How can photography challenge stereotypes of a well-known city? Is it possible to picture the politics of a place? What are the costs and benefits of asking these questions from the position of the outsider?
In this event, Mexican-born photographer Arturo Soto discusses these themes in his work about the British university city of Oxford following the controversial “Brexit” referendum that led to the UK leaving the European Union.
Soto’s work has been published in his book “A Certain Logic of Expectations”, which is described as proposing a counter-narrative of Oxford. Drawing on psycho-geography, and using an interplay of words and text, the work reflects on the contested relationship between visual representation and the history and myths of a particular location.
David Campbell: So, Arturo, thank you very much for for joining us this morning. As I said, you’re in Los Angeles, you divide your time between, at the moment, I think, between Mexico City and Los Angeles?
Arturo Soto: That’s right.
David: And you’ve got quite an extensive set of qualifications over the years, a BA from the Savannah College of Art and Design, MFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts, Master’s in art history and recently completed a PhD at Oxford. How did you get into photography in the first place, and what attracted you to photography in the first place?
Arturo: I wanted to be a filmmaker and but then, I’ve been wanting to be a filmmaker since I was around 12-13. And so stories have always been on my mind, and, you know, different ways of telling stories, what kind of stories of course, those have changed a bit since I was a teenager. But along the way, I discovered photography via pop art, because I always like pop art very much. So my first, in my view, obviously, my first accomplished photograph was a photograph of two Coke cans, a diet one, which is silver, and a red one, but in black and white. And so I like the contrast. And I still, my mom had that frame, and I still have it somewhere. But so what I found out is that at S.C.A.D., which is in Savannah, Georgia, I could study both at the same time, I could double major in film and photo. And then throughout the four years of, or five years of my education, I just kind of like lean more and more towards photography. Mostly, because with film, you need a number of things, right? That go alongside with it, and with photography, you more or less you can work on your own. And for me, that was that was kind of the defining factor. And then I just started having kind of like more, more opportunities to show an exhibit in photography.
David: So you were born in Mexico City, and then you move to the U.S. at some stage to study or you move before before to study, what was it like? And did you pick up photography in Mexico City first? And then come to study in the States? What was sort of the differences between thinking about photography and Mexico City and thinking about and studying photography in the US? And then in the UK?
Arturo: Yeah, so I’m Mexican, like 100% Mexican, because some people think that I’m Mexican American so I just mentioned that, I grew up in Mexico City. I was born in the border, though in Juarez, but I lived all my life in Mexico City. And it was just until I moved for college that I started living in the U.S. That’s an interesting question that you posed, because at the beginning, I loved street photography, like the traditional kind Cartier-Bresson kind. And so Mexico City was, well, it didn’t look like Paris, let’s say I didn’t look like New York, basically. And so it was always tough making the kinds of pictures that I wanted, and then I moved to Savannah and that’s the first kind of photography that I made over there. And it’s also hard to there because it’s a small city. And so I think that was one of the first things that made me kind of, like expand my horizons about photography, because it’s very easy to look at those pictures and think that oh, they’re, they’re about, you know, a certain choreography of bodies and how people inhabit spaces, but of course, those are very particular kinds of spaces. So it’s almost impossible to make those pictures somewhere else. So yeah, that was kind of like a learning lesson for me.
David: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of debate in photography, about the relationship between one’s identity and the images produced and the kind of representations that you end up making. I mean, how do you feel about the relationship between? I mean, we could ask that question of anyone, it’s not a specific question to you, you will have a specific answer but you could ask that at me as well. How do you feel about the relationship between your identity and the kind of photographic work you do? What role does your identity in your identity experiences play in producing that work?
