Published  22/07/2015

Alinka Echeverria: ‘As soon as you lift up the camera, you make the other person vulnerable’

Alinka Echeverria: ‘As soon as you lift up the camera, you make the other person vulnerable’

The photographer talks about her work looking at political and religious beliefs, including a visit to South Sudan following its independence and meeting Nelson Mandela’s prison warder from Robben Island


Alinka Echeverría, who was born in 1981 in Mexico City, is a Mexican-British artist working primarily in photography and video. In 2012, she was named International Photographer of the Year by the Lucie Awards, and in 2011, she won the HSBC Prize for Photography. She has also been selected as the 2015 BMW Photographer in Residence at the Nicéphore Niépce Museum in France. Her work has been widely exhibited at international venues, including the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Moscow Photo Biennale.

Her recent exhibition at the Gazelli Art House in London, Alinka Echeverría: South Searching, included four bodies of work seen together for the first time. They were: her most recent project, M-Theory, an interpretation of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid; Becoming South Sudan, portraits of people taken in 2011 as their nation finally became independent; The Road to Tepeyac, which captures pilgrims in Mexico City; and Deep Blindness, which explores the connection between seeing and knowing.

Kate Tiernan: What has your journey been in making this body of work for the exhibition at Gazelli Art House, and what discipline did you begin with?

Alinka Echeverría: I studied social anthropology [she did an MA at Edinburgh University] and my interest was in social development, so, after university, I went to Uganda and Malawi for a year to work on several projects for HIV prevention. It was an amazing experience but, at the same time, one of the hardest times of my life. The ethics of what we were doing were questionable: we were going to places and then moving away again.

I don’t photograph randomly. I decide on the aspect I would like to engage in of the place I am working in, and keep to those boundaries. Almost always, there’s a gatekeeper I have to get past. In general, I work with very tight, specific parameters with limited access. I was commissioned by World Press Photo in 2010 to work on the theme of respect over the summer of 2011. I chose to work on the independence of South Sudan [In 2011, it gained independence from Sudan after a peace deal in 2005 ended Africa’s longest-running civil war]. In Mexico, we are hugely romantic about independence and revolution; for us as a nation, it is still a very formative time. The Cuban revolution and my time in Africa also feed into the mythologies around glorious revolutions and how they form nationhood. It’s a constructed nostalgia and visual history. There was a domino effect in the 1960s when a large number of African nations became independent, and it is so recent – people have photographs, rather like wedding photographs. I have been very inspired by those, and thought I would witness a similar euphoria.

A referendum took place in South Sudan in January 2011, with nearly 99% of the population voting for separation from the north. When I got there, I thought the country would be euphoric and full of celebration, but, in fact, there was a lot of uncertainty about what awaited them. One of the conditions for UN support was that the country be demilitarised. People had to transition from being guerrilla soldiers to police officers or students or prison officers. I realised that euphoria is an invented memory, a picture-perfect idea that doesn’t really exist when you’re coming out of a war. A transition is still so painful and uncertain.

I met many people, and their attitude was: “You can photograph me, but I’m in control.” I hate exploitative work so, for me, it was really nice to have the balance reversed and make it a collaborative exercise and gaze. It was hard to access the places I wanted to, so I had to really want to be there. As I had arrived before Independence Day, I was able to photograph the rehearsals for the parade, to be on the street and get really close. The project, Becoming South Sudan, is divided into three chapters, the first of which consists of seven portraits, mainly of people who work in these institutions, such as the chief prison officer of Juba women’s prison. The tableau series (photographs from inside a church in South Sudan) are daily scenes of life in the transition of the country as I saw it. Religion is a big divider, with the northern area of Sudan mainly Muslim; but in Juba there are many Catholic and Christian Pentecostal churches.

KT: The relationship between belief and knowledge seems to be heightened by the obstacles you talk about in reaching these people.

AE: I’m interested in cultural constructions of belief and religion, and, specifically, the image. When you see an image, it’s just stimuli to your visual cortex, and then it’s translated and understood. This is directly dependent on what you’ve seen before and what you know from other stimuli. How things have been put together and the codes you receive – even the micro gestures – are cultural constructions. The way we have evolved as a visual species is strong and powerful. The eye is constantly searching for stimuli. As a consequence, the mechanism by which we filter out things is so refined that we turn a blind eye to many things, refusing to try to interpret things differently. It happens a lot in contemporary art, and life in general.

I’m interested in the connection between image and belief – not specifically iconography, but how we see, and the codes behind our understanding of things. If you think of visual stimuli as codes, we can also relate this idea to language, sound, braille, sign language, etc. I think my relationship at the moment to text and sound is that which you can’t understand; I render it meaningless with no translation. For example [in Ixiptla, a sculpture describing the apparition of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, part of her project Deep Blindness], I photograph braille, then flatten and render it to remove its tactile function. The sound work is a piece in the indigenous, Mexican language of Nahuatl, intentionally untranslated so that it is rendered meaningless, questioning the idea of transcultural communication and longevity of oral traditions.

