Alessandra Sanguinetti


Alessandra Sanguinetti, The Black Cloud, 2001.


Alessandra Sanguinetti was born in New York in 1969 and lived in Argentina from 1970 to 2003.  Light Work first published her photographic series, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams, in 2003 to much acclaim. Nazreali Press published an expanded version of that series in 2010.  Like a sympathetic but bemused outsider, Sanguinetti’s images balance between intimacy and distance, humor and darkness. Her photographs have been shown internationally and are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, ICP, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She is a member of Magnum Photos and is represented by Yossi Milo Gallery in New York and Galeria Ruth Benzacar in Buenos Aires. She currently lives in San Francisco.

This interview was conducted via Skype between Buenos Aires and Baltimore on June 30, 2015.


MAD: Was there a photographer whose work interested you before you became a photographer yourself?

AS: I started taking pictures deliberately when I was a kid; I was about 9 years old. My mom’s coffee table books included Chim’s (David Seymour) photographs, Dorothea Lange, Lartigue, and most particularly Wisconsin Death Trip.

MAD: What an amazing collection of images to be introduced to.

AS: Yes, although she herself had nothing to do with photography, for some reason she had these books around the house and when I stumbled upon them they intrigued me. It was Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, which made me want to make photographs non-stop. All these books influenced me in the way imprinting does with baby geese and ducks, which follow whatever they see first when they come out of the egg. Those images in one way or another have informed all my work.

With Wisconsin Death Trip, I remember panicking at a picture of a little girl in a coffin and the image of an ancient woman with so many wrinkles it looked like she was going to die yesterday. It dawned on me that I would someday die as well and that I wouldn’t know these people existed had it not been for these pictures. I ended up getting a camera and began photographing everything I cared about.

I had a little square format camera, I think it was an Instamatic, and I would turn the camera slightly so that I could frame everything in a diamond: my best friend, my violin, my mother, I would try to set everything up like they were framed in jewels.

MAD: Were you living in New York then?

AS: No, we were here living in Argentina. My mother is American, and my dad is Argentine. My family moved here (to Buenos Aires) when I was two years old and I lived here until I was thirty. When I was a teenager in the 1980s I took some photo classes, learned to expose, to develop film, print, and went through phases of imitating Robert Desnos, Sebastião Salgado, Cartier-Bresson, Frank, among others. The idea of being an artist or having my own original voice was nonexistent. With my friend Maria we would compete to see who took a better Salgado looking picture. This turned out to be a perfect unintended education. I was free of any pressure, of any artistic pretensions, and just played and learned the craft. Later on, once I did have something to say, I was ready, so to speak.

MAD: What was your first serious photographic project?

AS: Back in 1992, a series of large scale portraits of kids was the first time I set out to hone in on one subject and explore what would unfold from it.



Alessandra Sanguinetti, The Madonna, 2001.


MAD: The first time I saw your work was about ten years ago in Light Work’s publication Contact Sheet, it was your series of photographs of two Argentinian cousins dressing up and playing out various scenarios. I think the project was titled The Adventures of Guille and Belinda.  Did you do a residency at Light Work?

AS: Yes, the residency at Light Work was a turning point. The whole thing was completely serendipitous. A late night, Googling grants all over the world, I stumbled across the Light Work grant and residency; I had no references about it, for I was not in the US photo world at all, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed at the right time. After the catalog other work was published, it opened many doors

MAD: On your website you write about that project by describing your own adventures as a lonely girl exploring your father’s farm in the summers growing up.  The writing is very precise and vivid and I am curious if before you turned to photography, you considered poetry or prose as a way of excavating those memories?

AS:  Funny that you ask that. In high school I loved to write short essays, and read poetry. Poetry is very important to me; it’s huge, although I would never dare to write it myself.



Alessandra Sanguinetti, The Couple, 1999.


MAD: The images of Guille and Belinda are at once straightforward and mysterious, naïve and sophisticated somehow.  Could you describe the process of working with them? How much of it is collaborative?

AS: It was absolutely collaborative. Without their involvement it would not have worked; I don’t have such good ideas (Laughter). I was just fascinated by them. I knew them since they were five years old – they would be hanging out much of the time while I was working on The Sixth Day at their grandmother’s place. Most of the images were arrived at through a process of improvisation. I’d suggest a game, a plot, a starting point (their imagined key moments in their future lives, falling in love, getting married, having children, dancing, dying.) and they’d take it from there and make it their own and act out these scenes for my video camera. I would film and photograph them simultaneously. But I never thought about it in terms of collaboration, improvisation or any intentionally elaborate process. It evolved organically while we were together.

MAD: The second book of your work with the cousins comes out relatively soon right?

AS: I hope so. I am covering a period from their teenage years until their mid twenties when they both have kids.

MAD: Why did you return to those girls?

