Subida al cielo [Ascent into Heaven] is a project made up of five photographic series completed by Lúa Ribeira between 2016 and 2020: Subida al cielo, Aristócratas [Aristocrats], Las visiones [The Visions], La Jungla and Los afortunados [The Fortunate Ones].
These five series have been grouped together by virtue of a similar way of working that the photographer has developed throughout this time. They stem from
an interest in the margins, exclusion and questioning dominant culture, as well as the desire to transcend these limits and work outside the structural divisions established among different communities and individuals forming part of contemporary societies. Lúa Ribeira has created together with them images that break away from the usual perspective, positioning herself in a place far removed from that of a mere observer taking an active position through the encounter.
The experience that Lúa proposes through her photography as a response to the mechanism of exclusion is tied to a change of state and perception through a number of actions — very often relate to myths, religious stories and rituals — in which she engages with the people she photographs. Her work is based on fully plunging into the context in which she works and, although her proposal is based on developing shared fictions, it contains no aestheticizing intention, given that it does not spare the viewer the reality of separation, anguish and suffering. Her images are the result of intense coexistence. Through games and representations, bodies lyin on the grass or on the ground agree to “ascend to heaven”, to be unencumbered from gravity in order to move into a mythological world where both the photographer and the subjects abandon their socially acquired constraints.
What follows is a conversation with Lúa Ribeira that traces a journey through the five photographic series that make up this exhibition.
SUBIDA AL CIELO [ASCENT INTO HEAVEN] CONVERSATION WITH LÚA RIBEIRA
Sonia Berger (SB): You have worked a lot over the past few years. When we began to plan the book and exhibition, we had five projects on the table that were produced between 2016 and 2020 in various places and that in principle could be shown independently. But they all share the idea of exclusion, a community separated for one reason or another, and they all especially share the same way of photographing these realities in which you become very intensely involved.
Lúa Ribeira (LR): I come from Galicia, where the consequences of the political and cultural repression we endured during the dictatorship are still very palpable and historically unresolved. I think this affects how
I look at the world, through a permanent filter of “oppressor and oppressed” dynamics.
The work always begins with a political motivation, although it ultimately becomes a much more poetic exercise. The process inevitably leads me to deconstruct the themes. The more time shared, the deeper the relationships are and the more blurry those learned constructions about collectives, communities, borders become.
I think choosing these themes is tied to my conviction of not separating ourselves from the consequences of the world we all create together. We are part of the reality we live in, so I approach immediate, nearby contexts that generate this tension in me. My intention, whether I succeed or not, is to convey that these are not personal but structural problems, which is why I don’t focus on testimonies, but on images. I try not to feed the fear that separates us and to do an exercise in assuming this responsibility, however small this may be.
SUBIDA AL CIELO [ASCENT INTO HEAVEN]
SB: Subida al cielo is the work that opens the exhibition and gives it its name. You began it in 2017 and developed it mainly in the UK, dealing with subjects such as decay and the perishability of the body, pain and suffering. How did you start photographing Subida al cielo?
LR: The work started with the concern of using photograph to make images that were more mythological orvatemporal, also in relation to pain, as a shareable experience. I was working in Bristol, the city in which I live, and I was gravitating towards the parks continuously. It was in the parks where the pace o the city was interrupted and allowed for more spontaneous encounters. When I speak about encounters, I mean it as provoking something unpredictable — amongst people that otherwise we may never encounter — because of structural reasons and how efficiently we use our time and with whom we share it.
In this period I started to meet people, some of which were sleeping rough at the time, living in the streets. I became interested in the conditions in which they were surviving and within the parks I found a space where social statuses blurred, a space where I may be able to make work.
Whilst working on the series, I shared experiences and moments of a certain intensity that did not translate into images at that given moment. I began to experiment with creating images inspired by those memories. The result is the coexistence of two types of portraits in the series that somehow represen two aspects: one pertaining to a more mundane reality in which one suffers, thinks, looks and dreams, and another related
to the object of those thoughts or dreams, the imagination, mythology and its creatures, the dimension that soothes, calms and frightens (masks, visions). Both languages combine and mix until they are no longer distinguishable.
