Interview with José Deconde
Seeking Magazine interviewed Spanish photographer José Deconde on his ongoing project Barrio. This interesting interview, in which we’ve been able to delve into the creative process of his project, is born in a productive correspondence.
Seeking Magazine: Barrio seems to me a courageous and thrilling project. ¿When did you take up this project and how are you carrying it out from the beginning? ¿What did you mean to tell when you started?
José Deconde: Barrio is born from the need of developing a photographic topic. I wanted to carry out a personal project, taking photographs of my closest social environment and its inhabitants (my neighbourhood in Madrid’s downtown), where I live since 10 years ago. Soon, I realized that I couldn’t identify with this place. Indeed, I felt a rootlessness feeling in me. And I confirmed myself that I missed my neighbourhood of origin, which was less tame than the place where I was living at that moment. I started to investigate in a straight way on the nature and personality of the suburbs, a subject that has been discussed by many photographers but in my case, is something that belongs to my childhood.
Therefore, this project begins with a search about my own childhood, about the things I miss from my neighbourhood; even though this procedure has lead me to discover a profound neighbourhood, a physically and morally damaged place.
SM: At the very start, did you take into account any reference? ¿Are there any photographers that have influenced you?
In the beginning (even before starting this project), I was influenced in a mimetic way by very different references. From the German expressionist cinema to Gerry Winogrand’s or William Klein’s street photography. Later, I fell in love with the photographs of Cristobal Hara, Eugene Richards or Bruce Davidson and his ‘East 100th Street’. I’ve noticed that I’m now more interested in humanist photographers.
I’ve studied Fellini’s work recently, and I think that I’ve been inspired by his movies as well. I like using costumes, paintings, posters and flags in the representation, because for me, this is a way to search thoroughly for matters related to memory, frustration, disappointment or appearance in my childhood unconscious. I find very interesting the barrier between representation (illusions) and reality (disappointment). I’m also very interested in Fellini’s vision of his characters’ inner voids or his expression of a deep crisis of values.
In the creative process is very important for me not only to take into account references and be fueled by them, but also to use my own intuition. Working without thinking allows me to connect with my own emotions and beliefs. I think it’s important to escape from the duality between rationalizing your work and letting yourself go without thinking. I find both ways very useful and necessary and I think we have to make use of them according to the moment. Accordingly, in my pictures I try not only to document, but to express emotions.
SM: You tend to photograph people who are in certain way, in a social exclusion situation. Are you conscious of this? Why and how do you choose each person?
I started to feel confortable while I was visiting some marginal areas, because I realized that in those places, I was able to go into the concepts I was interested in: identity, rootlessness, crisis, … and this way I could draw a map containing the essence of the inhabitants’ character.
But now, the more I take pictures, the more I realize about the fact that we also have in common with those people that essence, more than the way we think. In our society, the real crisis has to do with morality, not economics. There are no values, we don’t have a “what for”, a direction in our lives. This is social exclusion to me and it exists not only in the so called marginal areas.
I choose people in a very intuitive way, not reasoned. I think that I connect in a certain way with some people’s feelings, and I soon feel the need of capturing them. There are people who express something genuine, something that captivates me. And I must confess that nowadays, I find that authenticity in social and financially poor and rootless people; not so much in other people, in which I can only see appearance, selfishness and a big lack of personality. Even though I know that behind that mask we can find the same or even worse fears.
SM: I think that confidence is very important in this kind of projects. How do you get the complete trust from the people you photograph?
I work as a personal coach and it shows me how we need to developed active listening and empathy. Paying full attention to the person you’re talking to and walking on the other’s shoes are demanded strategies when you want people to trust you.
Inspiring confidence involves connecting with the emotional state of others, understanding and not being prejudiced against them. To achieve that, I make use of a very important thing: non-verbal communication; your physical expression when you meet someone determines the success of the subsequent relationship. There is no use in asking “Can I take a picture of you?” if you don’t express confidence and honesty in your non-verbal communication. When I talk to someone I try to set up a connection between equals. This attitude makes me possible to strike up conversations with very different people in greater depth.
Another thing I think we shouldn’t do is to project our own fears and restrictive beliefs onto others. We usually don’t think so, but in fact, people like being photographed. It’s just that we transfer our mental maps to the others.