AS: I never left them. It’ll be a work in progress until the end of our lives.



Alessandra Sanguinetti, Belli at Nine Months, 2007.


MAD: Looking at some of the images that will be in the second book, I was reminded of Michael Apted’s Up Series of films, 7-Up, 14-Up, 21-Up etc., in which he has documented the lives of a group of kids in England, revisiting them every seven years, since the mid 1960s. I think he is up to 56 now. It is a study the class system in Britain as much as it is about individual histories.  In your first photos of Guille and Belinda we see them between the ages of nine and fourteen. In the new pictures we see them as grown up women, and while there is still a lot of mystery and grace to the images, we also see the material realities in which they live. Were issues of class important for you in documenting Belinda and Guille lives?

AS:  I never set out to represent their lives in a traditional documentary sense, but rather it was a game we were playing where everything was allowed, and we played out their world and mine. When they were kids they did not care about the dirt floors in their houses. That’s not what mattered. They had good, caring families and when you are a kid that is all that matters: if you have food on your table, basic necessities covered and are loved; everything else is magic and discovery. But as they got older and as I got older, that changes. There is a level of disappointment that seeps in and the girls begin to pay attention to the material things that are around them. Not in a big way, but it’s there.

When Guille was younger her weight did not bother her at all. When people made fun of her it was done affectionately because a chubby kid is cute. But an overweight grown-up is not cute. So as she grew up her weight became more of an issue in spite of her. She couldn’t find a boyfriend for example, or she wouldn’t be included in certain things. So in the pictures of Guille you can see the difference, there is more disappointment or loneliness.



Alessandra Sanguinetti, The Ophelias, 2002.



Alessandra Sanguinetti, Time Flies (the last time), 2005.


MAD: In the first book there are a couple of examples in which the girls are playing dead, for example there is an image which is kind of like a double Ophelia with both girls floating in a stream clutching flowers or another in which the girls a splayed on the ground looking up at the camera with a dead stare. In the second book there is an image in which the girls appear to be buried in ash with only their faces showing. I am interested in that idea of revisiting a gesture years later, echoing earlier images.

AS:  Are previous images present in my mind while I am shooting? Yes. It’s unavoidable when working with the same people over time. I notice the changes yet I impose my old view of them – we always resist people changing – until they shake it off me, and I have to get to know them all over again, and the cycle begins again. The image of them buried was actually inspired by a picture by David Wojnarowicz I had seen a long time ago. He has always loomed big in my mind, which I understand doesn’t seem to make sense since his work is a million light years from mine.

MAD: Well that’s one of the great things about being artists, we make strange correspondence between unlikely things, we identify with or recognize ideas / gestures from seemingly unrelated places and people.  We find allies in centuries past or faraway lands.

MAD: Let’s talk about an earlier project On The Sixth Day that is also shot in rural Argentina. The first pictures are portraits of individual animals, there’s a horse, a dog, a chicken, a pig and later we see animals interacting and later we see some animals slaughtered and skinned while other animals go about their business grazing. One of the themes in the photographs is the ordinariness of death on the farm. Was that something you were already used to or was it like gazing upon an accident, feeling both attracted and repulsed by the inter-relatedness of life and death within the ecosystem of the farm?

AS: I was a city girl who lived a summer months at the farm.  I never got used to it and I never took it for granted. Routine exchanges such as when the farmer walks into the pen to choose a sheep to slaughter once a week, were always extraordinary for me. In the setting sun, the herd trembling, knowing one of them was doomed, those would be extraordinary events to me. They still are. It’s a feeling more akin to being hypnotized, of disbelief and terror. Not in the way an accident attracts me. It’s precisely because these are deliberate acts that I stand in amazement at the way the world works. So much going on in a completely ordinary setting, so much drama that is overlooked, so many little struggles, a little chick trying to cross a fence…



Alessandra Sanguinetti, Chick, 1998.



Alessandra Sanguinetti, Conejos, 1998.


MAD: And it falls on its face, however mundane that might seem, it is such a powerful picture for me, it kind of represents everything…. (Laughter)

MAD: I was thinking of the title of a favorite novel of mine, by the Polish writer Tadeusz Konwicki, A Minor Apocalypse, because there are all of these unacknowledged crises and tragedies unfolding among the animals. There is another image in your Sixth Day project of a rabbit in the foreground pressing his paws against a chain link fence; behind him is a large hand-painted sign ‘Conejos’. I really feel for that rabbit, he is trapped, at the limit of his world, as if he knows he is doomed and there is nothing to be done. I am anthropomorphizing to a ridiculous degree, but there is something so fatalist about that picture. It plays on cuteness and the romantic idea of a Peaceable Kingdom but it is in fact so claustrophobic. It is a funny and horrifying picture simultaneously.

AS: Exactly.



Alessandra Sanguinetti, Jaious, West Bank, Palestine, 2003.