Arturo: Well, probably the first, the first thing to say is that me being a foreigner in all these places, has played a huge role. And so I moved from street photography, again, of the traditional kind. And I say that because you could argue that what I do, which is photographing streets, it’s street photography as well, right, but it’s just not of the same kind of capturing moments. And, yeah, and kind of like capturing the fleeting fleeting things or events that happen in everyday life. And so in Savannah, I just started photographing, you know, the, the urban landscape, I kind of like, very swiftly move on from street photography, on to photographing doors and windows, firstly. I have a kind of typology that it’s about doors and windows. And so my identity, let’s say, as a Mexican didn’t necessarily play a role. But I started that four series in black and white and then I moved on to another series about Savannah and now I’ve combined both series. And that one was in color, and so when I started photographing in color, that’s when I started paying more attention to signs on the urban landscape. And inevitably, a lot of those signs are political, you know, flags, handwritten signs, political placards, things like that, and so, when that happened, I think that for me, that was something that really made me aware of my position as a foreigner, in the U.S., particularly in the Bush years. So my identity played more of a role in terms of, you know, what rights do I have to represent, let’s say the politics of a place which is not my own?
David: And how do you think about I mean, because the position of the outsider is, in literature, and in art generally, is also kind of an interesting one, sometimes praised as it were, and sometimes valued for a different perspective, but also sometimes criticized. And I think probably within, say, within documentary photography, in recent years more criticized the idea of this person that goes very briefly to a place records, and then leaves brings their preconceptions, perhaps. I mean, how do you think about your position as an outsider? And what? What sort of advantages does it give you? What sort of disadvantages does it have with it?
Arturo: So I tend to photograph the places where I live, because it’s a way for me to engage with them, to explore them, to try to understand them better. I don’t go to places to photograph them, and I would say that, you know, one of the ways in which I have rationalized this, for myself is like this long literary tradition of people writing about other places, which obviously happened before photography. And, you know, with varying degrees of, I don’t know many things embeddedness, sensibility, success, right? But in my particular case, I always feel I always think of the D.H. Lawrence going to Mexico, and then writing, you know, a couple of novels, or novels like Under the Volcano, things like that, that tried to capture something about Mexico. These are both examples or modernist novels. They tried to capture something about Mexico, but obviously, they also said a lot about the border in Mexico. And they you could argue that they’re very flawed projects on one sense, but they’re also very interesting novels in another sense. And so, yeah, they’re problematic, as people would say, but I also find them interesting, you know, a foreigners perspective, I think it’s always interesting because it comes with a different kind of preconceptions, like we all have preconceptions, right? And people from, the locals also have preconceptions they’re just of a different kind. And so yeah, I’m sure some of some of my mind preconceptions, and of course, my subjectivity is kind of like embedded in the photographs that I make for the place.
David: Yeah, I agree. I don’t think we should assume, I mean, a truth or the truth is not located in our in an outside perspective, but conversely, it’s not automatically located in the inside perspective, either. And sometimes there’s sense that the local is the one who contains the truth and the only truth and is the only person that can have the perspective on that. But everyone has their perspective, we’re engaged in representations and all these things, locals and the indigenous as well, different ones, different values, different perspectives, and so on. But I think this is a really significant theme in your work, and we’ll come on to that in relationship to kind of Oxford and Brexit, and so on, because that’s something that that given the nature of that political circumstance, you were working in the UK when, you know, immigration and the relationship to the outside, and certain forms of xenophobia, etc, were very significant. We’ll talk a bit about more shortly. But you, I mean, you have an exhibition at the moment in in Savannah called Urban visions. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Arturo: Yeah, so it brings together three bodies of work a few pictures from from that first series about Savannah in color. And then a series that I did in London in 2013-2014, called Circling the Square, which is also utilizes the concept of psychogeography, which I’ll describe in a second to make photographs of my experience of London. And then the third series is the Oxford one A Certain Logic of Expectations, so it’s a smallish gallery. And so there’s a selection of the three projects, all in color, and kind of like overall talking about a subjective experience of cities.
David: And that is for you kind of the major theme that you’re working with the idea of the narratives and counter narratives of the city. Can you say a little bit about what you mean by narrative here, and, how it relates to kind of photographing urban cities places?
