Adriana Lestido

How to photograph a bone

by Josefina Licitra.

Adriana Lestido says that in her work with a camera she cares about searching for the core. She is known in the last decades, here and abroad, as one of the most influential documentary photographers.

The woman gets up at four in the morning, heats the water, takes a pen, the “mate” and the cookies. She takes the tent. The she walks on the sand path and walks away. Above, there is a translucent sky: it reveals that the day hasn´t dawned yet. The woman walks to the shore, puts up the tent, kneels in front of the sea and breathes. The woman breathes as it were a cleansing process – and only that – she breathes. It´s summer. Soon the sun shows its smoldering profile. The woman stretches, meditates, does yoga, has breakfast and reads. Sometimes she writes. Sometimes, she does nothing. Hours pass and people start arriving with their bags and noise. At eleven, the woman leaves. And the following day everything is the same. And the following day. And the next.

It so happens that one day, the woman gets up but doesn´t go to the beach. She packs and goes on a trip. She reaches a forest, a province, a person: somewhere else. And she takes a picture. And in the picture she takes are the beach, the days, the early hours. Silence is there. The woman, more than taking a picture, captures her own past. That´s how Adriana Lestido works. That is the reason why her images, apart from creating beauty, hurt.

- When I am living in Gesell, I go and see almost every sunrise. To feel the power of the day when it begins is infinite. Mainly in summer. Those are cleansing hours.

Now she is in Buenos Aires. She has a “mate” in a small apartment in San Telmo and from the ninth floor you can see the roofs, the terraces, the windowsills, well, the city she escaped from. Lestido doesn’t come so often to this place, and her home, at these heights, takes place in the trance of the empty places: the books, the laboratory, the plants. But not Lestido´s soul. The soul is in the sea.

- It is the landscape I love most. Though it takes some time to find a balance there. When I organize clinics, which are places of connection with one another, I try to take my students lo the mountains or a river, because the sea can destabilize them: the sea is heavy.

Now she smiles: a fine white line on the dark face.

- But I´m alright. Apart from that, I made many friends there. It is a nice way of being alone. Anonymous.

Adriana Lestido is one of the most influential documentary photographers of the last decades. It was the first Argentinian photographer to receive the prestigious Guggenheim scholarship. She won prizes and subsidies such as the Hasselblad (Sweden), the Mother Jones (United States of America) and the Konex. In 2010 she was appointed as an outstanding personality in Culture. Her work is part of Collections in museums of Argentina, United States of America, Venezuela, France and Sweden. But if fact that doesn´t explain anything.

Guillermo Saccomanno, the prologue writer of some of Lestido´s books and her neighbor in Villa Gesell, rewrites all that was said before in the following words:

“Through time, Adriana was purifying her vision, making it more austere and at the same time more poetic. It suggests not only a great mastery of her art but also in the communication of feelings. I believe there is only one way of capturing these impressions. And that is, without becoming neither a demagogue nor a sanctimonious person, putting yourself in the other person´s position. Generously. And Adriana Lestido does it.”

That´s what Saccomanno states. An then he says another thing: that faced with the famous dilemma of what to do with a wounded young man in combat (whether to assist him or photograph him) there are no doubts Adriana would help the victim and would leave in a secondary place the search for beauty. “This ethical perspective is exactly the difference among many of her colleagues – he says -. And at the same time it is what makes the difference overcoming the professional aspect and making her stand out as an artist”.

It is clear that there is also what the body speaks.

Lestido´s height is strange: long young legs, but the torso – with the shoulders leaning slightly forward – seems to lodge in her body and at the same time produce some kind of darkness. Lestido´s body is a silent extension of her thoughts. That´s it. Lestido likes not to be felt. Not only when she works but also when she publishes. Lestido wants to melt in such a way so that her pictures stop being hers and the observer can think of them as their own. This happened with the photograph Mother and Daughter. Plaza de Mayo (1982): this picture was appropiated by a feminist group and posted it in the streets without consulting or give any credit for it. She liked it. She believes that only in this way, when the author becomes anonymous, the photographs can grow in time.

