by Robbie Zant
You want to know more about the people Flavia Schuster photographs. What’s the story behind the naked river bathers, the hippie dancing in an impeccable Spanish living room, or the shirtless tourist standing in front of a façade depicting a beautiful beach? I have no idea, but I love imagining my own versions of what might have led to each scene and its ensuing image. Maybe that’s what is so captivating about Flavia’s photographs: enough of the story is presented to peak an interest, but enough is left out to keep you wondering.
This unique characteristic of her work seems to come out of the unbiased curiosity with which she approaches the people and places contained in her work. Rather than try to pry the lid off a particular topic or person, she presents each situation in a fashion that leaves enough space for our own curious contemplation. This sense is clearly portrayed in her newest series, “Servicio de Admisión,” which features a group of male patients from the Hospital Neuropsiquiátrico Borda. If the men and their positions in society aren’t enough to prompt the contemplative aspect commonly found in Flavia’s work, a mirror included among the portraits in the gallery space clearly asks the question, “how do I fit into this group of men in front of me?” True to form, Flavia’s left enough room for us to engage and figure it out for ourselves.
When did you become a photographer?
I think that I discovered the magic of photography when I was ten years old. My dad introduced me to a little girl my age that was also named Flavia. When he told me her name, I took the camera that my father had hanging over his shoulder and I photographed her. Many years later I started inviting friends to my home where they would strip down and pose for me.
Could you describe a little bit about your project “Servicio de Admisión”? What was your inspiration for taking photographs of these men?
I invited the patients into a ruined shed in the garden of the Hospital Neuropsiquiátrico Borda to pose without the gaze of doctors, nurses and guards. I asked them to sit and literally look into a glass mirror that I put above the lens of my camera.
Lacan proposes that the mirror constitutes a fundamental experience of identity in which the child conquers the image of his own body. This primordial identification of the child with this image is fundamental to the structuring of the ‘I’ and helps put an end to a psychic search known as a fantasy of the fragmented body.
Mirrors were always confiscated from patients in neuropsychiatric hospitals so that they could not confront their own image. After years of medication and social desolation, their reactions varied between denial to curiosity and rejection.
The series presents a group of forgotten men looking at themselves.
Do modern psychiatric hospitals have mirrors? Can you explain a bit more your decision to use one while photographing for this project?
Today there are mirrors, but my understanding is that until the turn of the 20th century there were none. My photographic work up until this series was documentary, street, and auto-biographic. For a long time I had thought about working with a glass mirror so that those being photographed could have a relationship with themselves that goes further than the unity and intimacy that is inherent between the photographer and the subject. Given the close relationship between psychosis and self-image I decided to use the idea to work with the mirror with this population.
When you take their photos have the men already been admitted into the hospital?
Within the series of photos there are many people from the hospital: there are both admitted and released patients, and outpatients too. There is also a man that has volunteered at the hospital for the last 8 years and another that uses the gardens to sleep.
How did you choose the garden shed for the setting of the photographs?
Since 2010 I have coordinated a photography class as part of the 13 workshops that the “Frente de Artistas del Borda” put together. All of the workshops use the same shed I use in the series. Getting access to the space was easy.
What is it like speaking with these men? How do you begin to talk with them?
The way that I would speak with you or your cousin. Perhaps with some you have to re-explain the intention to be sure that they understand the instructions. Whatever it takes, I always make sure that they understand perfectly what the series is about and that it could be exhibited in the future. Unless I was convinced of this and had consent, I wouldn’t take the photo.
This project and a lot of your other ones deal with portraiture. What is it that you look for or what can you find in a portrait? What is there in that moment when someone is looking into a camera?
Taking someone’s portrait means to enter into their intimacy, to appropriate myself to the subject. It is also a way of connecting with one’s neighbor, it is a passport, an ice breaker.
You can check out her show "Servicio de Admisión" until July 7th, 2012 at Fundación Lebensohn.