Arturo: Yes, narrative is a dangerous and complicated word when it comes to photography, because telling a story visually, without, without text, or without sound, is very different, right, from novels and films. And so what constitutes a story, and, you know, some of the basic tenets of storytelling, like the structure, and the let’s say, how it fits within certain models of storytelling, all of those things are not exactly the same, right? And so, I tried to use narrative instead of story in that a sequence of images tells you something, but it’s not necessarily with the same expectations as a traditional story, right? The structures are different, the way that they develop on our mind is different but nevertheless, they do tell you something, because the accumulation of images and so being more than just the ability to do something with a single image. And so, with narrative and counter narrative, I mean, more or less the expectations and the sort of ideas that come with a place right? And certain places, there’s places where certain ideas are very specific, and, therefore, the expectations in one’s mind are also kind of narrow, let’s say that obviously depends from place to place, and a place obviously can have more than one, not just one kind of narrative or not one kind of expectation. But nevertheless, sometimes when we think about a particular place, we think of a particular aspect, and so sometimes those can be very, very reductive, very damaging, very simplistic. And so, you know, there are there are parts of a city usually that fall outside those kind of like preconceptions, and I find that interesting, photographing those places and kind of expanding, let’s say, the notion of what a particular city is, or how it’s usually represented.
David: Yeah. So just before we have a little bit of a look at the work from the book on on Oxford itself, explain the concept of psychogeography, we put that in the title of the talk and psychogeography of a city. What do you mean by this within geography? I know that this is, you know, a stream of analysis and perspective. What do you mean by psychogeography when you’re thinking about photographing urban space and cities?
Arturo: So it’s a term by the situationists, which was a group of French thinkers in the 60s and later. It was a very kind of like fracture group. Sorry, led by a guy named Guy Debord, and so, he has a short text, sorry, describing psychogeography as kind of the effect of places on people. And so that allows for feelings to, you know, to come to the fore and kind of, determine how a place is represented, right? Because he says that, you know, if you think of geography as the effects of time and different aspects of natural phenomena on the earth, right? It’s very different when you process that through yourself, basically, and through your personalities through your subjectivity. You know, that has nothing to do with geological time. It has to do with your perception. And so we all have opinions about places sometimes that, you know, we make them known to others or to ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that, you know, we feel particular things when we’re in different places. And so, what I understand by psychogeography in relation to photography is being very aware of those things. What kind of places am I interested in? Why am I interested in those places? And what does it mean to, you know, basically make a mini archive of them when you publish a book? So it’s about selecting certain kinds of spaces and what they say, you know, in terms of history, economy, aesthetics, taste, all of those things.
David: So let’s have a look at some of the work in your book A Certain Logic of Expectations. So I will share the screen and you can tell me when to proceed or to stop at any point as we go through some of the some of the pages. So let me just do that. Can you see that? Okay. Yep. Excellent. So I imagine as I’m not, you kind of referenced this phrase earlier about having certain expectations about what a city looks like. And is it the case that you you are studying in Oxford, doing a degree program in Oxford? And Oxford, of course, has this kind of not official motto, but known as the City of dreaming spires? Was that the expectation against which this work is located?
Arturo: That’s absolutely right. I should mention that I was doing a practice based PhD at the University of Oxford. The name of the faculty is the Ruskin School of Art. And this was one of the two projects that I did as part of my degree. And the general, let’s say, inquiry was the relationship between text and image. So I’m interested in how text can be used not to make a photograph or an image redundant, right? As often happens in let’s say, newspaper captions, right? They just explained sometimes some of the things that one can see, but by bringing something else to the table, in this case, the texts are fragments and that talk about my experience of Oxford and about different aspects of the city. But yeah, even though there are a lot of them are based on my experiences, they all relate to place or I tried as best as I could, making them relate to certain spatial aspect of Oxford. So I may comment on a historical aspects or again an experience that I had, I tried to be a bit funny and not too serious. Because usually with projects of this kind, like hyper-intellectuality takes over and then the text become like very, very pompous. So I did my best to try not to do that so that the experiences related are of different kinds.
David: Yeah, so I think that if people get a chance to see the book and so on, I mean, the text is actually an extraordinary part of it. It’s quite poetic it’s quite light in places you say it’s very funny ruminating on some conversations and fragments that you pick up from people or experiences you have in that it’s definitely not in you know, international art English. Takes to the catalog, which is a very good thing that’s high praise because things the description itself is quite, you know, this is where I think the psychogeography comes out. It’s quite. You can read theoretical points into it. But it’s reflecting on particular conversations and so on. But, you know, one of the things I observe about the photos, and we’ll see, as we keep going through is, first of all, there are no dreaming spires whatsoever, of course, so the vision of Oxford that you’re working against is not represented here. And the representation of Oxford that you’re presenting is completely counter to that through this sort of thing. And the landscape, and the urban landscape is devoid of people. I don’t think there’s a single person in the photographs themselves. Is that correct? And obviously, that looks like a very conscious choice. What was the thinking there?
