Miguel Aragón Interview: “Seeing and Feeling the Disappearance of a Human Being”

Miguel Aragón

You have to imagine these images as they were meant to be viewed. Large prints filling a room, sometimes side by side, oftentimes as large as a wall, all meant to encapsulate the violence behind them. They were created by printmaker Miguel Aragón who was born in Juárez, Mexico and are based on the killings that the city has become known for here in the US.

His work looks to those bloody scenes of decapitations, assault, and gunshot. They are brutal if you realize the gore and color is hidden by Aragón.  And they are devastating when contextualized, but from the drilling, laser cutting, and blurring, these prints emerge as testaments to how powerful art can affect and hopefully positively inform one’s perspective of our world.

Miguel Aragón’s work has been shown at galleries across the country including the International Print Center in New York as well as curated internationally. His most recent exhibition will last until July 17th at the 23rd Parkside National Small Print Exhibition. In the fall, his work will be featured at the Los Angeles Printmaking Society’s 21st National Exhibition.

In this interview, Aragón explains his process of reinterpreting and transforming an image, his aim with incorporating violence onto print, and why perseverance is crucial for any artist.

printmaker Miguel Aragón

How did you get your start in printmaking and how would you describe your approach to incorporating photography into your work?

I started exploring printmaking during my undergraduate studies; I had no idea what it was and decided to take a class. After taking that intro class I knew there was no going back, I changed majors and have been pushing the medium ever since. Photography was immediately thrown into the mix for my exploration of image making; manipulating photographs either digitally or through analog processes is one of the many ways I begin the exploration of a subject. I enjoy the transformation and readability (or its lack of) that a photograph goes through after its being reinterpreted by any of the printmaking techniques.

It is this reinterpretation and transformation of an image that I most look for in my studio practice. I cannot begin from nothing. I appropriate ideas and images and mold them into something else I can call my own; this is how I function. In this time and age it is really difficult to truly create something “new” or “out of nothing.” We are always influenced by our surroundings, visually, intellectually and otherwise; we then adapt and manipulate all these outside influences to create our personality, identity, etc.

start in printmaking

You are from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and, in your series “Fractured Memories, Assembled Trauma”, you deal directly with the violence hurting that city. But most important for this blog, you confront the photojournalist’s coverage of the violence by using their photographs of slain victims as the basis of your print. Could you explain your aim with that project?

What struck me from these photographs was not crudeness and rawness of the subject, but rather the multiplicity and repetition of the events at hand. In Mexico, it is within our culture to see these kind of images; we do not find them as morbid as other cultures might. We have always been exposed to these types of images; therefore, I was not surprised to see that journalists were using them to disperse the news; if anything I think it was expected to have them next to the articles.

I began collecting some of these photographs and articles since the late 90’s, (at this point rivalry between drug cartels had started due to the death of a then Juarez drug lord); I remember saving the newspapers and eventually digitally scanning the photographs and keeping them on a hard drive. After the government declared an official war on drugs in Mexico in 2006, the events only escalated and the photographs started to become gorier and more easily available (since they were being published by the media, both in printed and on-line form).

digitally scanning

This made me more aware of the desensitization Juarez’s citizens had gone through by experiencing these events first hand and with longer exposure to them when compared to the rest of the country. Also, by following the news I realized that the casualties eventually became numbers, rather than fallen human beings; I could not ignore this and that’s how this series came to be. I felt everyone, from citizens to journalists, removed any emotion attached to these events as a coping mechanism. We had to continue with our lives in this environment, and if they didn’t affect you directly you would remove yourself emotionally; that was the only way you could function in the city. I have nothing but deep respect for all the journalists that are putting their life at risk by covering these events, and by using their own images I am trying to contribute to the conversation. I knew then, that by repurposing these images I could attempt to bring back a deeper meaning to the casualties and the events themselves; I felt their impact had been lost by their continued repetition.

Many of the photographs are almost identical in how they capture the crime scenes; this is not because the photojournalists are following a format when taking pictures, but rather because the circumstances of the events are very similar. This is why I knew I couldn’t just use them in their original form, I had to alter them and bring a different kind of rawness and crudeness otherwise most people would try to avoid seeing them again; but I feel its necessary to do so. I am only presenting them in a different format, hoping that this time they will have a greater impact and help bring more awareness of what the country and its citizens are facing. I see the current cultural memory in México as sites of disaster, and as ways to understand the persistence of the state of terror in people’s lives, bodies, and subjectivities. I am trying to indicate to the viewer the moment of transformation from image to human, both seeing and feeling the disappearance of a human being into the sphere of the purely visual.

desensitization Juarez’s citizens

The prints for “Fractured Memories, Assembled Trauma” are from close-up photographs of mangled and bloodied faces. Could you explain why you decided on the close-up?