Alessandra Sanguinetti, Yasmin and Zanya by Separation Wall, Abu Dis, Israel, 2003.


MAD: I was looking at your photographs from Palestine. On your website the first image is a woman wrapped in a magenta colored robe, she is high up on a ladder which leans upon an olive tree. She appears to be pruning or reaching for fruit. She also appears to be reaching for the sky, for transcendence or escape.  I couldn’t help but notice that the final image of that series, at least on your website, is a pair of children walking away from the concrete barrier that Israel built to separate and isolate Palestinians. That wall is so imposing that it dwarfs the children, who appear to be strolling toward nothing but debris.  There are many wonderful pictures in that series but just those two pictures alone are so mythic, yet so descriptive of the material reality of Palestinian life. Your pictures seem able to function as documents and fables simultaneously.

AS: I did not want to photograph the Israeli occupation as we see it presented to us everyday, although it was hard not to, because injustice is so stark there, so obvious – people are living in ghettos much as the ones Jews lived in during German occupations. Surrounded, with snipers at the ready.  My sense there, in Palestine, was that of a disappearing people. There is a gentleness there that is overlooked, a longing, a sense of place and history that is predominant and is generally overlooked.



Alessandra Sanguinetti, Nimer and his Older Cousin, Aida Refugee Camp, West Bank, Palestine, 2004.


MAD: Is there a photograph that you have made that changed you,or changed the way you thought about yourself, the world, photography?

AS: One photograph? No….  well, yes. There is one picture I took when I was 10 or so. It’s in the country, of a storm approaching, and wind bending the trees. That was the first time I felt I had managed to make the feeling of ‘awe’ tangible.

MAD: You have a more recent project called Sorry, Welcome, with images of your family life with your kids and your partner photographer Jim Goldberg. Some of the images are quite intimate. First of all I want to ask you about that title.

AS: (Laughter) On the door to our apartment there is a little Turkish sign, sculpture thing. I never knew what it said because it was there before I moved in. I only thought of asking after I shot it. It translates to  ‘Sorry Welcome’. That was perfect. Whenever anyone comes to the apartment I am always sort of apologizing because it is such a mess. And family life is so much about saying sorry all the time. You know that Love Story line that ‘love is about never having to say you’re sorry’? That’s total bullshit! (Laughter) I am apologizing all the time ‘Sorry I am in a bad mood’ ‘Sorry I spilled it, sorry I broke it, sorry I didn’t buy the milk! Sorry!’ (Laughter)



Alessandra Sanguinetti, Catalina, 2013.


MAD: What were some of the challenges of photographing in your own home, your personal life?

AS: It wasn’t a challenge so much as a relief. Home was becoming claustrophobic, and facing it head on was liberating. I finally got to get closer to my life in San Francisco, accept it and embrace it. It helped me get through a specific time in my life.

MAD: I was thinking that the pictures in Sorry, Welcome share something with many of your other images and that is an attention to human physicality, people touch, lean against one another, sit apart and appraise one another, I was thinking about it in terms of the language of negotiated intimacy. There is closeness between people but there is always a sense that it is complicated on some level. Does that seem like a fair observation?

AS: Yes, it’s a daily struggle to be at ease with myself and with others.

MAD: That discomfort is in your pictures and I think that helps them, it makes the pictures slightly awkward in a good way, makes them trickier, less easily digested. There is so much beauty in your photographs, the colors, gestures, environments, and the attention to detail, not to mention all the mythic stuff that you seem to be able to conjure. But what makes them really human is that awkwardness.


Alessandra Sanguinetti, Ruby, 2013.

AS: Yes, awkwardness is me 24/7, and taking pictures of other people is the most awkward situation of all – kind of foolish in a way, jumping around someone with a camera, asking for time, for a turn, for trust, thanking, and then leaving with the little machine, but the awkwardness is worth it. I get through it because the sense of awe, or of wonder, overwhelms all discomfort.

MAD: Wonder is what we experience at the edge of what we know, in the space between what we know and an encounter with what we don’t. It is a suspended moment before our world-view expands. All art practice is about that on some level but photography in particular is good for catalyzing those moments, in part because we have to physically accompany the camera to operate it. We have the paradoxical experience of encountering the world directly while simultaneously mediating it through photography.

In many ways this sense of discovery and wonder you are talking about has been lost in contemporary culture, replaced instead by novelty and criticality. And I think one of the reasons that I immediately loved your work was that I felt like I was discovering something through your images, something that was secret was being revealed to me. Your pictures were vehicles to a world I would not have access to and I felt enriched and enchanted by them. So that fact that you bring up the notion of wonder makes perfect sense to me.

AS: In my life I associate photography much more with poetry and music. Impossible to explain away it’s magnificence, or the longing and it produces.



Alessandra Sanguinetti, Jim, 2013