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ALESSANDRA SANGUINETTI

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Alessandra Sanguinetti is a photographer and member of Magnum Photos. Born in New York and raised in Argentina, where she spent time on her parents’ farm, she studied at the International Centre of Photography in New York. In 1996, while driving in the countryside around Buenos Aires, Sanguinetti came across what would later become the subject of her first body of work On the Sixth Day (2005): the farm and animals of a woman called Juana. Sanguinetti spent the following years visiting the farm, assimilating herself into the lives of the its animals and listening to Juana’s musings on life and religion. There she met Juana’s granddaughters Belinda and Guillermina, subjects of some of Sanguinetti’s most celebrated works, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of Their Dreams (2010), and The Illusion of an Everlasting Summer (2020). A second edition of the long out-of-print On the Sixth Day was published last year by MACK. Sanguinetti spoke to TANK about animals as protagonists and photography as a way of respecting, honouring and taking responsibility.

Interview by Matilde ManicardiPortrait by Martin Weber

MATILDE MANICARDI According to Genesis, on the sixth day, God created both the animal species and humankind, ordering the latter to command the former. On The Sixth Day centres on the farm animals’ lives and deaths. The farm’s human inhabitants appear as side characters only insofar as they exercise the power to regulate the animals’ life cycle. I’m curious to know more about how you came to this title and its religious reference. 

ALESSANDRA SANGUINETTI The title came after I was done with the work. Usually, when I’m thinking about titles, I just start reading. I look at poetry books, I go to my bookshelf, I even look at my playlists. I try to imbue myself with all of that. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but at some point, I picked up the Bible, and I was like, “Of course”. It’s what “God” said, supposedly. The Bible is just one of the many stories that have too much uninvited influence on our lives, at least in the Western world. Many ideas that are in the Bible affect us every day and determine our way of relating to the natural world.

MM If I ask you for one memory of your days at your parents’ farm as a child, what’s the first image that comes to mind? 

AS There are so many images that come at once. One would be walking on my own, experiencing that feeling of complete freedom; being out all day on my own, close to the earth, turning beetles upside down, generally being on equal terms with every living thing around me. The other one would be watching the sheep when they are corralled. Once a week, my dad and his helpers would put the sheep in a corral, and pick one to kill and eat for the next week. I always remember looking through the fence and thinking what a huge moment it was for those sheep, and that nobody was noticing. 

MM You shot this project mainly from the animals’ heights. What did you learn by gazing at the world from an animal’s perspective? 

AS It was instinctive. Even when photographing a person, I want to see them eye to eye. Since I always had empathy for animals, even as a kid, I had to be at their height to imagine what it would look like through their eyes. I learned how vulnerable they are. When you kneel next to an animal, you realise how much power we have over them.

MM Is it a love story? A kind of love that is ever-present? 

AS Maybe. That’s a nice way to put it because the impulse to do On the Sixth Day came from a place of love, and I made it with love. To me, photography has always been a way of paying respect and honouring. I never think of it as exploitative or as a tool for something – it’s just the way I can pay respect, and with animals even more so because I felt there was a story that I haven’t seen told. 

MM Twenty years on, do you feel this project and the time spent at the farm shaped you as a photographer?

AS What shaped me as a photographer was probably my childhood – what I looked at, and what mattered to me. The photography comes later. On the Sixth Day will always hold a special place for me. It is my first body of work, and it’s also in the same space where I met Guillermina and Belinda. The projects overlap. 

 

It’s striking how rarely, in photographic bodies of work and art in general, animals appear as the main characters

 

MM In an interview with Rebecca Bengal on Magnum, you quote Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1962 novel, The Slave: “He silently blamed the Creator for forcing one creature to annihilate another.” The Argentinian Pampas are known for their meat-heavy culinary tradition. Moreover, they are territories where the Christian church is rooted and widespread. Do you think that, in some ways, this context could have aroused your interest in looking at the animals as sacrificial beings and the predatory power humans exercise on them? 