SB: Regarding this last idea of the experiences you developed, the way you take photographs goes a step beyond the photographic shot and you involve yourself with the people portrayed. After seeing the work, it could be construed that the actions you carry out with the people portrayed stem from a desire to make them be seen in a different way, to broaden the possibilities.
LR: It is a moment of clash and encounter that to some extent can seem naive, even though it is political in its nature. It is about challenging the voices that warn “be careful” in relation to others — because I may be a threat to others or vice versa — and take the risk to act from a different place, not from fear.
The work is usually made in long-term periods. It ma take a long time for me to find a space where taking photographs makes sense and there is a sense of lightness, to play around. The idea is to operate before those learnt morals or social conduct and enter into a more uncertain space. In this particular project, Subida al cielo, given that it takes place in parks during a hot summer, there were interruptions in the way we project ourselves, moments in which we let go of the roles we hold somehow.
I always say that my photographs are very rudimentary: a jump, a fall, a laugh... They are very elemental because they should precede or break through social constraints.
SB: So when you have that experience, it creates an exceptional situation and that is precisely what your photographs reveal. Walker Evans used to talk about an “instinctive state”, a moment that is difficult to describe when you are in the middle of an action and are not an observer, a kind of energy that passes through you and prevents you from rationalising what is occurring.
LR: I think there is also something painful in it, because it is a moment that ends. But yes, that moment is like a shot of energy and adrenalin, a restart maybe, in which we are able to find ourselves freer than we think and connected. There is something optimistic, transformative and energetic, something powerful in that moment. It doesn’t always happen.
SB: In this sense, you sometimes use dynamics or elements to achieve that transformation. In Subida al cielo, for example, you make use of masks that you created. But their use does not imply a disguise, illustrating preconceived ideas, nor does it fall into the temptation of aestheticizing the portrayed, but rather delving deeper into dissidence, into resisting stereotypes.
LR: The masks stem from something instinctive, from wanting to play, wanting to experiment and, in short, to rid myself of any limits when it comes to documentary photography. I haven’t had those worries about whether this or that is real or not. It doesn’t matter if there are disguises or not; there is a lot more to reality than that. The masks come from a need to use photography to speak also of the imagination, the non-tangible, something perhaps spiritual.
SB: Are they perhaps tied to the fact of not wanting to individualise, of resisting identification and taking the work towards more universal terrain?
LR: Perhaps it is also a way of slightly anticipating, because you can’t force the work. It sometimes requires a lot of time beforehand; you never know if it is going to emerge or when. There are many moments of impatience in the way I work, and during these times I draw, walk, make masks or go to the market to buy clothes for shoots that I often don’t use in the end. In other words, all those elements have relevance because they constitute a process and a kind of ritual of preparation, but not with the intention to control the after image. Quite the opposite, the moment of photography is more connected for me to lose control, to generate accidents that may provide images I have not yet seen.
SB: And yet you are not interested in portraying this harsher part. There is no interest in leaving a testimony, but there is an interest in transcending individual situations and eliminating the particular.
LR: Yes, there is an interest in eliminating partially the particular or the anecdotal in order to establish bridges that connect us. We are all, potentially, the characters of all the stories, a little like the “monomyth”
of Joseph Campbell.
Through the years, I have realised that probably this is why I focus on gestures, postures or the body, and partially do away with the context, because it allows the images to become relatable. The interest for me lies in transcending the particular and seeking something more common to the human condition so as to be able to review those constructions we were discussing.
Also, I am not a good observer in moments of emergency; I am not capable of working on those situations I think. I am not particularly quick, nor have I internalised photography as a profession. I have not developed the skills required to work for the media with the commitment of a third person who is waiting for the work to be published. I live through harsh experiences of those contexts in which I work, and the work is ultimately very much imbued with being immersed in a specific context.
SB: By tackling complex situations from a different perspective, you focus on the relational aspect of your work and the need to take charge of these realities and emergency situations.