KT: It strikes me that, in a lot of your work, there are themes of separation, division or freedom, or a coming together or being pulled apart. How did you choose to depict particular struggles or political moments?

AE: That’s super-perceptive of you, as I think that is something that’s very relevant to me personally, although I never think my biography is in my work. I definitely feel I was separated from the community I belonged to. As a child, I lived in Mexico and we had a huge extended family, with many cousins of all ages to whom we were very close. Then, when I was five, I was suddenly brought to Lancaster in northern England, so my dad could do a PhD. It was cold and grey and really traumatic. We started to speak English very quickly, but it took us a long time to adapt. The only non-white people in town were the Pakistani community. As a five-year-old, I was working out all these cliques: the boys play football and hate girls, the girls are super-girlie, and the Pakistani boys don’t want to talk to me, or any other girls. It was like building myself up again while being acutely aware of these codes. However, school was a very safe place for me as I loved learning.

In the case of South Africa, I was interested in delving beyond the official history. I met many of the men who were behind the anti-Apartheid movement. Nelson Mandela is included in my project M-Theory, but I was interested, too, in the people who weren’t well known. Mandela became such a massive icon, and leader of the African National Congress, that he emerged as the image of the anti-apartheid struggle, whereas those underneath didn’t. I’m interested in the lesser-known stories that maybe aren’t in the official histories. How things are represented and then remembered is what interests me.

KT: M-Theory is a little like anti-documentary, in that you’re not seeking the main story or image, but what’s behind it.

AE: That’s a good word, I love it. Does “anti” make it sound as if I’m against documentary, though?

KT: Maybe post-documentary? We could create a new word.

AE: Yes, I like it.

KT: The fingerprint works – which include that of Mandela and other prominent figures in the anti-apartheid struggle – seem like aerial shots of landscapes, and the show is a geography of these different movements, lives and beliefs. For you, what is the relationship between scale and identity, and where did the fingerprint works stem from?

AE: Every project and work is different in style, with its own unique creative process, but a consistent line of enquiry with previous works – one is born from the other. The story with South Africa is that I went to photograph Mandela’s funeral on impulse, but also because it was very close to my heart and mind for professional and personal reasons. I flew to South Africa as soon as I heard the news. At the funeral of Madiba [the affectionate name for Mandela], I met Christo Brand, his warder at Robben Island, and later visited the prison. It’s an amazing place to photograph, with horrible, oppressive architecture. Christo took me through it and told me about things the warders would do. They used to take the letters that arrived from prisoners’ loved ones and scalpel out all the words of endearment, or anything that would provoke an emotional response. They just did it as a matter of fact – they didn’t feel any shame about doing it. Then the prisoners would be given this thing full of blanks. That made a huge impression on me. After I saw this, I knew I wanted to make a work about absence, with presence.

I knew I wanted to meet the men who had been prisoners with Madiba, but I didn’t want to do straightforward portraits. As I was looking through the archives, I saw fingerprints on prison ID cards that looked like mountain topographies. I was taken aback and thought that they were a beautiful metaphor for the journey of these men – the incredible element of destiny on their story. Our “print” is in ourselves: it’s right there and we never see it. The subtitle for M-Theory is Topographies of Resistance, on balance I felt it was too prescriptive. I like that some people see maps, space, the galaxies, or a labyrinth. The personal is always a mirror for someone else, so it is a very personal project for the viewer as well as the participants.

Through a process of access to various foundations and individuals, I met many of the men who had been in section B of Robben Island (the highest security section of the highest security prison reserved for the intellectuals of struggle) in their homes, apart from the deputy chief justice of South Africa, Dikgang Moseneke [who was imprisoned in Robben Island at the same time as Mandela], whom I met in the constitutional court.

KT: How do you engage with the gaze in taking your photographs and directing?

AE: Nothing is directed. Humans respond to body gestures, so if I look at someone straight on, they will tend to mirror that. I would guess that no one in the South Sudan series has ever been photographed before. It was a really tough trip, during a particularly difficult time. I met some nuns who took me into their convent and I went with them to church on the Sunday. I breathed out here, so the photographs are more relaxed. In the rest of Juba, everything was really tense: to get into anywhere, you had to pass armed guards. The question of intimacy is quite interesting and I try to create that. I really like the confrontational portraits; as soon as you lift up the camera, you make the other person vulnerable.

The temporality of images is really interesting too – what the works mean now and how that will change in 20 years is something we cannot imagine. I often feel that my work will resonate in the future more than it does now. And that gives me a sense of purpose in a temporal and ephemeral medium.

Alinka Echeverría: South Searching was at the Gazelli Art House, London, 22 May-27 June 2015. Her first solo exhibition on the African continent, 1:1, is at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, 9 August – 26 October 2015.

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