Postcards from Confinement

Latin American Writers in Quarantine

By Alejandro Meter

Haga clic aquí para leer en español.

"Apología del envés, la máscara es el 'negativo' de la belleza: ave de savia negra agazapada entre las llamas de la demencia". (Balam Rodrigo, Chiapas, Mexico)

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Balam Rodrigo

 

A few months ago, when the state of California issued a mandatory lockdown, many of us began to wonder what would become of our jobs and our projects. As a member of the faculty at the University of San Diego, I was able, and fortunate, to transition to online teaching relatively smoothly, much to own surprise even, considering that I have never been the most technologically savvy of people. 

However, all my photo projects were brought to an abrupt halt. An exhibit on my work about writers of the U.S. -Mexico border in Mexicali was postponed; another on the Jewish Diaspora in the Americas scheduled for the LAJSA (Latin American Jewish Studies Association) International Conference in Curaçao, was also delayed for at least another year. And finally, an exhibit on crime fiction writers on which I have worked more for than three years, scheduled to take place at Argentina's National Library in August, all up in limbo. It was a one-two-three punch. The cancellations of trips, talks and exhibits, compounded by the inability to continue producing work, left me feeling empty.

My chosen mode of survival was the same one I have used ever since I can remember: reading. I began to read new photo books and re-read some of the old masters. In those readings, I came across The Polaroids, André Kertész's last photo book. Emotionally and physically exhausted after the death of his wife, Kertész became withdrawn and isolated himself in his New York City apartment. Out of this period of isolation, silence and introspection, would come something new and original. He embraced a relatively new technology: a Polaroid SX-70 instant camera, that afforded him the ability to photograph freely, from the boundaries of his home, without having to leave his apartment to deal with film development and printing. He made photographs of various objects around his house, most of them photographed on his windowsill in the early morning and later afternoon hours, thus creating an entirely new body of work.

The window of Kertesz's apartment struck me as a very appropriate metaphor for the times we are living, a way of seeing, and an opportunity to connect with the outside world. It was that connection I was missing: the conversation and the thrill of the photoshoot.

Thus, I decided to experiment with all the technology at our disposal is this digital age, from social media to various communication platforms. I tried making remote images via Zoom, Face Time and other programs, but the results were low quality, pixelated, distorted and blurry images. I also contacted some photographer friends and found words of encouragement, and support. For approximately two weeks, I experimented with family members and close friends, further testing both the technique and the process. Unhappy by the look I was getting from a white seamless background, I began using pieces of cardboard and really liked the texture. I then played around with various types of wood, plastic, glass and even cement. The result was a rather crude image that resembled and old postcard or carte de visite, so popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It took me a few weeks before I could begin to embrace the lo-fi quality of the photographs.

By July, I began contacting Latin American writers in different corners of the world: Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Havana, Chiapas, Córdoba, Paris, Berlin, Chaco, La Guajira, Caracas and Madrid. I set up appointments and began making photographs, once again.

While the portrait is always a collaboration to a larger or a lesser degree, this type of image making requires a lot more involvement, and even planning, on the part of the person being photographed. During the shoot, my role is not only that of a photographer, but also a kind of director, and even choreographer. 

As I explain to the writers I photograph, I am not trying to "document" their lives, or the situation in which they find themselves, but rather, I am more interested in capturing a mood. What does this pandemic feel like?

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Marcial Gala

 

The days of quarantine affected writers in different ways. Some have been able to work more, others less. Cuban writer, Marcial Gala was able to write a novel while in confinement: "No me apagué en el encierro, escribí una novela, pero a veces sentía que volvía a ser niño de nuevo, es más, el mundo se había vuelto un gran claustro materno que quería protegernos de las incidencias de allá fuera."

