Organizing committee prize
Nadia Shira Cohen/ Italy (Italia)
Yo no di a Luz
Bringing the light – Nadia Shira Cohen talks about her project
Interview by Sonia Borsato
Nadia Shira Cohen is an American photographer born in Boston in 1977, based in Rome since 2007. She won the Committee Award in the first edition of ASPA -Alghero Street Photography Awards - with Yo no dì a luz, a project that deals with the issue of abortion not limited only to the medical-legal problems, but insinuating itself in the emotional, anthropological, religious folds of a powerful and definitive choice as to give or not life, especially when this choice is made in some parts of the world.
In the storytelling of her experience in El Salvador - which she calls "my gift" - emerges a photographic work lived as a responsibility - the glory of the survivors might have said Primo Levi -, the privilege of those who see and know how to show. But above all, a document offered as the only opportunity for redemption for those who live on the edge of the world.
Your relationship with the camera began very early as an instrument to process and document, during an important period in your life…
I don’t have any problems speaking about that phase of my life because I view it in a positive light it’s a part of my history. I began to take pictures when I had cancer, even though photography was already something I had wanted to explore before I was diagnosed. I went to an excellent public high school in the United States, which allowed me the possibility to learn various artistic disciplines, therefore it seems that it was only a matter of time before I found photography, perhaps I just needed the right moment. Looking back, I realize I have always held the instinct to tell stories, as in the beginning they were the stories and portraits of other children who were in the same hospital with me. Unfortunately there are some of them, which are no longer here with us. I believe there is a reason I survived, that I had a lot I had to do; I was meant to become a mother, a photographer, to tell many peoples stories, stories that otherwise perhaps no one would know about.
It’s as if you want to return the gift that you were given, as if you feel a sense of responsibility, one feels this very strongly when looking at your work in general and especially the story that you have presented for the ASPA Contest. With your work Yo no di a luz, you call attention to a very delicate topic: that of abortion. As you say in your accompanying synopsis of the project, there are actually 66 countries in which it’s possible to abort only in very restrictive circumstances and 5 countries in which it’s completely prohibited. How did you become interested in such a delicate subject and how did you prepare for the story? The images in the end are the end result of a long and laborious approach I imagine…
Yes in a certain way you can. I prepare a lot so we can certainly speak about management! I do a lot of research, I envision ahead of time about how the photos might be. Even though in reality they usually end up being completely different then I imagined them, thinking it out ahead of time helps me to have an idea of the bigger picture. The research and thinking ahead help me a lot, especially in the case of this story, preparing myself was imperative. When you take on a story like this it’s very probably that everything will go wrong. Usually once you get on the ground there are a lot of problems that need to be resolved. However this time was different, everything worked from the beginning and may be it was my approach or perhaps having success influenced how I handled the work. This story began with my interest in the Zika crisis in Latin America and the consequences for women who were pregnant. However in El Salvador women did not have and still do not have the option to legally end their pregnancy, even if they discover that the fetus has malformations. This fact caused me to approach the story with a greater depth and concentrate on what it’s like for women to live and birth in a country with these types of laws and social constraints. So my interest in the topic began there and then it opened up to include influences in society such as religion. A lot of people commented to me about how religion is lived and perceived in this part of the world, where aside from faith, converge with politics and a certain kind of domination of the masses. I didn’t want to tell this part of the story in an accusatory way, I wanted it to be more like a cultural depiction, trying to show how religion is lived through the people, how faith enriches their daily lives. For example I found during my research that there was “The Festival of the Flowers” in a small Pueblo, Panchimalco, outside of San Salvador. I even rescheduled my plane to be able to arrive in time for the festival and the religious procession of The Virgin Mary, in which I was pleased to find worked really well for the narrative structure of the story. I had anticipated that it would have been a good beginning and point of departure for understanding the cultural climate of the country. Furthermore, the pueblo is under control of the gangs. Because it was a festival there was an unspoken permission to photograph that day, however without this escamotage (or loophole) it would have been much more complicated and dangerous to work there.
Before you had said that you are a person that always tries to live life to it’s fullest, almost as if to merit being given the change to have lived. Approaching a subject of “negation” as is connoted in the title, Yo no di a luz, suggests a reflection, you put yourself in front of a confrontation which above all is personal. Your personal history, that fact that you are a woman, must have a certain relevance in reading one of the most painful chapters in the history of mankind; Actually in the history of women. Affronting such a journey that involves ethical implications, religious and also medical and physical and to do it through the eyes of a woman and as a mother must have weighed on you. What was, from an emotional standpoint, the most difficult aspect?
