An Interview with Toni Amengual
Shooting to kill
Toni Amengual works as photographer, although he hasn’t considered himself one until very recently; before that he made up different professions for people to left him shoot in peace. He doesn’t see himself as an artist or as a documentalist, but rather like an illustrator who does, literally, what he wants. He’s just published Devotos in collaboration with Estudio Atlas. His book has no credit page and, although his hasn’t sold out the first print-run yet, it can be considered a worthy historical document of the possible end of bipartisan hegemony in Spain.
You say you do whatever you want, but you’ve also been assigned some jobs…
I worked for a magazine in which I published the series Blanc and Esforç in 2009. I’ve also worked for the Cortona On the Move-Photography in travel festival in The Flâneur Project, which compiles photographic series of portraits of Italian cities. I wanted to choose Palermo, but it looked too much like the Majorca of the seventies and was perhaps too easy a target, so I opted for Rome instead because I thought it would be a good terrain, something that the curator of the project, Arianna Ribaldo, saw as well. The result is Icona, which includes photographs of tourists taking photographs with their selfie sticks and sculptures from the Saint Peter Basilica. The final presentation structure was a cross-shaped panel because the festival exhibited them in rear-illuminated cubes. It’s neither a critique to religion nor to religious tourism, but just a document, a fact.
And you, what do you think about self-portraits?
Robert Frank used to say that he kept on looking out to the world to try and understand a bit of what happened in the inner world, I see it that way too. All my images are self-portraits, photographs that connect me with myself. Wim Wenders says that the camera is a device shooting at two directions, outwards and inwards. And the “shooting” is, in some cases, literal, like in Blanc, where I photographed a shooting range. Shooters do the same as me, with a little big difference: I shoot so the thing exists and they, by shooting, make the thing disappear. But still, the series ends with a photograph of the plastic foam behind the target; the image has its own beauty, as if behind each act of destruction, even in such banal act and object, there could be some sort of creation.
What characterises you as a photographer?
Maybe an ability to see the sadness in the world. At the beginning I wanted to be like National Geographic, but I got bored very soon. On a scene from the film Balada triste de trompeta, one of the clowns says that he’s a clown because if not he’d be a psycho killer. I’m a bit like that, if I wasn’t a photographer, I might be a psycho killer, or at least someone frustrated and with a shitty life.
There are, in your initial period as a photographer, certain projects that portray that sadness very well, like Die Welt is Schön or Necrofilia.
Die Welt is Schön captures the remains from a fire that took place in the summer of 2013 in the area of Majorca where I was born and which burnt down 2,335 hectares of forest. The title is taken from a photobook from the thirties by Albert Renger-Patzsch in which he compared factories and nature to equal the creating power of men with that of God. I highlight his capacity to destroy and the fact that even destruction has something beautiful. As for Necrofilia, it’s a series of photographs I took in the zoo of Barcelona when I moved to the city after leaving a much easier and comfortable Majorca. Barcelona seemed to me an aggressive city and, even if you have all your main necessities, like food, safety and reproduction needs covered, like animals in the zoo, sometimes you’re missing the essential: freedom, a sense of community. The title comes from the idea of “necrophilia” by Erich Fromm that indicates that there are people who are dead in life, that society makes us live, sometimes, in an automated way.
Your obsession with the tension between the mystery of existence and social conventions, among them religious ones, can be seen already from your project Fe.
Fe [Faith] is an unfinished project, they’re photographs of Jerusalem that capture images of believers of the three monotheistic religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It’s my first work in which there is a qualitative change. This idea guided me at a visual level, and in the photographs themselves I discovered details that made me want to take other photographs and include contradictory images like the one showing young girls doing their military service. I’ve photographed many Holy Weeks as well, for example in Sicily in 2003 in a village in which the procession takes 24 hours; also in Majorca or Seville. In Algo en lo que creer I was in several Holy Week bullas in Seville, that’s the way they call the obstruction that takes place in the streets due to the huge amount of people joining in the processions. There I noticed that everybody wore a medallion and that each included specific symbols that gave information about their hierarchy and about the different brotherhoods… That’s why I decided to focus, above all, in these elements and use a frame that destroyed the whole image. The last one shows a woman with a tiger-shaped medallion covered with precious stones that make the rest of the images have a different reading, it’s a kind of critique of ostentatious religiousness. My inspiration was the series God, Inc. by Carl de Keyzer, in which he portrayed the relationship between Christian religion and enterprises.
In Joyas Mallorquinas you continue with symbols, but this time to do with tourism.
It’s a portrait inspired by Magaluf, a place ten minutes away from my hometown. A friend of mine, Javier Izquierdo, photographed the city, known by its drunken tourism, and I wanted to give my own version of this tourist model that needed to change, especially because of the territorial proximity. I tried, but I couldn’t, it’s a place that stinks of vomit everywhere. Then, right there, I discovered a souvenir in the shape of a penis, decorated with delicate ornaments and I started capturing these impossible souvenirs probably made by a Chinese writing Majorca on one penis and then the name of another city on the following one.
You have several projects on the symbols of a patriotic (Patriotas), monarchical (Figuras) and dictatorial Soain that began with a portrait of the Valle de los Caídos (La sombra del Valle). Why are you interested in all these symbols?
My idea is that it’s all fiction and people even die for these fictional ideals, but they’re ideas that someone has thoroughly thought about. They’re necessary to live in a society, but there is no middle ground, a lot of people don’t take these ideas with the relativism they should.
What does Spain represent for you?
A very good question, but I don’t have an answer for it!