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Estercilia Simanca Pushaina

 

Colombian writer Estercilia Pushaina Simanca sees writing and confinement as complementary acts. From the Guajira in northern Colombia, she writes: "El encierro y el acto creativo, son absolutamente complementarios, en mi caso ninguno de mis textos han sido concebidos en exteriores, pensados sí, pero el acto creativo como tal, la construcción de los diálogos de mis personajes son en el encierro, un encierro voluntario que da vida a los personajes, sus voces y sus verdades."

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Tatiana Goransky

 

For other writers, the pandemic has taken a toll, not only in their personal lives, but on their productivity as well. Writing from outside the city limits of Buenos Aires, Tatiana Goransky told that she is not afraid of not being "productive," as regards her own creative work: "Donde vivo llevamos 164 días de encierro. La cuarentena se decretó en el verano y ya estamos casi en primavera. En 164 días no escribí una sola palabra ni leí un libro. Bueno, en realidad escribí miles de palabras y leí decenas de libros, pero nada de eso fue por placer. Y si leer no es un placer y escribir no es un lugar a donde puedo ejercer todo el control y perderlo al mismo tiempo, entonces para mí no sirve de nada. No le temo a la falta de “productividad”, escribir siempre fue un acto lúdico y no hay lugar para jugar cuando se está tratando de sobrevivir. No siento ansias, no siento pena, no siento que se me va el tiempo. Me dedico a las ceremonias de interior y a convivir con mi familia en dulce montón. La escritura, por suerte, me sabe esperar". 

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Margo Glantz

 

Like so many, Margo Glantz tries to make sense of it all and asks: "¿Qué se puede decir o hacer en el encierro que no se repita todos los días en las redes sociales y en las conversaciones diarias? ¿Decir que me asomé a la ventana y vi dos pajaritos y un coche? ¿Que me lavé los dientes tres veces en la mañana y una en la noche; que subo y bajo de manera incesante las escaleras o camino por lo menos media hora diariamente, alrededor de mi mesa para mantenerme en forma y regular mis movimientos intestinales; que me visto como si fuera a salir a una fiesta y me pongo aretes y me reconstruyo la cara, sobre todo mis canosas cejas; que estoy leyendo mucha literatura de contagio o de confinamiento o destrucción (Casanova, Defoe, Bellatin, Sebald, Poe, Perec, Camus, Justo Sierra, Gamboa, Calderón, Henry Dana, Melville, sor Juana y la monja de Ágreda, Emily Dickinson…)? O ¿decir que el encierro te permite reencontrarte contigo mismo; que no releo El amor en los tiempos del cólera, pero recuerdo que mi padre, cuando quería decir algo fuerte, como una maldición, gritaba jolera, que en ruso significa cólera [...]"

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Luis Humberto Crosthwaite

 

For Luis Humberto Crosthwaite, who lives in Tijuana, the act of writing in confinement is a familiar act, but a painful one: "Siempre escribo desde mi propio encierro, el de mis fantasías y los personajes que las habitan. Ahora escribo desde un encierro que se extiende fuera de mí, mucho más doloroso y oscuro".

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Enzia Verduchi

 

Looking at some of the photographs, I find that many have been made near doors or windows, both powerful symbols for how we connect with the outside world. Windows and doors have taken on a newfound importance, as places that guides us out of the darkness. As she looks out the window in her Mexico City apartment, Enzia Verduchi tells me: "Veo pasar los días por la ventana: algún transeúnte que saca el perro a pasear, las ramas de los árboles que crecen robustas, sus hojas verdes; los repartidores de víveres que cruzan el barrio pedaleando sus bicicletas en las tardes de lluvia, el desplazamiento de las nubes, la lenta danza de la luz y la sombra que se entreteje en la duela del estudio. Casi se puede asir el silencio, por momentos solo escucho mi respiración. En el encierro la vida cabe en el marco de la ventana: estoy viva". 