I always say that everyone in life, no matter what work they do, must live through painful situations. Of course as photojournalists we are more likely to find ourselves around pain. But in the end-and this is what helps me to keep going-I can choose. I can tell stories of others better, by being conscious of the fact that I have the actual freedom to leave and live in another reality. The more I feel what they are going through, the better I am able to transform their hardship visually for others to witness. However painful it is to share moments of trauma and pain with your subjects, it’s not the same as living it. This is also important to maintaining ethics and professionalism. However being a mother has allowed me to have more empathy for these women who are living in this situation, and my experience as a mother allowed me to pick up on the nuances. The most painful situation I encountered was that of the women in prison for having suffered miscarriages and are being accused of homicide. Most of these women have children who are being raised by other people in their absence. Most of them come from really poor neighborhoods, controlled by gangs, where the probability of a young child, who has little guidance, falling victim to the gangs, is quite high. One women in particular, Teresa Valasquez became a very high profile case to the point in which she was eventually pardoned by the Minister of Justice and freed. While documenting her story, aside from photographing her in prison, I wanted to go to her family’s house to see who was raising her 14-year-old son. They lived in the countryside. Before going to prison, Teresa had had a job in the city, in which she would work during the week and come home to be with her son (who her parents helped take care of), who at the time of her arrest was 5. He was accustomed to his mom coming home on Saturdays, when he would put on his best clothes and wait by the door for her. He continued this ritual even after she went to prison. It was a really painful story to endure, one which replays in my head even now, imagining this boy waiting eternally for her mother to come home, it’s heartbreaking. All these women who tell you of their lives, of their children, it’s emotional but also difficult. I feel a certain responsibility to tell their stories, to not let them fall into a black hole.
Looking at the breadth of your work, once perceives you to have a preference for the poetic license. While there is a great geographic variety-there are stories from all over the world-it almost seems in a way that you want to tell the story of Les Miserables, stories of those forgotten by the powers that be, even though they are victims of that power. How do you choose your stories, what guides you?
The first thing that guides me, and that I believe is necessary above all, is the acknowledgement that I am fortunate enough to do a job that I love, that I’m passionate about and that I have the choice to do. Just after this there is my curiosity and interest. If you are missing either of these, the story is doomed to failure. I begin with an idea that then almost always transforms into another. I begin to research, I loose myself on the internet, I go deeper, and usually at a certain point I realize that my original idea doesn’t exist anymore. Even after having planned everything and defined the theoretical aspect of the story, things can change. The reality of what you find is usually almost always not what you expected when you get there. Usually I choose stories that have some kind of ending that can be useful and educative. I like to concentrate on the periphery of the world, as you say.
Even in the commotion of facts, exodus of the people, the tumult of the streets-your images maintain a compositional orderliness, a formal elegance that makes me wonder if they were affected by your artistic studies…which gives off a great sense of dignity to man and events.
I was fortunate to have heterogeneous education form an artistic point of view. Both of my parents are artists and so from an early age I was exposed to a lot of different disciplines, encouraged to be curious, and to experiment. At my university I tried various topics and studied a lot. Even though now that I am established in my path as a photographer, I am continually studying other artistic disciplines. For example I love cinema. I love the work the French Director, Claire Denis, one of who’s first works I find to be a masterpiece, which is called Beau Travail. I also like very much Wong Kar Wai, I consider him a genius. Films stimulate me a lot. Then for example painting inspires me a lot, Caravaggio and his mastering of light. There is also Gericault and the Venetian painters. My photographer went to a different level once I understood how to read light. It’s really somewhat of an art, a skill that you must cultivate over time. Obviously I also look towards great photographers. I love the work of Alec Soth, for his unique approach of telling stories. I have read a lot about his methods, and it fascinates me his way of involving his subjects in constructing his photos, it’s really amazingly well organized. I also admire Mimmo Jodice who’s sensibility strikes me. In general I’m very attracted to photographers that utilize an alternative visual language to tell photojournalistic stories.
What do you think could and should be the task of today’s photographers? Or at least what would it be for you in your life.
A task…its difficult to define because the world of photojournalism is changing a lot and changing very quickly. If I can say generally, I would like that we return to technique; I’m not saying to necessarily return to analogue but go back to studying technique. If we go back a bit to the technique, we can have a much richer and varied visual language, even using digital with more purpose and experimentation. Going backward to then go forward.