I began exploring this subject matter with a previous body of work where the photographs were manipulated to a point of distortion through another process. In that series I was exploring the idea of trauma, recollection and fragmentation of memories, what it meant to see and live with those kinds of images in your head. But then, I felt a need to humanize these people, to reflect on the loss and transformation that the country is going through. We cannot see these events just as facts and statistics; we need to remember that they are human beings leaving the world in a very violent way, which is why I concentrated on close-ups, to make the events more personal, more relatable. I realized that the viewers had to be confronted with the image of a corpse to understand and reflect on their own mortality. I did not wanted to shock or disgust the viewer by using a gory approach though; I had to slow the readability of what these portraits represent, and so I cropped them and striped all of the color to achieve this, knowing full well that the particular process I was using to create the pieces would encapsulate and represent the violence these images come from.

Fractured Memorie

Your prints in this series function like manipulated and distorted photographs, impacted by your drilling, laser cutting and blurring. What do you think fine art photographers could learn from your process?

I think the way I approach the medium; this might be because I’m more of an outsider in the photography world, but I do not approach it in a traditional or conservative way. I see it as a means to an end; I have to navigate my ideas through different mediums so that it can be effective in transmitting the message. Every medium has its limitations and by being too traditional or conservative in how we approach any subject we might be limiting the possibilities. This is how I attempt to approach any medium. All of them are tools, and I think most times we get carried away and get seduced by their history that we don’t want to mess them up, ending up with conservative results. I was lucky enough that my first mentors always pushed me to experiment, to never leave anything out of the equation, and so I learned to combine anything and everything until I get the results that I am looking for.

distorted photographs

For any aspiring artist out there, what would you say are the most important lessons you have learned in your career?

Keeping an open mind, hard work and perseverance. There will always be obstacles along the road and knowing how to maneuver around them is what has helped me so far. Things never work out the way they should, or the way you want and expect them to. In every single series I’ve done I had to modify and adapt my work, most times this results in success, other times I am not so lucky. Having an open mind has allowed me to not be discouraged by such failures, there is always something new to learn, especially from failures, and when working through the unexpected I’ve achieved better results.

perseverance

Would you recommend going to an university to other printmakers/photographers? Why or why not?

I think everyone has their own path to follow, for some of us it’s through an MFA program, for others it’s not. I have friends who did not enroll in a master’s degree program and they are doing very well in the Art/Photography world. I do think that going through an undergraduate degree is helpful to anyone, you learn all the basics, provides you with a network of people to interact and improve your skills, and if anything else it provides the necessary credentials to continue pursuing your dream. My suggestion is to look inside you and figure out where you want to be next, never let anything stop you.

university to other printmakers

Have you taken your own photographs and incorporated them into your printmaking? If so, how would you describe your process for photographing as the basis for a print?

I have taken my own photographs for some of my projects, not for these ones we are discussing in particular, but for other pieces I’ve done in the past. Photography allows me to capture a basic composition that I know will evolve into something else; thus, my main concerns when taking pictures is very simple, I think on composition, colors and textures in a very crude and basic way. More skilled photographers would be able to capture the essence of the moment, and create a better photographs, I on the other hand am not interested in this, the photograph is not going to be the final product, to me it is but the beginning of a process to create an image. From there I move to manipulate such photographs through digital and analog processes which then create an output that will continue to morph until I am satisfied with the resulting image.

manipulate such photographs

I’m a Latino from El Paso, Texas, and I’m certain that there are plenty of aspiring Latino photojournalists and printmakers struggling to make their mark. What would you say to any artist out there who thinks that it would be too difficult to get their work noticed?

Perseverance is key; that is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and you must persevere in two different aspects:

1. – You must always continue to make work, no matter what, even if it’s not successful, you have to apply a strong work ethic and move past any obstacles; this is how you grow as an artist.

2. – You cannot wait for opportunities to simply fall on your lap; you must go out and meet people, promote yourself and your work, apply to anything you can. If you want to succeed you have to network as much as you can, it’s not the easiest job for some, but it is essential in conjunction to perfecting your craft. This is sometimes the most discouraging aspect of being an artist/photographer for some, and that is why it is so important to persevere in this too; once you create a network everything starts to fall into place and the opportunities multiply paving the way for a smoother ride.

(Here’s a link to Miguel’s website.)