Arturo: Um, yes. So I always explain it in that, in the sense that it’s not that I’m not interested in people, I’m obviously interested in people and the effects that they have on the landscape and the traces they leave on the landscape, and how they utilize these spaces, right? But often, if you put a person in a photograph, and particularly in a landscape photograph, the photograph becomes about that person. Even if it’s clear, it’s not necessarily a portrait, right? Even if it’s clear that it’s just a person, let’s say passing by, then this is another instance in which that that word narrative comes in, because almost inevitably, I think we’re hardwired to start questioning who that person is, you know, what is she, or he doing there? And then that can distract from maybe a deeper analysis of place, and what is the purpose of that place? What kind of place that is, and so I just find that easier, let’s say doing without people. So then the emphasis is 100%, on the, on the urban landscape. And, again, some of these markers are contained in the landscape. And then about the dreaming spires. Yes, that’s, that’s part of a poem by Matthew Arnold, in which he described Oxford like that, and it just stuck. And now a lot of people kind of, well, not now, perhaps, always, people have always thought of Oxford, and the institution has been the same. And that, of course, is not true. Oxford is a city that has a fascinating history, and has been through many changes. And it’s also a very important city in terms of in economic terms for England. One of the things I find fascinating is that, you know, they made, well, they still make the Mini there. And so, for instance, a huge part of the city was expanded to house the workers in that factory. So in that particular case, a different industry that has nothing to do with the university had a huge impact on the on the city itself, right? And so that neighborhood, obviously still exists, and that place is one of the kind of like the most contrasting places in the town and gown divide, as they call it over there. And, and there’s many people that live in Oxford that have nothing to do with the university, a lot of migrants that work for a number of industries, but mostly the service industry, and so it’s all of these different kinds of social dynamics that are sometimes left out, when you say, the city of dreaming spires, and you only think of the university, which of course, it’s also fascinating, and another source of part of the British myth, right? A lot of people think that there’s basically nothing as British as I don’t know, the monarchy, and probably Oxford and Cambridge. And so it’s kind of like, thinking about all of those things when representing spaces and places. But then, very early, or very soon, you realize that, you know, photographs have a certain kind of limitation in talking about all of these things. Of course, a lot of these can be just visual, right? So I’m not saying that they cannot be visual, no, they can. But on the other hand, there’s many things that like I say, the book escape the grasp of photography, and so therefore, that’s when text becomes really handy to talk about ideas that are a bit more abstract.
David: This is one of, I’ve paused on this page, because this is one of my favorite photographs in the book, actually, the the blank wall with the road sign and the road is between towns road that seems to, to kind of encapsulate a number of senses of liminal space borders, uncertainty about about identity. I mean, that’s for me, that’s kind of one of the greatest in the book, one of the greatest representations of kind of the psychogeography that you’re talking about there. Something quite uncertain about Oxford coming out in that particular photograph. I want to just go for there’s a quote on page 56, and is at the top right here. So when I tell people that the only places I’ve been in England or Oxford bath and London, they invariably responded, I’ve not really experienced this country. Interestingly, some of these same people have reacted ambivalently towards these pictures, feeling that they could have been taken anywhere, the contradiction is never apparent to them. Can you explain the contradiction for them?