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Esther Andradi

 

This sense or feeling that we are living some sort of experiment has been expressed by many of the writers I have photographed. From Berlin, Esther Andradi observes: "Si todo el mundo está encerrado, no puedo mirar hacia afuera, a quién buscar, ni cómo salir, adónde, todo se aplana. No hay un exterior adónde ir. Y aunque no todos estemos encerrados de la misma forma ni en las mismas condiciones, el confinamiento global nos confronta con las diferentes posibilidades de lo interior, pero la experiencia e interrelación con lo exterior se reduce al mínimo. Y allí se produce un vacío, donde el tiempo no circula, es uno, y puede ser el mismo ayer, mañana, la noche, el día. Se sufre un extrañamiento de lo colectivo, un exilio del cuerpo social".

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Andrea Jeftanovic

 

Other writers have contemplated the relationship between photography and writing in times of confinement. From her isolation in Chile, Andrea Jeftanovic, writes that she feels as if she were in darkroom: "El cuarto oscuro fotográfico es una caja de pandora, hay una sorpresa, algo de otros y de uno está por revelarse. Me siento aislada, mirando el mundo desde la ventana, esperando que las pequeñas cajas de la tira de contacto me revelen algo de mí misma. Como ocurre en la fotografía durante la pandemia los relieves de las personas fueron empujadas hacia adentro. Todos quedaron fijos en dos dimensiones como hologramas en voces rezagadas, sin tacto ni olfato".

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Myriam Moscona

 

For Myriam Moscona, isolation leads to repetition with its own rhythm: "Encierro solitario y largo como un transiberiano. (También gozoso). Lavar, trapear, clorear. Trastes, más trastes. Leer, escribir.Mirar mucho cielo raso. Suspirar por la intemperie y querer el mar y hacerse el tonto, pero los muertos. La atmósfera, sí, sin duda. Se debe cerrar el obturador. Y vuélvela a tomar que esto va pa´largo. Y aunque bailes, acuérdate que eres población de riesgo".

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Laura Escudero

 

Finally, it was through my conversations with Laura Escudero Tobler, a writer from Córdoba, Argentina, that I was able to confirm that everyone shared many of the same fears, and doubts, not only about the present, but also about the future. Like the photographs I have been making, everyone feels a bit out of focus, fragmented, and incomplete: Escudero explains further: "Este proyecto tiene la lucidez de documentar un tiempo de extrañamiento sin explicación. La imagen desnuda, pixelada como el registro de la atmósfera sin forzar sentidos para los que no hay distancia todavía. Las interpretaciones aparecen fragmentadas, incompletas, veladas también. Hay una ética de la memoria que se ejerce con confianza en los que vendrán, en nosotros mismos después, porque ahora  no tenemos suficientes recursos subjetivos para entender lo que pasa. Ni en los cuerpos individuales, ni en los sociales.

Si algo sabemos es que hemos perdido nitidez. Y no estaría mal perder algo de la prepotencia de siempre saber qué va a pasar, adónde vamos. No sabemos nada, estamos fuera de foco, totalmente enfocadxs en lo que se desdibuja".

Over the course of the past several weeks, these "Postcards from Confinement" have been emerging from Buenos Aires, Santiago, CDMX, Paris, Berlin, Havana, New York, Guadalajara, Tijuana, Caracas, Madrid and Miami, and in addition to those photographed here, it includes portraits of Elena Poniatowska, Guillermo Saccomano, Juan Sasturain, Fernanda García Lao, Giovanna Rivero, Daniela Tarazona and many others. Recently, upon the insistence of friends, I have decided to go beyond the Latin American experience and have began making portraits of authors in the United States, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa in preparation for a possible book.

 

 

Alejandro Meter is professor of Latin American literature at the University of San Diego where he teaches courses in Latin American literary and cultural history, and on the Jewish experience in Latin America. As a photographer, Meter enjoys working on long-term projects. His work has appeared in both print and digital media in the United States, Latin America, and Europe, and has been exhibited in the United States, Mexico and Argentina