A Triumph of Empathy: PhotoIreland 2018

Posted 11 months ago in More

Agata Stoinska and Monika Chmielarz, editors of Ireland’s fine art photography magazine BLOW Photo, offer their insights into the programme for this year’s PhotoIreland Festival. BLOW Photo helps artists edit and publish their work as well as promoting photography through publications, talks, workshops, exhibitions and education events.


This year, the PhotoIreland Festival, Ireland’s annual showcase of contemporary photography, has front and centre the work of two photographers dealing with women’s rights. It’s a timely interrogation of this theme, with the Festival opening just ahead of the upcoming Referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment. Works by Barcelona-based visual artist Laia Abril (On Abortion) and Irish artist Sarah Cullen (You Shall Have Exactly What You Want) grapple with issues around the history of access to abortion and crisis pregnancies. More broadly, the programme embraces a diversity of themes beyond women’s rights. We were especially moved by two very personal bodies of work, by Argentinian photographer Mariela Sacarti and Irish photographer Gerry Blake. Their work is a triumph of empathy over aestheticism and is the stuff of universal connection.

We spoke to both photographers to find out what moves them to take these photos.

Gerry Blake: Into The Sea

How did your early life affect your choice of photography as a career path?

I wasn’t academic at school. But I’m from the era when photography was taught in colleges as a technical subject and involved subjects like chemistry, mathematics and German, and that didn’t appeal to me. I became interested in colour photography as an art form in the early eighties, while living in New York, looking at the work of Ernst Haas amongst others. And I had a friend, Frank, who travelled widely in Africa and Asia taking the most amazing colour slides. I wanted to do something like that but I didn’t know how to go about it. I worked in IT as a computer programmer and photography was just a hobby then. Many years later, I was easing my way out of that career by working part time and I started doing courses in creative writing, photography and Photoshop. Photography pretty quickly became my main interest.


Who are your influences both inside and outside of photography?

I am influenced by writers, musicians and photographers. In recent years, Alec Soth, the American photographer, has been a big influence. I like the way he combines portraits, landscapes and incidental pictures to tell a story. Always keeping it simple. I’m a fan of the writer Richard Ford and I also like Katy Grannan’s portrait series Model America. I’m not a portrait photographer, as such, but I once overheard someone at an exhibition say, “I like photographs with people in them,” and I would agree with that. My teachers, Paul Seawright and Donovan Wylie, were huge influences too.I listen to all types of music, from traditional to jazz. Elvis Costello’s approach of moving from project to project, always trying something new, was very inspiring. But I also like Donny McCaslin, who’s band played on David Bowie’s final album. He basically plays seventies jazz-fusion but transforms it into a vibrant contemporary sound.


Tell us about the project ‘Into the Sea’ and what inspired it?

The first photographic project I attempted, back in 2009/2010, was based around a group of swimmers who met at the Vico bathing spot every morning, early. I swam there myself and I knew the people. However, I was hesitant about photographing individuals and the images I ended up with were not what I had intended to make.

So I wanted to go back to that project and do it properly. In the meantime, my own routine had changed and I got to know other bathing spots around Dublin and Wicklow. The trigger for resurrecting the project was looking at John Coplan’s well-known portrait of his own back and also some other back portraits that were featured in an exhibition, called Back, in New York in 2015. I investigated these, as well as back portraits by artists such as Catherine Opie. The back has an air of mystery that is appealing. I thought to combine some back portraits with a subjective documentary look at the swimming places of Dublin. As well as being an obvious place to meet people and photograph them, or their backs, I was intrigued by the religious nature of the ritual way in which individuals attended these sites. Someone who swims at 8 am daily might never meet someone else who swims at 9 at the same place.

One swimmer told me that she used to go to daily Mass but now went for a swim instead. For her, it fulfilled the need she had for a daily ritual that could no longer be met by the church. The places themselves are fascinating. They may be unique. I haven’t come across anything similar in other cities. Like the community gardens that I photographed for my last project, The Grey and the Green, they represent city oases, places that people can go to to meet other people, or to be alone, pursuing their own interest, and not having to pay for the privilege.


Can you describe your process? What can others learn from it?

The process depends on the project. This is the first project I’ve shot entirely on a digital camera. I spoke with all of the subjects. This became my routine after a while. It might just be to ask, “Do you mind if I take your picture from behind as you are getting in?” I was more comfortable asking than not and I felt I got better pictures by not having to be surreptitious. My last project, The Grey and the Green, involved an elaborate process, using a medium format Mamiya 6×7 film camera, mounted on a tripod, placed on top of scaffolding erected on site with a helper, to photograph community gardens at various locations in Dublin. The Mamiya is normally a studio camera and is heavy. When I took the project to Germany and Cuba I brought a lighter Pentax 645 and a tripod. I wanted to keep using the medium format as it renders the aspect of the landscape with a truer perspective than a digital SLR.

My photograph, De Courcey Square, the first garden I photographed using the scaffolding setup, won an award at the RHA annual show in 2015. So you could say the effort paid off.


Did making this project change your perspective on the subject?

You learn a lot about the subject from each project. I’m not a gardener but I was a sea swimmer, so I felt I knew a lot more about the subject this time. However, being the photographer marks you as the outsider in the group where people are involved, and you feel that. It’s not necessarily a bad thing because it forces you to think as an outsider. The reason the project failed the first time was that I was trying too hard to be in the group and not standing outside, so to speak, to be the observer.


How do you choose a project?