- Did it happen with another picture apart from the one of the Plaza?

- Yes, with The Salsera, with the couple embracing. With that one I earned my pension for life.

She laughs. The eyes are two shadow strokes leaning on a larger shadow. Lestido is suntanned. But her skin is not the answer to an aesthetic choice, but that of a dialogue with light. Lestido knows how to talk. With light or with it, whatever it may be. For the photographer Juan Travnik, also awarded a Guggenheim scholarship, there is also the ease for dialogue that also has to do with love.

“Starting with love for others, Adriana sets into action respect and care so as not to hurt the other, be it a person, an animal or a plant - he says – That makes her images free from a gruesome or speculative exhibition of the wounds – in which many times some people gloat over believing that by presenting those terrible aspects, the task turns into an impenetrable job. If you start from love and a deep spirituality, it is difficult to fall into such a mistake.”


There was a first photograph. It was not Lestido´s, but Dorothea Lange´s. It was one of the many registers Dorothea Lange had done at the times of the North American Great Depression. In the photograph you could see a woman with her children plunged into despair in those terrible days. When Adriana saw that photo, she knew in the body, more than anywhere else, that she was going to be a photographer. At the end of the 70´s she started recording children in squares. In 1982 she started as a graphic reporter for La Voz newspaper, where she worked until 1984 and then joined the group Diarios y Noticias.

In the middle of all that, there was a morning. A morning in 1982 in which they had sent Lestido to cover a demonstration there the people asked for an answer about the disappeared during the last military dictatorship. Lestido, who had joined La Voz a week before, was only 24 years old and had a camera. That was enough. Opposite her there was a mother and a daughter wearing a white scarf on their heads, shouting their pain and their fury for a man -husband and father at the same time – that did not give any signals of being alive. And there would never be. In its own way, the scene rewrote the image of Dorothea Lange: emptiness, loneliness, the disgust of existence, emerging from those women. Lestido took the picture. And the beginning started: Children´s Hospital (1986/1988), Adolescent Mothers (1988/1990), Imprisoned Women (1991/1993), Mothers and Daughters (1995/1998), Love and Villa Gesell (1992/2005), Interiors (2011): just looking at those photos and series she worked in during those decades to feel that the bodies – shapes - are for Lestido the result of a transaction. The bodies are the excuse for the soul to appear. Without them there would be nothing at all. Lestidos´s images: mothers, daughters, prisoners, girls, now also landscapes, are used to showing what cannot be spoken.

It was said for a long time that I photographed the feminine universe – Lestido explains, but it is not that. I photographed the constant absence of a man which is not the same. That was the core of my work for decades. Not anymore. I believe that part in me has healed. I already saw all I wanted to see.

Also, she took the trouble of reviewing what she had seen. In the year 2010, Lestido did What is seen (1979-2007), a retrospective exhibition in which she worked for two years. Each one of those pictures, held together by an injured binding, makes up and still makes a postcard of a broken universe, of an emptiness that presents itself as a Russian nesting doll. Every absence carries inside another absence and beauty lies deep inside. After that edition, in which she finished with the period of “absences”, it took Lestido thee years to work on something new.

I am not a machine – she explains -. Before doing something, you must ask yourself “Why do I do it? Do I do it to be in the limelight? To make an exhibition every year? So that people won´t forget me? Or is it a vital need or evolution? I am all the time on a creative mood, but perhaps I spend a long time without taking one single picture. And it doesn’t worry me: I can´t stand the question: What project are you in?”

Lestido breathes noisily.