LR: Not necessary emergency situations, for instance in the case of Aristócratas, of social constraints. Situations in which we treat or don’t treat each other in a certain way depending on a context or place,
or by being part of a certain group. The idea is to go beyond this and be able to relate to each other from
an uncertain place, one that allows us somehow to start again.
SB: Without any preconceptions.
LR: Yes, it is a process in which preconception or prejudices fall apart quickly, because people’s reactions may clash with my own expectations or vice versa. It is a “(dis)learning” process. But what you learn remains interiorised within you, because it has been learned through experience.
SB: What is your connection with the people you portray in Aristócratas? Why are you interested in this community of women with intellectual disabilities?
LR: It was a part of my childhood in my father’s village where these women, who live within the context of a religious institution, come for summer holidays. I didn’t understand the nature of this group during my childhood. I understand it now as an adult, but the feeling of separation was somehow still there. I visited their house for two summers, from when I don ́t have almost images, it was more a moment of sharing and breaking that barrier.
The organisation appreciated my interest and allowed very interesting meeting space that still remains. We spent a lot of time together, which I realised was fundamental, time tha was not for photography, but to share daily life. Progressively, that separation, as well as the perception of the women as a group, began to disintegrate, everything became a lot more complex— and simpler at the same time. It was in 2016, through some theatre workshops in the garden, that a space emerged to be able to make the work. Then I started to reflect on the idea of “ability” as a social construct in relation to normality, what is the function of that exclusion — in groups such as this one — for the rest of society.
LAS VISIONES [THE VISIONS]
SB: Theatricality, the way in which you study how to interact with these groups during dead time helps you to construct universes and assign a different identity to those portrayed. How do you link reality with mythology or religiosity in your work? You directly tackle a religious tradition in Las visiones that takes place in Puente Genil (Córdoba), but the intention of bringing the subjects closer to religious stories is present in all your works.
LR: I employ theatricality in very basic ways, to establish a relationship and create images together. The images are also very simple, elemental and related to archetypes, in the sense of images that evoke something beyond themselves.
Mythology, religion, tales and stories attempt to explain the enigma of what we are doing here, as well as dealing with pain, with what we don’t know. They are narratives and creations whose nature, in essence, transcends cultures and times in their origin; they relate to us all and to our finite existence. In Las visiones the context was given, as it is a folkloric or religious celebration — Semana Santa [Holy Week] — where people are already immersed in that ritual, with the dresses, masks, etc.
SB: Your work typically combines these two types of images, some spontaneous and others dramatized, with a high degree of ambiguity. In other words, we often don’t know what is spontaneous and what is fiction. Sometimes it is more evident. You allow these masks to be seen and you also set out to seek them in places, such as in Las visiones, where they appear naturally in a cultural context, where the mask facilitates this “escaping from”. This project therefore originated in Subida al cielo, where you laid the foundations of a way of looking that includes and transforms yourself, and then you head out in search of other places and other communities where you can put those
same dynamics into play, but you also find other contexts that bring you that mythology or those essential meanings that interest you.
LR: Las visiones functions as a kind of manual, and it may be the germ of something that I will develop in the future. I found out about the celebration within the Magnum archive, with images that were made 50 years before by Josef Koudelka and later in the 1990s by Cristina García Rodero. There are many places in Spain where we have preserved, for better or worse, certain traditions, religious rites, some of them unofficial, pagan, but still rooted with continuity, as opposed to revival.
I find an event in Las visiones that is already defined, with certain features that allow me to play with that reality and especially the more spiritual part, thereby adding meaning to a more mundane question. The photography here was more of an event; something happening within a space of social celebration. However, I realised through the editing process I have almost completely eliminated from the work any allusion to the procession and the event as such.
SB: The direct way in which you photograph wounds is striking within the ambiguity of your work. They are stark in Subida al cielo, in La Jungla and in Los afortunados. What other meaning do they have for you, apart from that of suffering?