This way, I get to know other realities and while I’m at it, I grow on a personal level.
SM: Do you have any relationship with these people?
Impatience is one of my faults. I connect in a very ephemeral way with people I want to photograph. A friend of mine tells me I can easily “get into someone’s kitchen” and get what I want in very little time. It’s probably true. I would like to connect with other people in greater depth though, just in order to express and communicate from those people’s inside.
Nevertheless, I must say that I’ve had an emotional bond with some of those people. I’ve photographed the illness of a child or the financial problems of a family. Sometimes, I’ve been emotionally affected by these people’s problems.
SM: In documentary photography, where close contact with people and their environment it’s involved, the photographer has to deal with different situations, he must be alert, be kind to people but also cautious. Is it easy for you to deal with these situations and the emotions that flow?
I guess you mean If I had any problem with someone on the street. I’ve never really had a serious problem, I’ve met quite reluctant people though.
You’re absolutely right, you have to combine gentleness and caution, and it’s not easy to find the balance. When I take photographs, I try to be respectful but I have to admit that if I see the picture I want, I cannot stand and wait for the other’s permission. I take stolen pictures many times, they don’t see me most of the times, and when they do there are several resources that work very well: a good smile, a reasonable explanation, or trying to mislead.
I hardly ever escape from this situations. If I see that someone glares at me, rather than turning around, I go and try to calm the situation, that gives me security and I usually get to win the other’s trust. Whether I take I picture of him or not, I can go on working without worries.
Each person is unique and I try to adapt my attitude to each of them. I worked as a door-to-door bookseller and street photography is quite similar to that …door-to-door cold calling… I think that in both cases you have play a role and know how to do it (with empathy) depending on the person you’re talking to.
SM: I notice a sense of fragility in some of your pictures, as if something was about to vanish. In others, instead, I feel loneliness. Do you think that your project talks about human being’s pain and despair?
I think that my pictures content pain and resentment, yes. It’s the result of broken dreams, unfulfilled expectations, ruined illusions. It may be a feeling of disappointment. However, I believe that there is also a sense of pride and dignity, which are the feelings I see and feel in people I meet on the street. People with personality but at the same time, fragile. I think I notice these feelings because I actually share them.
One of the things I’m enjoying in this project is to be able to break with my own prejudices. Talking to a gypsy in a shack or a junkie can be interesting experiences. Because I discover the person very quickly, and the humanity that comes from them. I find that we are not so different from the others. I don’t want to talk about junkies or gypsies in my work; I want to talk about people, about human beings who work hard to find a place. Who search for their own identity.
SM: Places and people are inside a harsh environment in your pictures, far from comfort. Do you think these people are somehow marked by this environment?
There is something that draws my attention. Many of the slums in our city have open spaces and sand. This sand reminds me of the open fields where I used to play as a child. Children used to play on the street the same way that they still do in these neighborhoods. This aspect moves me.
Many people live in small houses, and live with their neighbors; there is still a sense of community, of membership. I know districts where half of the inhabitants are relatives. This is very interesting to me because it connects me to my own memories of the neighborhood where I grew up, where we all knew each other.
If you look closely ar the pictures, the environment is not clear: markets and fairs, painted walls or posters can be in almost any neighborhood. Maybe I’m wrong because I’m very inside, but I can’t see a really harsh (physical) environment. In fact, some of the pictures are taken in Madrid’s downtown, even if they don’t seem to.
I have a map of the city in my home, in which I stick magnets in the places where I take pictures. I assure you there are few places of the capital that aren’t part of this work. Which leads me to think that those emotions and feelings I express may be more common to all than we think.
SM: When you finish this project, would you like to make a photobook?
I would love to. In fact, I’ve already made two tests as a model, just to see how pictures looked on a page. I’ve also made a slide show just to test.
I am very interested in photobooks. Moreover, I hardly conceive photography in any other medium, just because to me, photography consists of telling and expressing. With a book, you can create sequences, structures, silences, games and dialogues between pictures, rhythms and latencies, you can “play” with the reader’s emotions, you can jump and play with the medium. You cannot see that in exhibitions or slideshows, that’s another story.
I would love to be able to shape this. But so far, fortunately, I still have motivation to go deeper into this topic.
©Photographs by José Deconde.