Arturo: So, yeah, I made it a bit, I don’t know, hard to understand on purpose. What I want to say is, how can be the most or one of the most special places like Oxford, right? Be both the same as everywhere, right? And then be also the most one of the most special places? It’s either one or the other, or if it’s both, then what elements are special? And what elements are just like any other place? Right? And so, which is what I think actually, I think it has both, it has, obviously the city center, with the university and all of its really special places, and buildings, and then there’s also, streets that can be like anywhere in England, of course, I agree with that. But it’s not just one or the other, it’s both at the same time. And so then another comment can be made of like, what the really in quotation means. As if Oxford was like, not part of England, or what, in a different dimension or something like that. Like, I understand that it’s very different from other parts of England, of course, but offers is still a city that faces many, many challenges, many social and economic challenges. And one of the biggest problems that it has is homelessness, right? So in that sense, it’s not really different than the rest of England. So are certain kinds of people thinking that altered is like, again, in a different ballpark than the rest of England, I feel that they’re wrong. You know, it’s just, it’s just the kind of people that basically live in the Oxford bubble, in the Oxford University bubble. Because yeah, Oxford has problems like any other city. Having said that, of course, it’s very different for someone like me, that comes from Mexico City, which is a really big city with a lot of very different kinds of problems, and so yes, I also recognize that Oxford is a very privileged city overall, right? In which, as I mentioned, somewhere in the book, you know, I can go out and have some drinks, and then walk home, right? And more than likely, nothing will happen to me, in a way that that’s not so certain in a place like Mexico City.
David: So some people reacted ambivalently, to some of those photos. I mean, have you had more general reaction from people in Oxford to the book as a whole?
Arturo: Most people have really liked it, I have to say, and most people really engage with the text, the ones from Oxford, or that have lived in Oxford. For me, you know, and I’ll be completely honest about it. One of the challenges is like, what are people gonna think about the book that are not from Oxford? And so I would love people to engage with it and, and check it out. And, you know, let me know, if they connected with it, because one of the one of the things that I did was write the texts in a way that, at least from my perspective, they can be interesting to a number of people in that it’s just a description of a city, like some of the things that I talk about only happened in Oxford, sure, but some others happen, you know, in a number of places, and so I’ll also explain something about the images. The square ones are of places of the university, right? Just not the typical ones, but they are university places, university buildings, and then the rectangular ones. Are, with one exception, are of places outside of the city center, which are the places that basically tourists usually never get to see because they’re there for a handful of hours or maybe a day tops, right? And so they only get the image of the city centre as an image of Oxford. If you could stop there. Another thing that I wanted to say is I, again, I’m very interested in the markers contained in the in urban spaces. And so I try putting in a lot of political markers. So that’s the the anarchy sign, and the anarchist sign. And then they also tried to bring the labor sign. There’s a Social Democrat signs somewhere there. There’s also the East Oxford conservative center, you know, which is a weird place in Oxford, because I think, just from from my limited experience, but I saw many, like migrant communities renting it. And so it’s not necessarily the kind of people that you would think use that center, or the kind of people that, you know, Priti Patel likes. So it was weird that they use the conservative club, as they’re placed over union. But you know, all of these social contradictions happen. And and that’s why the realities is so complex to to represent sometimes. Yeah.
David: I mean, one of the fascinating things about this project is kind of the political context in which you’re making these images and putting this narrative together. And you’ve photographed between 2016 and 2020, I think so that’s in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, which for people outside the UK was the referendum, where everyone in the UK got to vote on whether the UK would remain a member of the European Union and to a lot of people surprise, the answer was no. And the UK has withdrawn from the European Union, very contentious referendum, very contentious debate, and the country is living with the consequences of a major geopolitical, and economic and social change as a result of that not even getting to grips with it. Yeah. How did that Brexit context impact and frame the work that you were doing directly or indirectly?
Arturo: Yeah, it was like a, like a, how do you call it? What’s the expression? Like a bucket of cold water? Because I think I think it shaped the project. From the beginning, you know, I got to Oxford in late 2015, which, at the start of the academic year, and then in early 2016, was the result of the referendum. And so I just realized that, you know, how fractured this society was and so that inspired me to capture some of those contradictions in the urban landscape, and I think that just made the work more political. My challenge, in particular in the text was, how to talk about some of those things in a lively manner, and not necessarily too preachy. But obviously, you know, I’m a leftist and my convictions are easy to spot on in the in the text, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to make it like a political pamphlet. And so some of those political aspects are also visual, like, in the manner that I just said, you know, capturing those those signs, which may seem like not like a groundbreaking idea, just, you know, taking a photograph of a labor sign, but A. you still have to do it within the that say, their artistic parameters or photography, right? So I still tried to make the best image that I could make of a labor sign. And then be, yeah, how to incorporate them in a visual narrative in a way that it makes sense. And again, it wasn’t it wasn’t proselytizing.