LR: There is a text by John Berger in which he talks about Spanish painting. He speaks about how the Baroque took hold extremely well in Spain because there is this impulse to portray things in a very realistic manner, but without trusting that this realism has any truth to it. That the truth is always somewhere else. The wound is the most direct way of showing this; behind it there is only more blood, organs and skin.
SB: A wound (vulnus) is vulnerability, exposed fragility. So let us return then through the wound, and also through death, to the essence of human beings, to what is common to us.
LR: And that is why I also produce many images of bodies on the ground, expressions of gravity. We are all equal there and we are united. This is something I rationalise a posteriori, but I work from my guts, I don’t think about it before I do it. I have realised over the years that I take photos of people lying on the ground. The reason why I can explain it one way or another with words; but I relate this to death.
SB: Many images also refer to sleep, to the position in which the body agrees to free itself from gravity. These images can be associated with the moments that give way to transformation in these scenes you create. The prelude, through sleep or death, to those moments of greater intensity and freedom.
LR: Exactly, and they are ultimately quite “creaturely” moments, where the body loses its posture. Because how do you escape from something social, from constraints? Well, a very easy way is for the body to defy social conventions about how we position ourselves, how we behave. There are several images that don’t fulfil this premise, such as in the last photo of Aristócratas, where all the women are dressed up and looking at the camera, almost ironically.
LA JUNGLA [THE JUNGLE]
SB: You tackle a topical or journalistic subject in La Jungla, migration in a very complex territory, a context of violence on a border as important as the one that separates Mexico and the USA. You use a language far removed from that of information or news and consciously approach this project in a more ambiguous manner than what we are used to seeing.
LR: La Jungla started as a collective project about migration, to work on the border between Mexico and the USA with a group of Magnum photographers. It belongs to Subida al cielo because it shares the same concerns and approach.
At first I was worried about travelling to such a distant and unknown place. But I focused on working within a particular space, something I did also in Subida al cielo or Aristócratas. La Jungla is a semi-abandoned natural park in Tijuana where the border wall passes through. I worked in the park with the people that were living there and soon became close to them. The work revolves around the relationship they have with the jungle. It was progressively that I understood the degree of vulnerability and danger there, and the intensity of their relationship with the jungle as a home.
I hold on very tightly to the ambiguity of visual language in order to not establish affirmations; I move on that thin line of not fully acting upon what is right or wrong, but more into the act of questioning it. I enter places where I adopt a vulnerable position too and let myself be carried away by others, to create other ways to exist or to relate. That is why I am so interested in visual language, because there is no assertiveness in it.
LOS AFORTUNADOS [THE FORTUNATE ONES]
SB: Your most recent work, Los afortunados, contains photographs from the border between Spain and Morocco, more specifically between the cities of Melilla and Beni Ensar, with the communities of young people from Morocco intending to migrate to Europe in search of a future. As in Aristócratas or La Jungla, there are also scenes in Los afortunados that are strongly inspired by religious stories and martyrdoms, which are really no different from the anguish and even death that these young people suffer for fighting for their future.
LR: I made Los afortunados after La Jungla. Before this I was only working with themes of close proximity. But in La Jungla, I realised it was possible for me to work in an initially unknown place, abroad. The work was always precisely about establishing a connection in a place that seemed initially unrelatable.
That opened a door to issues that were relevant, but that I had never thought to work on. The border between Spain and Morocco was always an example for me of how within Europe we can ignore human rights violations if they happen here — but then look at them in astonishment in other places. In 2019, there was also a media peak around the controversy of young people arriving in Spain from Morocco. Soon after arriving at the border, I realised the situation the young people were in: the corruption of the institutions and the police brutality on both sides of the border.
It was through spending time together that spaces of connection and exchange emerged, especially whilst killing time, waiting, eating, cooking. As in Aristócratas or Subida al cielo, there comes a time when certain images awaken a visual universe, where there is a balance between the rawness of the situation and the dynamics we can develop. I started working organically, with the key help of Ayoub ElGhaouzi, who was in that same situation and joined the project in its most productive phase. The images I hope evoke the situations of risk, adrenaline, survival, constant strategy and also brotherhood they are experiencing, but in a more metaphorical or allegorical manner that perhaps counteracts the media perspective it has been built for many years.
