Ian Mount sits down with one of BA´s most exciting photographers, Sebastián Friedman. 

Most of the techniques artists use to break through the “fourth wall” and touch the crowd—charging offstage and accosting an audience member during a play, for example, or displaying paintings in a nightclub bathroom—have been used so often that they have devolved into impotent art-world jokes. But two recent exhibits from the photographer Sebastián Friedman broke the cliché. In the Domésticas show in the Biblioteca Nacional, Friedman places a full-sized recreation of a dingy maid’s room alongside uncomfortable “family portraits” of live-in maids with the employers who house them in such squalor together with happier photos of the maids with their own families. And Cartoneros—an exhibit of portraits of Buenos Aires garbage pickers with their night’s collections—was shown inside the location where the photos were shot, the half-collapsed factory in the grim suburb of Lanús where the cartoneros sell their pickings. Far from being cheap art-student tricks, Friedman’s shows inspired a kind of uneasiness that gathered its strength from the contradictions of modern Argentine life. In the country that famously has the largest middle class in Latin America and proudly claims solidarity between citizens, how does the middle class justify having live-in servants in tiny rooms above the kitchen, and turning the other way while shanty-town dwellers pick through their trash each night? And do they really know how these people live—or even where? On the day before he was to fly to Morocco, we visited Friedman in his dimly lit, bohemian-busy apartment in a casa chorizo in Boedo. With his goatee and contemplated speech, there was something both distant and intimate about Friedman—much like his portraits, where still, emotionally distant subjects are planted among backgrounds of such saturated color they seem painted. We started with the hardest but shortest question: Why?

What were you trying to do with the photos of the families with their maids and of the maids’ families?

My interest in photography began with things that bothered me; photograph can be a reflection that can make you realize that everyday things that seem normal aren’t normal. The subject of people and their maids interested me because I spent my childhood with a domestic worker in my house and I saw something weird in the relationship. There’s something unequal in it, like in the names maids are called—La Señora, La Chica. It’s hard to talk about. So what these photos do is incorporate the domestic worker into the family portrait, which makes it an uncomfortable situation. Because she’s not part of the family—she’s like part of the family. Showing the family of the employee completes the picture.

To me at least, the maids looked a lot happier in the photos with their own families than with the families they worked with. How much did you pose them?

I call it something of a false documentary. Because you work with elements of reality and you manipulate them according to your desire. You choose the idea, you guide things…
The attitude people have in the photographs is what they chose: serious, calm. Beyond that, when you see the photos in a show, you insert your own story. You say, “Wow, look how sad she is there,” or, “Look how integrated she is in the family,” when in reality you don’t know. Photography lets each person reflect and create his own story and talk about things rarely discussed. It has to be uncomfortable for the progressive middle class to have a domestic worker. How does your ideology live alongside a servant? Because she is a servant. She cooks your food, takes care of your kids and cleans the bathroom. As good a vibe as there might be, there is an undeniable relationship between the servant and the served.

What did the families and the domestic workers think when they saw the pictures?

The majority were happy. First, to have a lovely reminder, a pretty photo of the family. Also, to be filmed or photographed gives you existence these days. I recall a woman who was photographed with a family in Salta and when I was leaving she said thank you for keeping us in mind. I thought of it as a kind of homage to domestic workers; for me, to give someone visibility is a homage. For me, our domestic worker was someone who was very important in my life. She represented good things, bad things, but she was very important.

In the exhibit in the Biblioteca Nacional, you constructed a dependencia, a maid’s room complete with water-stained walls and a crappy little bed. Why?

I didn’t like the library space. I wanted to look for something so it wouldn’t just be photos hanging on the wall. For me, that’s depressing. If you want to sell photos, fine, you hang photos on the wall, the people walk past, they say, “I’d like that for my house,” and they buy it, and that’s it. But if you’re trying to do something more, you have to do something else. With the maids’ rooms, they’re these minimal spaces. It’s weird that someone who cares for so much of your important stuff—your life, your house, your children—has the worst space in the house. Loco, ¿qué onda? You see plans for apartments of 300 square meters and the dependencia is two-by-two. Son of a bitch. With 300 square meters, don’t you think you could offer something a little better?

Likewise, the cartonero show was in a factory in Lanús where the cartoneros sell their pickings, and a lot of the cartoneros attended the opening. What were you doing?

For someone who hasn’t ever been before, it illuminates something. It’s a surrealistic place, full of garbage. It’s like a post-industrial zone, a zone of Argentine industrial decadence. For people from Capital Federal, to cross into the province is a big deal. The idea was to show a bit of this universe and not only the images, but also, “Look how it is”. It was like a test. To take artistic work out of the exposition space where you normally see it and are comfortable and it’s a protected location and where you have known what’s going to happen. The photos were there, among the garbage, and you have to be careful walking so you don’t hurt yourself, don’t fall, don’t step in a puddle of foul water. It seems to me that this creates a different relationship. To smell the odors that there were in the space, see the cartoneros, it creates a space that’s not so secure. And that interests me. Although I participate in shows in the galleries and museums that invite me, the truth is, if you have an idea that goes beyond the aesthetic, it seems that you usually end up totally fucked.

What are you doing now?

Today I’m doing a project about the bars that people use to close up their houses, their balconies, their businesses. People spend hours and hours behind bars and they choose to in order to feel secure. It’s the madness of security, and it’s booming. What happened after 2001 created a landscape of bars that didn’t exist before? I remember going to the kiosk at night and it being basically open and these days they look like cages. Maybe when you go to buy a Coke it seems normal to you, but to me it doesn’t seem like it, nor does it seem like a solution. It seems to me that the people are creating illusions of security, which do not exist.

You also do ads for VW, MTV, etc.—how does that fit with your personal work?

I began working as an assistant to various commercial photographers. And I started doing my own advertising work in 2000, 2001. At times it generates more contradictions in me. Other times I do the work, I send the bill, my check comes in, and everybody’s happy. In general, when I began, advertising was more entertaining because it was newer and there were more possibilities to involve myself, to add ideas. Now, it seems like they’re not so interested, like it’s better to do the job they’ve planned well and not much more. I do a lot of pictures with kids, for Pampers, and it’s madness. But I like doing ads. It generates contradictions when I’m helping to sell junk but as work I like it.

What advice do you have for photographers who want to live off art?

In other countries, where there’s a culture of collecting and other movements, foundations and people who put money into art, it’s much simpler. There are maybe five photographers who live off their personal work in Argentina, and the rest do advertisements, or journalism. What are you going to do? To me, a good beginning would be to start as an assistant to other photographers. My formation beyond learning the elements of photography and the machines at school largely came about through work with other photographers. And, beyond that, you’ve got to have faith. We all have fear. Of everything. You can live with that fear without it paralyzing you.

Do you sell any of these pictures from the domestics or the cartonero shows?

Some of the domestic workers were bought by a university collection in the United States. But I’m not a big seller. I don’t know why.

Ian Mount is a freelance writer living in Buenos Aires. Check Good Airs for more Mr. Mount on BA.

This article was originally published in Wicked BA #1