Women without Men: The women prisoners of Adriana Lestido
by Guillermo Saccomanno.
Prologue 2nd edition Women Prisoners, Argentinian Photographs Collection, 2008.
Lestido: El oficio de narrar
"My humble beginnings mean that I've had to work my way up from the bottom", Adriana Lestido has confessed on occasion. "In a sense, I am my own creation. I've had to forge my own path and style of work because no-one ever gave me anything outright, although many have helped me along the way. However, sometimes the sheer poverty of my origins makes me doubt myself -she was the poorest girl at a poor school in a poor district of Buenos Aires, Mataderos-, brought up in a one-room apartment by my mother, a sensitive woman given to outbursts of rage, and my father in prison. Sometimes I think that it is as if I did not allow myself to take the rightful place. I find it hard to believe what I've achieved, I always think there must be some mistake."
Lestido has acquired a reputation as one of Argentina's most independent artists. She is secretive about her work, opting to work in a style so clandestine that she is exempt from the elitism of the cultural establishment. It is thus no coincidence that "Women behind bars", now re-edited, is the first volume dedicated exclusively to her work. A book long overdue, perhaps because of her unsparing and uncommercial stance and her iconoclastic attitude which homes in on suffering, linking the personal to the collective experience. Her images, as intimidating as they are poetic, need no explanation. It is unsettling to realize that anything that could be said about these photos (loneliness, resentment, distrust, defiance, bitterness, love) is best said by the images themselves. Her unique vision is matched by her ability to find that something which pierces the veneer of reality for the reader. And I say reader, because what these photos are telling us needs to be read as an account of acute suffering.
Lestido focuses on a particular moment in time, but does not restrict herself to finding a particular gesture which could be casually interpreted as a pose. She emphasizes the photograph as a record, in all its imperfections. However, she is not content to remain on the witness stand: Lestido's class-driven angle and approach are her trademark. At first sight, her work could be construed as belonging to the narrative genre of "life stories". However, Lestido takes it further and constructs a fiction that goes beyond the mere issue of genre: it is an issue of class.
"Women behind bars" is not a conventional book of photographs, somewhere between a collector's whim and a coffee-table book. To me it is a narrative work because it provides a better explanation of social reality than any political argument, which does not detract from the value of Lestido's photos in their ability to weave a certain tension between art and ideology. Yet I also believe that this is a story book. Each picture is built like a story, with its main character, an expression and a mood. All these stories make up a general picture. When he wrote "Men Without Women", Hemingway launched his iceberg theory, which is a metaphor for the secret of a good story. It is worth revisiting this quote with Lestido in mind. "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them… The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A good writer does not need to reveal every detail of a character or action. If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story."
Women without men, Lestido's women behind bars answer to Hemingway's premise. They are, effectively, the tip of a narrative iceberg. An embrace, a knife, the picture of a saint on a wall: all are doors opening onto stories that deserve to be told as these images tell them. If the narrator's task is to speak from experience, then here is the proof. Lestido's work reveals an experience of life: joy and suffering. But what sets her apart is another experience, her sense of aesthetic and her raw vision of things. In a style both austere and severe, instead of imbuing her work with rhetoric, she strips it of all adjectives. In her understanding of each situation, Lestido withdraws from prettification into a world of silent suffering. Unanaesthetised, from within. Lestido has been there, to this hell, and returned with these stories.