SKETCHES, PAINTINGS, IMAGES
SB: You finally wanted to display part of your work process through sketches in notebooks, notes, quotations, paintings and so on, materials that impact your formative experience and that you tend to use when you are working.
Do these sketches help you not to be so self-conscious when you are taking photographs, to avoid thinking about the situations you are photographing and to experience them intensely? Do they help you to structure the images or anticipate situations?
LR: When I am immersed in a work and I make these sketches, although they seem to be very fixed images, they feed a way of working. It is true that I am not very conscious of the images I am taking when I take photographs, the situation is much more important, but I already have a previous study and know that this exercise will provide me with an image that will transcend the context, that will interest me, that will be related to more universal things, or more linked to the body, to movement, to gesture. I am not very observant; I am making the same gestures; I am moving. I know the image is going to be good precisely because it is not about the image.
SB: Regarding the images that you study or that inspire you, it is also inevitable to ask you about the influence of painting on your work. Especially after having seen a recent series in which the dynamic that you propose to the people photographed is the game of La gallina ciega [Blind Man’s Bluff], one of Goya’s works, or also the direct reference to El Greco through the title of the series Agony in the Garden [La oración en el huerto, 1597-1607].
LR: I don’t have a preference for any medium. I am interested in painting, but I also work a lot with film stills, vernacular image and so on. There are artists I am especially interested in who are inspirational, and Goya is the most important in terms of the idea of combining the fantastic with the dreamlike and the most mundane. I am interested in what is neither pure nightmare nor in his portrait painting, but in his Black Paintings, his drawings, where there are no such far-fetched elements, but where he manages to create that powerful image of a particular moment.
I draw less from El Greco, but I find him interesting. Agony in the garden was also done by others; it is a passage from the bible. I was more interested there in the title than in the image, although it is a very beautiful image of the apostles asleep while Jesus is praying in the garden.
SB: In updating these religious stories and their representations by transferring them to the present, activating them in contemporary contexts by usin the pictorial tradition of Christianity, I think about how our perspectives are inevitably mediated by this tradition and its thought. In other words, if we think about the production of religious iconography, the people it corresponded to and what it attempted to communicate, there is a paradox, because these images were commissioned by the powers that be. In your case, you use them to do exactly the opposite, breaking that mechanism of exclusion and power.
LR: I don’t know if I have the ability to distance myself as muc in order to see this clearly. I understand what you are saying, but the reason for me why religious iconography is important is because of its rawness. Because there has been a tradition where suffering, pain — from the wound to the most spiritual pain — has been represented in a very beautiful yet brutal manner, with a lo of attention and a lot of work put into it. I have never seen images that represented so well, in my opinion, suffering or the human condition. Those images interest me and I use them as a reference because they are visually so powerful. I am interested in the impact they can have on us, those icons that captivate you and help you to plunge deeper into existence itself when you look at them. I am very drawn to the Baroque: those looks, those expressions. We are also in a much more sterile period and perhaps I feel a nostalgia for that Baroque. But yours is a good reflection.
SB: To conclude, I would like to comment on a quote by Robert Bresson that has been floating around from the outset among the many materials we have handled and that perhaps sums up your search well: “The crude real will not by itself yield truth”. Is it important to remember the need to create alternative narratives?
LR: I truly relate to that quote in my work. I find “truth” in the encounter and in the experiences where I actively participate. I don’t find that as an observer. Maybe worth mentioning that — especially in photography, the photojournalistic tradition does not necessarily represent the truth and is not simply more objective, but it is often the most accepted construction related to “truth”. For example, I only photograph with 50mm lenses, which are the closest to the way our eyes see. But wide-angle lenses and black and white are often accepted as veracious.
Conversation between Lúa Ribeira and curator Sonia Berger - Exhibition brochure: Sudiba al Cielo [Ascent into Heaven] Kutxa Fundazioa. Kutxa Kultur Artegunea. San Sebastián 17.03.2023