David: I think one of the interesting things about that as the context and in the photographic work that you’ve done, of course, is the central I mean, a lot of people interpreted that Brexit referendum as kind of, you know, a protest against the elites, the so called liberal elites in the country of which Oxford University would be, you know, a preeminent example in British society. And then, somewhat ironically, perhaps the images that you’re showing of Oxford more akin to, I’m not saying there’s a contradiction in your thinking. But I’m saying that there’s kind of a complexity here that’s, that is not going to be grasped by the leave versus remain divided on Brexit. So that’s the cultural divide in the UK, that seems that as kind of split the country down the middle, leavers were the people who wanted out for a variety of reasons. They might have been anti-immigration, they might have had economic issues, they might have been opposed to elites remainers were the people who wanted to remain in the European Union. In some ways, the photographic work that you’ve shown of Oxford, there’s different psychogeography of Oxford gets to the structures of inequality gets to the lack of prosperity in these British cities that might have been, you know, fermenting some of the leave argument. I mean, do you see that potential complexity? I say, it’s not a contradiction, but do you see that potential to do that?
Arturo: Yeah. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true about Oxford, because they they voted overwhelmingly to stay but of course, I encountered many people in Oxford that wanted to leave. And surprisingly, some professors, that conversations that I had with professors that obviously are very well educated, and they still some of them said that they voted, remain, but that they consider the argument of leaving and so for me, that was not very surprising. For me, that was a no brainer, right. But then I could see, I could see those social fractures coming through, right, when people say those things, that that also means that and this is something that obviously not being from the UK, I learned when I was there. The campaign to leave started, you know, 30, something years ago or more, and there’s always been people against the European project. And that’s something that I learned there, the extent to which some, some people are completely opposed to the European project. And that part I found fascinating. Because it turns out that Oxford is also one of the places that harbored those people in that, you know, since it educates the elites, the top of the of the, let’s say, the leftist. How do you call it? The leftist political power, let’s say, studied at Oxford and Cambridge, you know, but also the the same goes for the right. And so those contradictions are there, even on the student level, right? And that’s why places like the Oxford Union have been led by some of the most noted right wingers in in the UK. And within the university structure, obviously, the places like the Oxford Union still have a lot of power.
David: The current British Prime Minister included, so. I’m going to go to a couple of questions, got some questions from people in the audience so want to bring those in. One from Scott, what was your thinking and not including any traditional Oxford photos? For example, the spires of the university. It seems that the town ground tension would be an important element of the psychogeography of the place.
Arturo: Yes. So if you go to the preeminent Oxford bookstore, which is Blackwell’s, they have a section about Oxford, right? And there’s, I don’t know, many, many titles, many of them, just with photography, that show those places. And so I didn’t see the need to restate what has been said many, many times. The beauty of Oxford, which is enormous, has been captured, you know, very well by many photographers. And so, there’s a picture in the book that shows the Bodleian Library, but it’s while it’s being that there’s been worked on the Bodleian Library. And so you see, you see a couple of containers, right? And if you’ve been to opera, you might spot too much bother. It’s the Bodleian if you don’t it just looks like a pretty building. But that was my way of showing some of these places without showing him in the way that is expected. So again, going against the expectations, particularly of the other tourist gaze, which is something that I’m very interested in because, obviously, globalization has made traveling much more easy or easier. And so therefore, we all come to these places with tourist eyes. And and that just leaves out a huge amount of interesting things in the cities that we visit, or at least that’s often the case. So yeah, I wanted to include some of these places, just again, not in the in the way that it’s expected. In the pages that you show, there’s also a wall and kind of like a red mark, and that it’s from a wall in UNIF, one of the colleges, one of the oldest colleges, in Oxford. And so yeah, the university is there again, just not not in the traditional way.
David: Yeah. A question from Ari, about the relationship between the images and the text, and they’re wondering if your body of work, kind of not, isn’t showing that photography is or, I’ve got to translate a bit. Is or is not essentially a way to illustrate the words? Do you see that? What is it a relationship of illustration? Or is it a different relationship between the image of the words and therefore is the use of words kind of necessary or exposing a limitation in the medium of photography itself?
