— Jericho Brown
A FEW MONTHS AGO, when the state of California issued a mandatory lockdown, many of our projects had to be put on hold or left entirely in limbo. My chosen mode of survival was the same one I have used ever since I can remember: reading. I began to read about topics that interest me, from indigenous writing in the Americas to essays on the US-Mexico border and the Jewish experience in Latin America. I also perused numerous books of photography, including the catalog of a 2007 exhibition of André Kertész’s snapshots, The Polaroids.
Emotionally drained and physically exhausted after the 1977 death of his wife Elizabeth, Kertész became withdrawn and isolated himself in his New York City apartment. Out of this period of silence and introspection would come something new and original. Kertész embraced a relatively novel technology: the Polaroid SX-70 Instant Camera, which afforded him the ability to photograph freely, without having to leave his apartment to deal with film development and printing. He took snapshots of various objects around his house, most of them positioned on his windowsill in the early morning and late afternoon, thus creating an entirely new body of work.
The window of Kertész’s apartment struck me as a very appropriate metaphor for the times we are living through today — a certain way of seeing, and an opportunity to connect with the outside world. I missed connecting with my own subjects during the thrill of a photo shoot.
I had heard of other photographers making remote portraits, but when I tried it, the results were rather underwhelming. It was not until I tried playing with various backgrounds, from wood to different kinds of plastic and cardboard, that I realized this could be something fun and different. It took me some time to accept the lo-fi quality of the photos, but friends and colleagues pushed me on, and soon I was making portraits of writers all over the world.
Because this project is both visual and textual, I ask the writers I photograph to share with me what they have been going through. What does it feel like to navigate different stages of isolation and confinement, whether mandatory or self-imposed? Sometimes, we discuss these issues face to face, at other times via text message or email. Almost all of the writers I have photographed have sent me texts with their impressions: short vignettes, poems, micro stories, testimonials, and so on.
Writing from France, for instance, Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon told me that, during the entire two-month lockdown in Paris, he was almost exclusively a father:
I felt as if I was no longer a writer. Writing didn’t matter anymore, or it didn’t matter much, or it mattered less than making sure that my three-year-old son saw his new reality as if it were some kind of adventure. But once the lockdown ended, and I got accustomed to the sense of living in a brand-new world, my writing slowly returned. And I realized that writing, for a writer, will always return. Until it doesn’t.
For Giovanna Rivero, a Bolivian writer living in Florida, the interruption of life as we knew it, brought on by the pandemic, has moved her to a more fragile place from which to write.
Just like the photographs I have been making, everyone feels a bit out of focus, and fragmented. We are living a pixelated reality that lacks clarity and sharpness, where things seem out of place and out of time. As she looks onto a 15th-century cathedral in the hills of rural France, Ariana Harwicz tells me how confinement and the relentless emphasis on death take her to a different period or era. What century do we live in?
This pandemic has created a level of uncertainty we were not accustomed to. Our expectations and goals have all been brought into question. It is this ambiguity that makes Chilean writer Andrea Jeftanovic think of the pandemic photographically, as if she were in a kind of darkroom, waiting for something to be revealed.
I initially started photographing Latin American writers in different corners of the world in places like Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Havana, Chiapas (Mexico), Paris, Berlin, La Guajira (Colombia), Caracas, and Madrid. Lately, I have decided to make this a more truly global project, and have begun making portraits of writers who are also from the United States, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
After making dozens of portraits over the course of the last few months, I have been impressed by everyone’s ability to adapt to this so-called “new normal,” all around the world. As I write this, more restrictions and lockdowns are being imposed in countries like Ireland, Spain, France, and Italy, leaving us to wonder when our own isolation and confinement will end. In the meantime, in spite of all our limitations, these digital connections have given me the opportunity to continue creating, to build bridges that bring together old and new friends alike.
Alejandro Meter is a professor of Latin American literature at the University of San Diego and a freelance photographer whose portraits have appeared in both print and digital media in the United States, Latin America, and Europe.