Adriana Lestido

"It's good to feel photographs reach others"

Yesterday at the Rio de Janeiro exhibition the remarkable Argentine photographer presented her retrospective exhibition that covers her whole career: women are the protagonists in a series of images in black and white that indicate a deep sensitivity.

By Silvina Friera

From Rio de Janeiro

A breath of life in a city can be given when the eye sees the yellow tones of a modest housing project or the swinging hips that stroll with animal beauty and joy along Rio Branco Avenue, metres away from the Museum of Fine Arts, in the historic part of Rio de Janeiro. Adriana Lestido’s warmth caresses like sunlight during the opening of the exhibition Lo que se ve (What is Seen) (1979-2007). The artist’s 85 photographs capture the helplessness and fragility of women from a caring point of view. She’s aware she must blend into what she’s seeing until she penetrates the skin and heart. The emblematic “Mother and Daughter of Plaza de Mayo” that the photographer took at the young age of 27, when she was looking for a place in the world, could not be missing in the white walls of the first floor of the Museum designed by the architect Adolfo Morales de los Ríos in 1908.

What is Seen includes images of several of Lestido’s series: Infant-Juvenile Hospital (1986-1988), Adolescent Mothers (1988-1990), Women in Prison (1991-1993), Mothers and Daughters(1995-1998), Love(1992-2005) and Villa Gesell (2005). “To portray the female view was never something deliberate but I am a woman and I’ve been photographing women for 30 years. What’s constant in my work is the absence of men, even in the last series, where one is present, the prevailing feeling is their absence”, the artist explains in the opening of this exhibition added to the other events that form part of the Argentine participation as honoured guest at the XVII Bienal Internacional del Libro de Río. “The other aspect that appears is the vital need for separation: the need for the mother to separate from the offspring at birth to avoid both dying”, says Lestido and adds that the oldest photograph in the exhibition is the one of her mother (1979). “This is from the first roll of film I ever took, she’s to blame for what followed”, she says with a smile.

Estela de Carlotto (Grandmother of Plaza de Mayo) tours the exhibition with the director of the Museum, Monica F. Braunschweiger Xexéo; Magdalena Faillace, director of Cultural Affairs of the Argentine Foreign Office and the writers Noé Jitrik, Martin Kohan, Sergio Olguín, María Moreno, Tute, Mariana Enriquez and Diana Bellessi. “As I prepared the retrospective and connected with what I did I realized the mark he’d left in my work”, she explains. He is Willy, Guillermo Moralli, political activist from Vanguardia Comunista who she married in 1974 and was kidnapped in 1978 and has been missing since. What is seen is dedicated to Willy, to that absence that hurts physically. “The criteria was to leave what is essential and at the same time be able to tell a story with all the stories, something that went to the core. There are other things I’ve done. I feel the series responds to this need. It’s a visual narrative that flows and respects moments of silence”, Lestido claims.

Lestido’s photographs speak from the sternness of black and white, with no insistence, as if moving you were the same as making you breathe. The texts of Carl Jung, Sara Gallardo, Alejandra Pizarnik, Raymond Carver and Clarice Lispector form a swarm of emotions, where words and images are very much in tune. “The only thing that resembles happiness is the pleasure of being aware of your inner light, the silence of understanding, the silence of simply being. It takes years of life, it takes with it the beautiful, animal joy”, reads Pizarnik’s text. “I’m delighted to be exhibiting here because I’m a great admirer of Brazilian photography. I never have any expectations, I take whatever comes”, the photographer admits. This exhibition was also shown in the Argentine Week in South Africa last year. Lestido remembers that the day after the opening there was a visit by school children. “To see the relationship between the children and the photos was the best thing that happened in South Africa. What’s good is to feel the photographs reach people, beyond place or culture. When expression has that reach it’s very valuable.”

1982, the clinched fist of the little girl, her cry that can’t be heard but can be felt, her eyes squinting in pain and anger. That photo, Lestido’s aesthetic currency could be titled “The end of innocence”. For years Adriana looked for that little girl and her mother. “ Every time I saw Nora (Cortiñas) I’d drive her crazy asking if she knew her”, she recalls. “Someone told me she’d moved to Spain and when I took the retrospective there I thought she might approach me. But nothing. Some four or five years ago a teacher from Villa Domínico who was in touch with them wrote to me. That’s how I found out that the person missing was her brother and not her husband. It was Avelino Freitas, a worker from Río de la Plata Mill. Her name is Blanca and so is her daughters. When I went to see them, the daughter couldn’t go because she was working, but her daughter, who had the same age as her in the photograph was there. Blanca thought the photograph had been taken by a man because there were a lot of photographers that day.”

She’d only been working as a photojournalist at La Voz for a week when she was assigned to cover the Mother’s march in Avellaneda (in Buenos Aires). “The little girl was standing there crying and all the photographers were taking photos of her. I felt uncomfortable about it because she was crying inconsolably. When the event began the photographers went off to photograph the speakers. At that moment her mother picked her up and they both started shouting out. That’s when I took the photo and it made the front page. It’s an image I’ve always been very fond of, it’s one of the few photos of my time as a photojournalist that I’ve included. It’s a founding image because what I did after that for 30 years comes from there; a mother, a daughter and an absent man. It’s all there.”