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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.
[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
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
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.