The Spain you portray could be linked to the one described by Goya, Valle-Inclán, Zurbarán or Buñuel, but what are your references?
There’s God and then there’s Martin Parr (he laughs). In fact, in the beginning I didn’t understand his photographs because I received a very conventional photographic education. I had to un-learn all I was taught in order to get them. In the nineties he portrayed Majorca. One of his photographs was a postcard in which Majorca cost (well, the postcard, but that was the pun) twenty-five pesetas. I like his versatility, his production capacity and his ability to destroy photography from within, and also his power to highlight the fictional character of anything civilised. I’m also interested in the work of Gilden Bruce, a friend of Parr, for his used of a displaced flash and his punk nature. And, of course, in Diane Arbus for her proximity to people, her capacity to almost sneak into their living rooms. As she said herself, the camera is a passport to places you would otherwise never have access to. Also Garry Winograd, who died with 3,000 undeveloped rolls of film. For Pain it was decisive the Provoke movement, which portrayed the crisis in Japan by highlighting technical imperfections and grain in order to show a world that was kicking out its citizens, a world that needed to be understood not with the eyes but with the sense of touch.
Why did you present Pain in book format and why do you continue doing photobooks?
Martin Parr and other authors created and normalised a market for photobooks, it’s a very good way to enter the photographic circle. Besides, the book allows for a sequential format, which is what I do; also because it’s long lasting: a potentially live being carrying a lot of information with a high expressive potential.
In both your books you have worked with Estudio Atlas (Astrid Stavro and Pablo Martín), what was the process like?
With Pain I sent them a dossier with several references before the summer of 2014; at the end of that year they presented their proposal and we hadn’t even talked about money. They decided to make an object-book that works conceptually and asks for the reader’s intervention to see the photographs. It was tailor-made for me. With Devotos I proposed some ideas and they acted as my mentors. Horacio Fernández, one of the main experts in photobooks, presented the book in Madrid. He said that the format used for Devotos (centrefold, accordion) was a “leporello” because Leporello was the assistant of Don Juan that noted down all of Don Juan’s love conquests in a list that he read to his master from time to time. We made a Leporello without knowing it!
What’s new in Devotos that wasn’t already in Pain?
It’s a more mature book and for that reason more difficult to sell. I decided to move on from Pain‘s 500 copies, which sold-out very quickly, to 965 copies, of which I’ve sold about a quarter. With Pain I sold a design product with photographs inside and, on the contrary, in Devotos I’m selling myself, and that might be more difficult. In Pain, besides, I used my mobile to be able to hide and I used it in a very intuitive way. In Devotos I use a digital camera and I don’t hide anymore.
You continue self-publishing your books, as you did with Pain, why?
I want to be Steve Jobs. No, I’m kidding, I saw the film yesterday. The truth is I don’t like having to wait or make creative concessions. There’s Darwinism, which explains evolution through a biological test and error process, and also Lamarckism, in whose evolutionist explanation he takes as a starting point that the function is created by the organ. I’m more of a Lamarckist, I assume a challenge and then I create anything necessary to accomplish it.
In both books you use the powerfulness of the human face and of displaced light, why?
Faces say a lot about a person, we have several decisions (haircuts, look) written on it, like marks, traces of expressions and of vital episodes. In the end it’s something very primitive, we look and decipher faces as a means to survive. There is something terribly beautiful in the human face, I mean terrifying. There’s an authenticity to the theatricality of faces, the opposite from modelled bodies or supposedly beautiful faces according to the established canon. I want to talk about social constructs, and to talk about them it’s necessary to photograph people, because people are the victims of these constructs. In order to kill a person or an idea you need to objectify it, I don’t see the person anymore, but a series of characters that serve a purpose. As for the use of displaced flash, it began as an experiment, but it ended up making a lot of sense, both aesthetically and expressively. It’s like the episode of Kassel no invita a la lógica in which Vila-Matas talks with Chus Martínez and she tells him that he has an ability to talk seriously and joke at the same time and that he should better take things seriously. You start playing around and end up learning, using it consciously. I also shoot with flash because I’m bad at composing, so in that way the background is all black and I don’t need to bother. Besides, it highlights the theatricality of the human comedy.
How did this series about the “devout” start?
It all began in 2011, in Majorca, when in the midst of the crisis there were demonstrations and concentrations in squares follow the 15M movement. In the following elections I was sure that both PP and PSOE would disappear. Things have changed, and we’ve seen this on the 2015 elections, but less than I thought. The book was published right before the elections, it was the designers’ idea to include a voting ballot, they wanted to write the credits there as a joke; but finally I decided that the ballot should include the names of the politicians that have become famous for their role in the “puertas giratorias” policies by favouring their interests between their political positions and their positions in big companies (electricity companies, telecommunication companies, banks). For Devotos I photographed several PP and PSOE meetings, both for the general and the autonomic elections, I thought the end of the bipartisan hegemony was near; many of the affiliates and adepts were there as an act of faith, of illusion. Ballot people have lived and live thanks to other people’s illusions. The book has a structure that presents voters as both sides of the same coin. At the beginning I wanted to cover people’s faces so nobody would know whom they’d vote, but when you individualise, you humanise too, so I left them in their original context, with their original party banners.
You have photographed neither Podemos nor Ciudadanos…
No, nor the Diada. I guess my decisions have to do with my ideology. Besides, Podemos and Ciudadanos still don’t belong in our social collective imagery. Politics generate similar devouts, but the pain makes us all brothers and before pain we can react by compromising or with cynicism and relativism. I’d like to be more of a relativist, but for the moment, I can’t, so I just take pictures.