Interview with Paz ErrázurizSaturday, November 28, 2020
The following interview is the sixth of a series conducted by the Venezuelan artist Ángela Bonadies. Her conversations with Latin American visual artists and filmmakers continue the CPPC's tradition of preserving first-hand cultural testimony.
Paz Errázuriz (Santiago, Chile, 1944) is a photographer whose work is strong and direct, poetic and rigorous. It leaves no room for the voice to falter, although it is full of mystery and incites infinite questions about the time and place it represents. Her images reveal her own work ethic and engagement, as well as a militancy that illuminates shadowy scenes and marks her as a photographer who accepts neither censure nor prohibitions.
In his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the American writer and journalist James Agee, speaking with Walker Evans about work methodology, writes:
The immediate instruments are two: the motionless camera, and the printed word. The governing instrument—which is also one of the centers of the subject—is individual, anti-authoritative human consciousness.
This can be applied to the extensive work of Paz Errázuriz. Her photographs are constructed on anti-authoritarian premises, as evidenced by the spatial scenes with national “heroes” arranged on the floor of workshops, their smallness and rigid masculinity on display within the harsh, human counter-monumentality confronting us. Her photographic series are direct strikes, heart attacks, shake-ups of disputed gender, photo essays that repel condescending and affected gazes. Language, without rhetoric or gloating, takes a leading role in her images, and the depth of the representation assumes a position, soaks itself, implicates itself, exchanges, coexists, and esteems.
In the following lines, we discuss the way she approaches her work: what mobilizes it, what it exemplifies.
Ángela Bonadies [AB]: How do you start to make a photographic series, and when do you feel it is finished? I’d like to know if you start several series at once or if you focus on one, and if the titles come to you before or after the photographs. Because I see that in your practice words are very important, and the titles—most of them—like Luchadores del Ring, Próceres, Circo are very direct. But sometimes, they are heightened and powerful, more evocative and poetic, like El infarto del alma.
Paz Errázuriz [PE]: With regard to what you’re asking: I like to think of my series as essays, because they’re always proposals that avoid being purely photographic, since I always involve myself from other points of view—for example, an ethnographic perspective. The series always imply an undetermined number of photos, and one by one they define the whole. Just like any essay, they need editing. They aren’t discoveries, it’s more about following obsessions. I think these are found in a state of waiting, and little by little they become more concrete. Closing a series is the most difficult moment, because it contains a goodbye, and then a new stage opens up related to circulation.
I concentrate fully on one series. The title emerges as I make the series, and titles generally take me a while to find since they’re very important to me.
AB: Where do these obsessions come from? Would you say that there is a certain gaze at what was once called “the other”? In the sense of that which is “outside,” can it be outside of the norms, the law, or even that which is considered “standard?”
PE: It’s in that otherness that I recognize myself, where I can find answers. It’s the origin of the obsessions. The search, the tracking, the follow-through, an intuition that leads you to reach what it is that calms you.
It doesn’t have anything to do with being outside the norms or the law, that’s not questioned. The fact of existence is enough.
AB: You also say that your series are essays and that you involve other perspectives, like the ethnographic point of view. Do you involve them as a work method or through references and texts?
PE: For example, with Los nómades del mar I had to research extensively on the Kawésqar; I read a lot about them, seeking information both on the ground and through historical references. But with La manzana de Adán, interviews were crucial in involving myself with those portrayed.
AB: Do you feel you’re aligned with a genealogy or tradition that’s documentarian or essayistic?
PE: It’s hard for me to see a formal genealogy, since my work responds to personal freedom. The topics I’ve been interested in addressing don’t correspond to other research. As a result, I’ve had to concentrate on experimenting with forms that adapt to the topics I address.
AB: Looking at your photos, I feel there’s an emotional, close commitment. It’s as if it were also a reflection of the one taking the photographs. How do you establish closeness with the people photographed? What is the nature of, let’s say, the contract of ethics and aesthetics between the photographer and the person photographed?
PE: I’ve thought many times about this play of mirrors, the eternal self-portrait, in the search for identity. The gift of the other who turns into a mirror and who shares his or her story for my work. I don’t think it’s a confusion of gazes between who’s portraying and who’s portrayed, but rather it’s an act of borrowing through which the other always participates.
AB: Why did you suddenly work in color on Ropa Americana when your work is almost exclusively in black and white?
PE: It’s been a process related to technology on one hand, and on the other an ecological concern about the great drought that’s encroaching on my country. The brutal chemical pollution and the disproportionate amount of water used in the processes of photography labs made me move from analog to digital. I’d like to point out that within this change there’s nostalgia for analog, since it’s the way I worked for the largest part of my career.
AB: Can you talk about your work El sacrificio? In the text on your web site that accompanies the work, it seems you’re talking about a cycle, and that there’s something apocalyptic about it.
PE: It’s an experimental video that I recorded during the military dictatorship in Magallanes, a region in the southernmost part of Chile and all of Latin America. This video seeks to address the brutal repercussions of the dictatorial regime in my country. It was such a violent, merciless period that I stored this video away. I couldn’t work on it.
Then the year 2000 arrived, a moment when the possibility of the end of the world was circulating, so I was working on the idea that we are at the southernmost south, the end of Latin America, and I took up this video, which was made in Magallanes, a place where the worst massacre of indigenous peoples also took place, a massacre whose consequences were extinction and sacrifice.
AB: Chile: the country’s situation today. The rebirth of collective forms, protests, the search for social, economic, and gender equality. How do you view the movement that’s been generated in the country? Are you involved?
PE: The social explosion in October of 2019 has been the revolution we needed; it has signaled the establishment of a feminism that has come together and affirmed itself like never before. It means a radical questioning of neoliberalism, and of course, everything that matters to me and that involves me.
AB: In Próceres we see the heroes’ diminutive image. In some way, to see them like this—in a power vacuum and then in their precariousness, without their body parts or as parts without a body—leads us to think that they are minimal figures, emptied of content. That’s my reading, but I’d like to know how you present it.
PE: With this work I was interested in portraying the less-than-grandiose aspect of these national heroes, reduced to “pieces” of metal, showing their demise, their disarmament and also making evident the purely masculine universe of the prócer [national hero], a word for which there is no feminine equivalent. Thus, a woman couldn't even be named and considered as such.
Right now in Chile, we’ve seen the downfall of a series of pro-male military figures, but this is not only part of the present, but a practice repeated throughout history to disappear the symbols of power that have configured that history. When I took these photographs, it had to do with critique and resistance against the dictatorship, a desire to see it fall. But the downfall of the present moment is related to a critique of the colonial, militarized, patriarchal way in which history has been written.
AB: Right now in the present moment, we are experiencing a pandemic. Globally, borders are closed, populations are quarantined, and “social distance” is being applied. What work would you propose right now? What does this moment mean to you?
PE: This has been quite a paralyzing moment for me. I think you realize that something very serious is happening with the other. We are in a world that forces us to come up with a new way to live.