Arturo: Right, I think it’s the latter, I think it the both mediums are used in a way that they expose the others limitation, right? Because there’s also a limit to what you can say, verbally, or textually. And so sometimes, you know that old phrase of like, an image is worth 1000 words. Of course, it’s true, sometimes. There’s also concepts that are, abstract concepts that would be very hard to visualize, or very limiting to visualize with just one image, right? Philosophical concepts that let’s say, you could, you would need 1000 images to visualize so that it goes both ways. So yeah, my intention was just to make them go in parallel ways, right? So that they didn’t become redundant again, or explained each other. And one of the ways in which I settled early on is to make these fragments that of course, overall, are related, but they’re not, you know, sequential. And they’re not. They’re cumulative. They’re not necessarily interrelated. As in a novel, or as in, as in an epic poem.
David: Right. Aki has a question also about the writing, and it says amazing work, Arturo. As a photographer, I’m comfortable with the visual, but writing terrifies me. Any advice on how one can learn to write text that captures your narrative? Or I guess, becomes part of part of your narrative? Did you always write? Were you, did you see yourself as a writer as well as a photographer? Or, did you have to overcome a fear of writing to work alongside imagery?
Arturo: A little bit of both, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. So writing has always been part of like, let’s say, my artistic project, and it will continue to be, let’s say even more. And my next photo book is the one that I’m working on right now also includes writing. So I’ve always been interested in writing, but it was a bit terrifying or still is, you know, publishing something about about a place in a culture that is no my own. And so there’s always that, that feeling of like, what’s gonna happen? How are people gonna take this? And in terms of the advice, I would say, the first thing is to try to define what kind of writing you think it’s appropriate, because there’s obviously many times right? There’s books that go alongside poems, and there’s books that go alongside essays, right? There’s books like mine that go alongside essayistic fragments. And so kind of like decide which written tradition do you feel might might be helpful to go alongside the images. There’s people like John Gossage, which you know, sometimes just use a single word or a single sentence from the page opposite the image, right? And that one sentence or that one word, is meant to establish a relationship, right, between the text and image, and obviously changes the balance of both. So it depends, I would say, define what kind of writing you think it’s appropriate. And the other thing is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be your writing. It can be someone else’s writing. You know, if it’s poetry, let’s say you can be you can you can be a collaboration between a poet and a visual artist.
David: So, a question from Paul, who’s finding the conceptual discussion, fascinating, but he says, I don’t know that most photographers do or don’t think this way, before beginning a project, what thoughts or advice do you have for someone about to begin a project in a place where they’re definitely an outsider wanting to tell a story or a truth? How do you go about evaluating a place before you begin? Or, does it evolve as you work on the project?
Arturo: That’s a great question. It evolves, or in my case, it evolves. I started by photographing, I started by photographing and the photographing informed the confines of the print or, define the confines of the project. And I always say that, you know, you start making edits, right? An edit of 20, an edit of 30, to 40, and then you put them on the wall or on the floor, or whatever. And once you start looking at what you have, it becomes evident what you think you need. And so therefore, these pictures, kind of, like, tell you what other pictures need to be there in your project, according to you, obviously, right? According to your ideas, or according to your conception of what the project is. But kind of like the project, start answering its own questions, let’s say, and kind of like telling you where to go. Yeah. And then it’s about, you know, making making an edit over the years and trying to define more clearly what kind of project it is.
David: Great. So we’re coming towards the end of our time, that’s just to say to anyone in the audience who wants to ask a question, drop it in quickly, and we’ll be able to get to it. Question from Mark, who says so well thought through and researched. My question is, have you really finished this project? Oxford, beyond the center is so large and various that there are arguably many areas and communities still to cover, do you feel you’ve finished Oxford? Or, is it an ongoing thing?
Arturo: I feel like I’ve finished it because I left, my time there had come to an end. And so therefore, the there was a natural end to the project. But that doesn’t mean that you know, things stop evolving or stop happening. Of course, the urban landscape is constantly changing and so therefore, for me, at least, it’s infinitely interesting to notice those changes and capture them via text or image but that’s perhaps for someone else to continue. And there’s, I should say, there’s people like James Attlee, who’s a wonderful writer, who published a book with a very similar intent, previously than mine. It’s called Isolarian, and so if anyone is interested in a more, or in a purely literary take on Oxford, that is not about the city center, I recommend reading that book. And his new book also deals with some of these aspects just in relation to the pandemic.