- I am not in anything in particular. Who knows? Here I am watching the sunset. And this is more nourishing tan creating a scene about creation so that people will suppose I am doing something. Facing such an image and so much nonsense, I prefer to wonder: Do I reach deep into the bone with what I´m doing? Does it transform me what I do? Could I live without doing what I do? Then, why do I do it? Can this transform somebody else? Can they feel the images their own? Does it move them to take photographs? That is the commitment you must have.

- The commitment of art is with oneself.

- Yes. There is a misunderstanding of the concept of art and commitment. I believe the commitment must exist with oneself. You have to know how to stop. Everything is a question of stopping, emptying yourself and make room to reach the bone. For me that´s creation: space and cleaning. For me there is no such thing as a blank surface. The surface is full of things and I have to clean to establish the connection. I connect from the emptiness and that takes a lot of work.

To see or not to see

Lestido started taking photos with her father´s camera. It was kept in her home´s wardrobe, in the Mataderos quarter a few minutes away from the Mercado de Liniers. It was a bellows camera and it is easy to think that her childhood photos (Adriana at four or five years) were taken with that artifact. But she doesn´t remember her father with the camera. She remembers something else.

In 1961, her father went to jail for fraud. She was only six. He was thirty one. He was jailed at Caseros Penitentiary until Lestido was 12. She visited him. She grew up. She studied engineering. She liked Mathematics but in a few months she quit because the course of studies was awful. Lestido didn’t understand anything. During 1973 she attended some subjects and at the same time she joined a student´s group. There she met Willy, a student who read Marx, Lenin, Mao.

- I also read it but it was compulsory.

They became activists in Vanguardia Comunista (A communist front line). At that time, Lestido was not valuable as a student but as an activist. She doesn´t remember whether she studied anything at all. She does remember that once the military dictatorship arrived, she left the University because the proletariat had come.

- I left because I had to start working in factories. My God! I worked one day in a textile factory but I couldn´stand it. I had never used a sewing machine. My job was to remove the garnetted stock of some materials and return those materials to other workers. Until one day I told my mates: “I can´t do it”. In turn they said “Well, you can study to be a nurse. The revolution needs nurses” “But, can´t it be Medicine?” I asked them. “No, nurses” they answered.

Lestido studied nursing for a year. Till one day she had to prepare the body of an old man and she couldn´t stand it. And in some way that she does not even remember completely, 1978 arrived - which is the same as saying the black year -.

- Willy and many friends disappeared. He was 29 and I was 23. Later, I decided to study film making. It was in 1979. Only some years ago I realized that his absence had something to do with my work. The need to record events with images, I suppose. To place the image in front of the absence.

Lestido started taking photographs the year Willy disappeared. And she began thinking about when she started taking pictures. Both of them were different ways of knowing; if one or the other was missing, Lestido knew she would collapse.

Today, thirty years later, Lestido does not break easily. But she admits her own foundations. But give or take the words are the same.

- Analysis and photography go in the same direction: they help you see what your eye doesn’t. I don´t take photographs of what I see, because I already saw it, because if I saw it why do I want it on a paper? What I want to see is what my eye doesn´t. I take photographs of what I perceive but I don´t get to see it.

- Is that the reason for the pictures in black and white?

- I believe so. In dreams you don´t remember color. It is not that we dream in black and White. It´s just image without color. And that is my idea. More than anything else. It is not that I love black and white; in fact I want to remove the color from the image.

Her last work was for Insud: and economic group with a philanthropic attitude asked Lestido to make a record of the conservation labor in the environment and the struggle against the illnesses (such as Chagas and dengue) caused by poverty that this group has in some Argentinian provinces. Lestido agreed but she did it her way. She took her Leica camera and her block of notes and left on her own to travel to different locations. The result is a book in which nature keeps the same level as people and even the orchids are devoid of color.

- In Mexico, they also asked me to work in some forests and well, probably they imagined something green (she laughs) But I want to go every time deeper into what is essential. I don´t know exactly how but I know nature will guide me. The book now is in bookstores, it is called Interior. Lestido says it could not be called in any other way.