AS A sacrifice involves a ritual. It’s a big deal. I wouldn’t associate it with the way we use animals now because we don’t acknowledge their power or importance. We treat them more as a product. That said, the images of On the Sixth Day are made on small farms by people who are killing the animals to eat them, so I don’t mean it as a judgment. If I wanted to judge meat eating, I would photograph factory farms here in the US, which would be a whole other project. On the Sixth Day is more of an acknowledgement. The people in the book have power over animals, but I don’t know how much power they have over their own lives or the choices they can make. It’s not about good and evil, it’s about that constant struggle. Even animals are attacking each other in the book. So that’s why that quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer rang true to me. The project is not just about pointing fingers, it’s an exploration of how strange life is, and how it was set up to love and destroy other creatures. In one image from On the Sixth Day, a woman is standing with her arms extended; that’s Juana, Guillermina and Belinda’s grandmother. She grew up on the land and had to deal with animals since she was a little kid. She would speak of the animals as if they were her children and would feel sorry for them when she had to either kill them or see them die. So it was about a more nuanced relationship with animals and their slaughter than I’m used to as a city person. Before I started taking the pictures and talking to Juana, I was more judgmental, but as I delved into the project I realised it was much more nuanced than that.

MM What conversation do you remember having with Juana?

AS It wasn’t a conversation, but it stuck with me: Juana and I were outside and there was a lot of wind, so all the feathers of her chickens, roosters and geese were blowing around. She exclaimed, “Look out, it’s snowing!” I wish I had taken a photo of all those feathers in the wind… Another time, Juana was sitting at the kitchen table looking out the door at the animals coming into the kitchen, and she interrupted the conversation to say, “Oh, look, poor thing,” referring to a little chicken with a swollen leg. It’s just small comments that reflected so much empathy for all the creatures she was in charge of. And then there’s one moment, with one of Juana’s daughters, that really stuck in my mind, though that photograph didn’t end up in the book. She had just slaughtered a sheep by slitting its throat. I was there photographing the sheep while it was dying, gasping for air, and Guille’s mom looked at me and said, “Oh Ale, really? It’s dying, and you’re taking pictures of it, poor thing.” If you think about it, she had just killed it, but I was the insensitive one taking pictures of it. I found that super interesting regarding the power in photography, or how it’s perceived – as if I was taking something from the sheep when she had just taken its life. I felt I was honouring the sheep. She was feeling bad for it, in some way. That small interaction was very meaningful to me. 

MM You have 50 hours of videos filmed at the farm. Do you have any plans for this footage that you can share with us? 

AS I’m in the process of editing to make a feature-length film on Guille and Belinda. I have a filmmaker from Argentina who is producing it for me. We’re working on a second cut. Hopefully, it will be ready in a year. I’m enjoying the process, and there’s a lot of discovery in it because, as I’m making it, life is changing too. When I visit Guille and Beli, their life is already changing, so I have to catch up. I feel like it could go on forever. But it needs to have a limit for my own sanity, too.

MM Before this second edition of On the Sixth Day, you recently released another project, the book Some Say Ice. It seems to me that an observation of death and, more broadly, a reflection on mortality is a central common element within the two. 

AS On some level, for sure. Another thing On the Sixth Day and Some Say Ice might share is the idea of animals as intrinsic to the human experience. It’s striking how rarely, in photographic bodies of work and art in general, animals appear as the main characters or as just themselves in relation to us, especially when considering how much animals are part of our lives in every single way. Practically everything we put on our faces has been tested on animals. We use them for work, transport, entertainment, science, companionship, therapy, food, decoration, and I’m probably missing a million things. John Berger speaks of our relationship to animals as symbolic companionship. 

MM The letter you added at the end of the book is an ode to solidarity and interconnectedness between animal and plant species. Translated into English, it reads, “Plants suffer too / When they are cut”, and, “We must learn to show solidarity / With all the things that surround them / Even if it’s a little bird / We must take care of it with / Love I think so / That’s how I do it / Whenever I / I do the best I can / Fighting with courage always.” Do you want to share any thoughts on that? 

AS That’s Juana’s writing. She had only finished fourth grade, but she kept diaries where she wrote very eloquently about everything that happened during her day. She would start each diary entry with the way the day felt, for example, “Today is a cool, breezy day,” or “Today is a grey, sad day.” She would describe the weather and the mood before starting. A lot of the diary was about what was happening with the animals. That note, in particular, wasn’t part of her diary; many years ago, I asked her if she could write something for me, and she wrote that. I thought it evoked how she felt about life and how I also feel about it – that everything matters. ◉