Mariela Sancari Interview: Portraits of a Young Woman’s Dead Father

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The advertisement was short: I’m searching, it began in Spanish, for men between sixty-eight and seventy-two years old. On a corner was a portrait of man with closed-cropped hair and a warm smile. With clear eyes, it went on, who look like the man in the photo. At the bottom was a phone number.

The number belonged to Mariela Sancari, a photographer based in Mexico. Sancari posted the advertisement to begin a series of portraits about her father, Moisés Sancari, who killed himself in 1980. She sought to photograph men who might resemble her father had he lived to this day. The resulting portraits are collected in a critically acclaimed photo book Moisés, published in 2015.

I reached out to Sancari to learn more about Moisés and her work. We spoke briefly over email.

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You’ve been in Mexico City since 1997. Would you consider yourself a Mexican photographer? Time Lightbox included you in a list of Mexico photographers that they thought should be followed on social media.

By now, I have spent the same time in Argentina as in Mexico. I studied in Centro de la Imagen, in Mexico, and my whole professional practice has taken place here, so I guess one could say I am a Mexican photographer.

What are your thoughts on Mexican photography? How would you describe this tradition, or branch, of photography?

I think Mexico has an important and powerful photography tradition that also shows in the work of the younger generation. There are many photographers working in interesting projects with a strong identity in terms of aesthetics and discourse.

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How did you get your start in photography? Have you ever doubted your talents?

Of course I did! I started as a photojournalist, working for as a staff photographer for a big newspaper here, Reforma. I worked there for 5 years until I decided to quit once I was admitted at the Photography Program of Centro de la Imagen. Since then, I have tried to focus solely on personal projects.

Do you think a photographer’s style is untranslatable? What are the elements of your style? Does your style reveal anything about you personally?

I don’t consider there is a style in my work but it does reveal many things about me personally, I believe.

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After spending time with Moisés, I wanted to talk to you about the secular and the mystical in photography. Do you see any relationship between the three? I see a triangular relationship, with photography caught between truth-telling and myth-making. What do you think?

That is very interesting. I am interested in thinking about photography’s impact and to question its relationship with truth, to what it represents and to the viewer.

Have you ever been frightened or surprised by a photograph that you don’t remember making? Do you ever find yourself wondering about photography’s strangeness?

I have been surprised at my own images, specially when I see then after some time of having taken them. I wouldn’t consider this as photography’s strangeness as much as photography’s relation with memory and the way both work.

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Moisés is unsentimental. The portraits are about the men and their own loneliness as much as it is about your father’s absence. It confronts reality squarely in the face. Did you start out from the beginning trying to avoid any sentimentality? What do you think compelled the men to reach out to you?

I did tried to avoid sentimentally from the beginning, that is why I decided to work with a typological format to depict this unfamiliar, forensic approach I have with the subjects I photographed.

Did this project help you better see your father’s story? Were there any epiphanies?

It did helped me see some aspects of his story better. I learnt a lot from it in ways I did not expect. I like that very much: an artist sets him or herself up to a task to create/communicate something and then, in the best of cases, the outcome turns out to be much more than hoped. At least, that was my experience doing Moisés.

See more of Sancari’s work here.

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