Interview with Verónica Fieiras
Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the photographer Verónica Fieiras left with a backpack in 2001 to travel around the world for one year. After visiting Spain, she decided to settle in Madrid, where she has been teaching photography for a number of years. Last November she and Ilkin Huseynov founded Riot Books, an independent publishing house of limited edition artist books. Riot Books released Verónica’s photobook The Disappeared last year. After the first edition sold out quickly, she reinterpreted the book for a recently released second edition. I spoke with Verónica about The Disappeared and Riot Books.
How did you come to choose The Disappeared as the subject of your photobook?
When I first moved from Argentina to Spain, I was amazed to be living in a country on the other side of the globe and resisted thinking about Argentina in an attempt to stop missing my family, friends and roots. Then the suit of armor broke and I started feeling homesick. I realized there is no other place where you can feel as at home as in your own country. I experienced a kind of identity crisis and wondered why I had left Argentina. I started looking at my country with a love even greater than when I lived there. I needed to get back to my roots.
During my last visit to Argentina in 2013, I visited a place called ESMA, which used to be a military school. During the dictatorship people thought to be subversive were secretly taken there to be tortured and killed. Today ESMA is a memorial to the 30,000 Argentinians who disappeared during the Dirty War. I visited the memorial with one of my cousins, an activist at that time. Fortunately he survived, but many of his friends were disappeared, tortured, and killed.
There is a huge mosaic at ESMA composed of disappeared people’s portraits. I was deeply touched by watching my cousin as he searched the mosaic for friends from high school. The destiny of many of them is not known. My cousin was trying to recover memories of his friends.
On the same trip I went to an amazing exhibition of the French artist Christian Boltanski, who bases his work on The Disappeared. The visits to ESMA and the art exhibition created a “Molotov cocktail” inside me, although I didn't realize its power when I came back to Madrid.
Some months later, Ilkin Huseynov and I decided to open a publishing house. We talked about the idea of bringing digital media back to paper and focusing on books about human violence and its different manifestations. Naturally the first thing that came to my mind was the Argentinian dictatorship and The Disappeared.
We the readers aren’t told anything about the life of those whose portraits appear in the book, yet the sheer number of portraits in The Disappeared conveys the scope and horror of the Dirty War.
I collected the portraits from an Argentinian website that compiles information on all the disappeared people under the dictatorship. Coming across this website was like a miracle. The site has lots of portraits, information, and lists organized under different criteria: how each person was disappeared, when, where, how old each was when kidnapped, if killed or not, and so forth.
Immersing myself in all this data, I felt like I was a scientist. The approach was going to be personal but very aseptic at the same time. I didn't want to focus on historical facts but on universal concerns such as power abuse, fear, absence, and the dissolution of identity.
Many people have addressed this subject before. It was a huge challenge to approach the subject in a fresh way. I decided to rely on my personal experience and intuition.
I’m surprised you say that people have addressed the subject. Last year I bought imagines en la memoria by Gerardo Dell’oro, a photobook about his sister who was kidnapped and killed during the Dirty War. And I have Marcelo Brodsky’s Buena Memoria, which focuses on the fates of his high school classmates. But for the most part I’ve had a difficult time finding other photobooks on The Disappeared.
Actually I didn't know Marcelo’s work until Martin Parr told me that Marcelo might be interested in my book. As it turned out, he included The Disappeared in an exhibition about Human Rights Latin American photobooks. The exhibition took place at ESMA (the same place my cousin and I visited a year earlier). It was very important to me to have The Disappeared in the same place where I conceived it emotionally, the place where it belongs.
What was your breakthrough in arriving at a structure for the book?
After I had played with images, data, and words relating to The Disappeared, with their order and rhythm, I discovered that my main objective of reclaiming the identities of these disappeared people had failed because they were annulled by repetition. I saw that the book conveyed what I call “the identity of absence."
I needed to find a way to integrate the portraits in a book that would express this idea.
After experimentating with various types of paper, I decided to use a very delicate though strong paper that is transparent so faces can blend together, generating new and unreal identities. I wanted the reader to participate in this process, so I added four pages in the center of the book with paper used at school for copying maps so the faces would create new ones.
The Disappeared quickly became a success. Word of the book must have spread rapidly.
The night before Paris Photo I finished binding the book and took five copies to the festival. The book was really well received.
When the first edition sold out very quickly, I decided to make a second, but didn't want to make it the same as the first. I wanted to reinterpret the book without modifying its structure.
Focusing on my theme, I settled on making the portraits from the first edition fade out. I used chemicals to transfer images to a new paper, leaving only traces of portraits. I used these portrait traces in the new edition, keeping the same sequence and structure as the first edition.
That was a great choice. The traces of portraits increase the power of your subject – the fading from memory of The Disappeared. And because the second edition differs from the first, the second is like a new book. The first and second stand as a complementary pair.
In the first one you can feel the “appropriation” of portraits because of the pixeling of the images. In the second one you can see there is a physical action, and the feeling of the vanishing of identity is stronger.
I didn't know what the impact of the second edition was going to be and I was happy that collectors of the first edition were also buying the second one. And I think the second edition stands by itself and provides the opportunity to reach more people.
What are your plans for Riot Books?
Riot Books recently released Euromaidan, a book of photos taken during the civil protests in Kiev. The book has sold incredibly well. We have a new release coming soon, a photobook that takes you to dreamlike state. It is quite different from The Disappeared and Euromaidan. There’s another book in the pipeline, but it’s too early to talk about it.
Ilkin and I were pleased to be invited recently to present Riot Books in Brussels at an event organized by Andrea Copetti (Tipi Bookshop) and to Straybooks Fair in London where we are going to review book dummies.