diamonds and jewels’—you know that kind of thing. It was then that I really started to photograph. I continued with it through high school as well, always, even in seventh grade to chase around boys I liked (who were usually much older and therefore would pay me no attention)…I would photograph them from the windows outside while they were taking their motorcycles out of the parking lot—the camera was always my way of dealing with everything.
SM: One of the themes I have noticed that your work seems to touch on is that of what a local existence or even a home is, and how identity is inevitably so tied to that locality, whether its your photographs of children in Palestine or of cousins, Belinda and Guille in the countryside of Argentina. I was wondering, as someone who has split their life between the States and Argentina, do you yourself feel you belong in one place or another? Do you feel as though this part of your own history is reflected in your work?
AS: It is so funny that you say that because I never thought of my work in those terms. But I’m sure it’s there because until recently where I’m just starting to do some work here because some things are inspiring me a little, I really couldn’t… no I couldn’t do my own work outside of Argentina. And not only does it have to be in Argentina, but it has to be around the area where I always go, the farmlands where I’m usually at—if I travel to another province, and the farmland is just a little bit different, the landscape is just a little bit too hilly, or I don’t feel that much at home, I already have trouble connecting. So that part is true. Even the task of taking a portrait of somebody inside their house in New York would be more difficult for me than to take a portrait of somebody in their house in Argentina, in Buenos Aires. It’s just that feeling of when I am there—I feel connected to everything.
SM: And is that because you grew up in that countryside?
AS: I didn’t really grow up in that part. I just felt drawn to that area. I was a city girl that would go to the farm in summer.
And then Palestine was strange—I went there really out of sincere curiosity, for myself, very naively— I don’t speak any Arabic at all, and I wouldn’t say I felt at home because that would be exaggerating, but I will say that I felt very comfortable. I loved the geography, and even the people, I mean the language is a huge barrier, but I didn’t feel foreign. You know, sometimes I feel more foreign in a place like Paris or… I think I feel more uncomfortable in Europe for example than I did when I went to Palestine. I don’t exactly know why.
SM: Why do you take photographs of children?
AS: [Smiling] Why not? They are half of the population! No, I started with Sweet Expectations and I think that work overall—now when I think of it in fact— was sort of like a disillusionment with the adult world. I’ve always been a bit immature…and still am. I can’t get over that I’m not a kid anymore, even though I’m going to be forty. And I think I grew up in this bubble, thinking that when I would be twenty-one, suddenly I would be this marvelous person and that my life would start, and then I turned twenty-one and I realized it was really up to me, and that there was nothing great or magical about the world, it was really up to you to make and find your place in it. So there was a period of time when I was disappointed with everything, and when I looked at children, you know…all I saw was doom. I just saw little adults. I thought then, and I would say to myself, ‘they will grow up to be adults, full of disillusion’. That is what I was dealing with when I took those pictures. The photographs are anonymous too, they’re not about the child I was photographing. Some were kids of the street, some were neighbors. And then afterwards I didn’t take pictures of kids for a long time. I was doing all the Sixth Day animal work and then in 1999 after having been very ill while we were abroad doing an artist residency for Martin, we came back and I went back to the farm to go on with the Sixth Day project, but I just couldn’t relate to the animals, and I didn’t want to be around animals being killed, or blood, and I also felt that I was repeating myself. So I started spending time with Guille and Belinda, the nine-year-old granddaughters of this woman I had spent a lot of time with who had a lot of animals. I spent time with them and began actually filming them—filming them with an old camera the way I would film at home, not with any particular idea in mind. Then I started to photograph them in color, and then I developed it, and said “oh maybe I have something here.” But actually when I was photographing them I thought I was wasting time. I thought I should be working on the animal series. So it wasn’t a decision “oh I am going to do a project about these two little girls.” I really just enjoyed being with them. One of the first things that attracted me to them, was to spend time with their voices, you know Belinda has this very high-pitched voice [Alessandra imitates a phrase in Spanish, shrill and girlish] it was just such joy to be with them, I felt alive… since I had been so sick and scared before. I just felt really alive with them. So it was never a decision to photograph them, it just happened. I guess I feel more comfortable with children. But not really. No, I don’t feel more comfortable—maybe now that I have a daughter I know how to relate better, before I didn’t really know how to talk to kids. To photograph them is a completely different thing. You know, that is exactly the way to deal—no, to relate to somebody when you don’t know how. I think many photographers do that too. But actually I would feel uncomfortable, I didn’t know how to talk to them or play with them. I didn’t especially like them or dislike them but I never had that thing like—“oh babies!!” When I had friends with kids I would love them, but I would just get very bored. You know, I’m just a horrible person [laughs]. But now I understand because I have a daughter. But before… so it wasn’t really that I enjoyed being with children, I take that back. I enjoyed being with them. They had this very special thing about them, they really enjoyed the attention I gave them, you know, they were alone—to have somebody coming and saying, “you are the center of the universe… play” was… for them, for a time, fabulous.
SM: How did Belinda and Guille look back on the experience of being photographed? Have they commented or reflected on it, particularly in light of your most recent gallery show at Yossi Milo?
AS: No, we don’t have those types of conversations.
First of all, Belinda, the one who had the baby…she doesn’t reflect. She’s intelligent and she is really funny, but … she only looks forward, not even forward, she lives in the present day-to-day. She doesn’t really, or at least she doesn’t communicate, any reflection on her life, which makes her a very … I don’t know if happy is the word, but a very satisfied person. Everyday she deals with whatever happens everyday. Guillermina yes, she is much more romantic and emotional, and doesn’t really know what she wants, and if she wants something she usually can’t have it. She’s more like everybody else. She has more of an idea about the project, she doesn’t know about this show yet, because I haven’t spoken to them in a few months, but she would probably have something to say, but I don’t know what it is. Belinda, she wouldn’t have anything to say. I don’t even know why she lets herself be photographed. Because she is very private, we don’t talk with Belinda much. She doesn’t talk. She is the kind of person that won’t smile to make you feel better. I wanna be like her in my next life. Really, she is rock—in a good way.
SM: Has she always been that way or is that something that has come with growing up?
AS: No, she has always been that way. She was always sure of herself. She always knew what she wanted. She knew she wanted a family and kids. That’s all. She wasn’t interested in anything else. So she has that. I don’t think she ever doubts anything, and I find that incredible. And her cousin is the complete opposite—but complete opposite, not only physically. In every way they are opposites.
Now they live in town, but before they lived in the countryside, about ten kilometers apart. Their parents worked in other people’s farms, taking care of them. Ten kilometers in the countryside is nothing, but it’s enough so that you need a parent to drive you. So they would get together more when I was there. And now they live in the same town, but Belinda is so private that they hardly see each other. They see each other more when I’m there.
Interview by Sabine Mirelesse.
She is an art photographer and writer living and working in New York City. She is a recent graduate of the MFA Photography and Related Media program at Parsons the New School for Design and has written for both the Amsterdam and Montreal editions of WhiteHot.