It takes time and ideas don’t come easy. I find that it has to come from something that’s happening in my life at the time. With the gardens project, it was the economic crash and how the gardeners were trying to make something creative with the abandoned city sites. Similarly, the bathing places are city retreats, although this time not related to the economy but perhaps to something more internal. The anguish in our lives.


What project are you working on now and what are your plans for the future?

I’m working on a collaborative project with visual artist, Melissa O’Faherty. She does abstract and figurative drawings, as well as being a painter. For this project she is drawing. The theme for the project is how our awareness is made up of our experiences and not our internal thoughts. Our perception of the world is our experience of it. This is a more conceptual idea than my usual subjective documentary approach. It’s exciting and it’s leading me at the moment to build on black and white landscape work that I made in West Cork earlier in the year. I hope to start a new solo project soon, one that might involve some travel. I find that being away from home helps towards seeing things afresh.


What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?

Go out and make the work that you want to do. Don’t wait to be inspired. You get ideas by doing. Keep it simple too. Make sure your work gets seen; submit to galleries and reputable competitions and promote your website.

Gerry’s exhibition is curated and organised by Mermaid Arts Centre.

Gerry Blake / born: Ireland / based: Co. Wicklow / project title: Into the Sea / launch: 6pm, 18 May / place: Mermaid Arts Centre, The Civic Plaza, Main Street, Bray, Co. Wicklow


Mariela Sancari: Moises


How did your early life affect your career choice in photography?

I decided to study photography after I saw images of a friend of mine in Buenos Aires. I was so surprised and shocked by the method of storytelling through photography that I wanted to learn and create images myself. I started out as a photojournalist, working as a staff photographer in a newspaper in Mexico City until 2011, doing mostly documentary and lifestyle photography. After five years with the newspaper I wanted to try something different and more personal so I quit the job and applied to the Seminario de Fotografía Contemporánea at Centro de la Imagen. The seminar was focused on projects addressing personal issues.


Who are your influences both inside and outside of photography?

At the moment I am very interested in literature and how images relate to words. My husband is a writer so I am more in touch with the world of writers. I am inspired by artists such as Sophie Calle or Duane Michals who work with text. Of course I am also interested in autobiographical work.


Tell us about the project ‘Moises’ and what inspired it?

I started it while I was trying to make sense of my father’s suicide. My twin sister and I we were 14 when this happened. The death of our father changed our lives forever. Since he passed away my sister and I have both fantasised a lot about how he would look like if he were still alive. To ease my pain I wanted to confront that fantasy through photography. In preparation for the project I studied thanatology [the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it]. I found out that if you can’t see the body of the dead person you may stay in denial about their death. That resonated with me as we were not able to see my father’s body when he passed. I realized that I was longing for that image and my project Moises became a search for his face in other men.

From the very beginning it was kind of an impossible project. Of course I was never going to be able to find an image of my father. Moreover, I was trying to see what happens when photography documents not the truth but a fantasy.

My initial proposal was to create a typology of portraits of men. As the project evolved this idea seemed a little too detached and analytical. I found working with these men, facing their needs, loneliness and aging process, far more intense and overwhelming that I had foreseen. I decided to include myself in some of the pictures.


Did making this project change your perspective on the subject?

It helped me with my grief. I still walk the streets fantasising about how my father might have looked but the emotions attached to this are very different from the emotions before the project. Also I am able to speak about it and talk about this with strangers. Communicating through art deals with empathy. Everyone can relate through art to their own stories. There is something universal about it which touches upon the very essence of the human experience. The project has also helped my sister and my family. It opened the possibility of sharing something that was very dark and hidden in our family. It gave them a possibility to remember my father in a different way, far away from shame and guilt.


Can you describe your process? What can others learn from it?

I conceptualise the idea of the series first and then take the pictures. I do a lot of research, read and write and then take pictures. It works very well for me when I work with instructions, which at first glance might look very limiting. But they are my guidelines. When you are most in need of understanding your own projects it is super helpful to have the framework to work with. I usually work very slowly on the project. Pictures sometimes are for me the very last thing in the whole process. For Moises I decided that I would use typology as a form. I would photograph all men in the same positions, with the same background. Each of them were photographed with their own clothes and also with my father’s wool jacket. I took front, profile, back and 3/4 portraits of all of them. Setting those rules in advance helped me a lot in dealing with emotional distress. I knew I had to follow the rules to shelter myself from my own pain.

How do you choose a project?

Projects come from my personal experience. I don’t choose them, they come to me.

Inspiration always comes from books or movies. Artists work twenty-four hours a day. They always think about their work and observe how things around them relate to their own processes.


What project are you working on now and what are your plans for the future?

I’m working at the moment on a new book based on my previous project. I’m using my old images, re-taking some of them. Since Moises I have stopped taking new pictures. These days we produce and share overwhelming amounts of images. Working on my old images is a metaphor for not really needing to create new work but rather to make sense out of what I already have. I am a different person and I feel different now about my work. By updating the images I’m trying to bring them closer to who I am now. This is a sort of auto-analysis, a way of going deeper into understanding our obsessions. My approach to photography, and to art in general, comes from the necessity to understand my own story.


What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?

Be true to what really interests you and what you really care about. Don’t try to please the public. As an artist, your work is a lifetime commitment to searching for self-understanding.

Mariela Sancari / born: Argentina / based: Mexico City / project title: Moisés / launch: 6pm Wednesday 2nd May / place: Instituto Cervantes Dublin, 6-16 Lincoln Place, Dublin 2

 Words: Agata Stoinska and Monika Chmielarz blowphoto.com

Images: Gerry Blake, Mariela Sancari


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