David: So what is the next project for you? Are you working on something now that’s related to this? Or are you planning something?
Arturo: Related in the sense of text and image. It’s a book about the neighborhood where I grew up in Mexico City, and trying to again, expand the range of its representation with both photographs and texts. The difference is that in this case, the texts will be longer, that will be about you know, 1,000 word, long essays, and it will be even more autobiographical. But again, it’s a challenge of how to do that, without, you know, coming across as too self centered, or writing things that hopefully will interest will interest other people, right. But that definitely have to do with, again with me my perception of the world. And then just displaces that in the particular case of the new project. You have not been imaged, let’s say, a lot because it’s a neighborhood of Mexico Cit, and it is not one of the popular ones is not one of the ones that tourists really see.
David: A question from Sabrina, who’s doing some work that kind of intersects with some of your things and has also got the position of an outsider doing a long term photo documentary, taking pictures of urban borders, etc., linked to questions of mental health, she’s interviewing some people about it. She wants to know, did you also interview people in Oxford? Or, is the perspective one derive only from your own experience? And if you didn’t interview people, why not?
Arturo: I did try interviewing my classmates. So, as a PhD student, we had a weekly seminar, and we presented our ideas, research. And so as a part of it, I tried, and I interviewed about, well I sent the questionnaire to about 20 to 30 people, and their responses were not that interesting. And because the question was mostly about their subjective response to the city, so I wanted to know their feelings and opinions about the city. And so what was very evident is that half of them hadn’t thought about any of these things. And kind of like, didn’t really want to, you know, and some, you could tell that they were not very comfortable, you know, telling them to me, and so some of them, like only like two or three texts, from the book ended up being reworkings of the answers of those of those that questionnaire, but mostly, it was not, it was not fruitful experiment.
David: At the same time, I would say to people, if you get a chance to have a look at the book, a lot of the text is drawing on conversations you might have had with people or some reflections with people and so on. I’m going to going to read one that’s quite long as my one of my favorite ones in the book because it’s, you say, “I quickly became become friends with a British Brazilian guy who’s a great wingman when drunk. We seldom discuss politics, or we sometimes talk about history. He seems to be very knowledgeable about the Holocaust. He messages me the morning after the Brexit referendum to celebrate the result, which makes me realize that I don’t know him well enough. We argue for hours via text messages, his arguments borrow anti-fascist expressions that he spins around against remainders, the conversation goes nowhere, and we fall out after that. Our friendship does not supply it does not survive our ideological differences. I sometimes see him at the half moon but we’ve not spoken since.” I thought that was a fascinating encounter but sometimes when you ask people questions, you may not want to know what the answer is. But that’s I think that’s an example that you know, this is more than just a subjective personal opinion. I think that that’s also not a way to understand this kind of work. You are indirect you, these text fragments, themselves reporting on social exchanges and social interactions, I think, do you think that would be a fair description?
Arturo: Yes, absolutely. So yeah, I mean, I’m interested in you know, what other people say, what other people do, and so in many ways, it is working like a camera, but it’s just a written description, right? It’s a lot of what you know, reporters, do, they see things and then they write. So I’m reporting on different aspects of Oxford, but however, I do make very clear that it’s let’s say, through my eyes, or like, you know, goes through through through me, I’m not claiming any, any kind of distance in the same way that a that a journalist sometimes has to, for the integrity of the story. So it’s more like, yeah, like a personal essay, but reporting on the world.
David: Well Arturo, that brings us to the end of our time. I think that’s actually extremely good description of the project to finish on. So thank you once again, for getting up early in Los Angeles to be with us. Thank you to everyone in the audience, to be here. Great questions. As always, we record this so we will have it online in a few days on the website. People can follow up and can share it but thanks very much. Arturo, thanks very much.
Arturo: Thanks, everyone, for the questions and for tuning in. Great, thanks to you, David.
David: Alright, see you later.