The Leica Gallery Mexico City opens with a big bang: Yael Martinez’s photographs reveal surreal worlds caught between dream and reality, and give the viewer free rein to come up with their own associations. In this interview, the Mexican photographer talks about his motivations and about how he creates his works.
What was the concrete motivation for the images you will exhibit in Mexico? Is there an overarching theme that your photographs are based on, or are there certain underlying concepts?
Since my early days of photography, one of my first approaches was to use photography as a way to capture the people I love, and the people with whom I share a deep bond. The thematic line that defines the images is the use of affectionate photography, and how this establishes empathic links with regard to human relations.
How would you describe your style of photography, and what are the biggest influences on your visual language?
I’ve always considered myself a documentary photographer. I find it essential that the work is connected to reality, and that it speak of social, historic and political processes. Even if my exploration doesn’t have a classical character, I believe it continues to be a documentary exploration, where the heart and the structure of the image have a deep connection to reality. Among others, I very much admire the work of Josef Koudelka, Graciela Iturbide, Susan Meiselas and Antoine d’Agatha, and I’m also interested in many pictorial and graphic explorations.
Under what conditions were your images created?
Many of the pictures shown are of my daughters and my wife. As I mentioned, I believe that the use of photography is a connection where we can generate collaborative images that serve as memory, as games, as ways of learning, to encourage experiences in the moments we build together. For a few years now, one of my interests has been to create pictures that expand our notion of reality, and I mix images that arise from memories or dreams.
How do you manage to capture feelings and thoughts in such aesthetically pleasing images? Do you have a specific approach?
I consider photography a collaborative process, and to generate this process you need to expand the links of empathy and proximity with the people you are collaborating with. We have to learn to observe and listen. By reading those moments I establish a relationship with the people, and that’s when the moment to take the picture emerges. In many senses, my process starts without the camera on hand; the image often comes at the end of the process, when I intuit that the time has come to pull out the camera, to document the moment. On some occasions, I’ve shared very sensitive moments, and I prefer not to pick up the camera, but to live and learn from the experience. I think it’s very important to establish affectionate links. I also always aim for permission from the person or people at the time when I’m taking photographs. It has also happened that, after showing the images to the people with whom I’m collaborating, they’ve asked me not to share sensitive pictures; and that decision has to be respected, so I don’t allow the images to see the light of day.
What role does natural and artificial light play in your work when it comes to creating certain moods?
I’ve always been interested in creating specific atmospheres in my pictures, and I do so by always working at specific times, when I know how the light behaves; and, at times I use a flash or constant lights to achieve the atmosphere I’m hoping for.
Considering that some of your images look like dreamlike collages; what role does post-processing play in your work?
Part of my process since 2016 has involved experimenting through picture processing. These pieces are connected to the experiences I have lived through, and somehow these experiences transform into images that are unique and non-replicable. The interventions in the images become rituals, and, in that sense, I often work on prints, which gives rise to original images.
What you often see on social networks, or through Magnum channels or through the gallery that represents me, is a reproduction of my intervention on an image. But I always preserve the original, and I’ve been able to display those unique pieces in museum exhibitions. I work on the post-processing of these images with tools that I use for making jewellery, or tools that are used in graphic processes. And in most cases, the image is built on top of a print. I try to integrate the life experiences I’ve had into my visual language, and those experiences aim to ensure that the image is read from different layers and perspectives.
Can you tell us about the choice of the Leica Q2, and how it influenced your image making?
I really like the diversity that I get from working with the Q. It’s a compact, very tough camera that allows me to work in places with difficult access, and it has a lens that is luminous enough to deal with any scene. The Q is ideal for my workflow and for the focal length I’m used to working with.
You can look back on a remarkable professional career. How has your journey as a photographer evolved, and what is the significance of the exhibition at the new Leica Gallery Mexico City for you?
After spending more than a decade taking photographs of my family and the families of other people who have disappeared, I’m trying to find a path that will lead me to generating a historical memory of my life. A testimony through which I can speak of all the layers of reality that make up my country. I define my work as an essay on resilience, through the images of those who have been touched by violence at some point in their lives. Those people and communities who live and resist in a territory, space, or body that has been made vulnerable by the the violence that plagues our country. I’m interested in speaking about Mexico and Latin America as a symbolic space, a land where violence affects everyone, and this violence penetrates the physical and spiritual space of the people who live there. A land that is an analogy for a body, a house, a person, a family or a nation.
What is the significance of photography for you in general?
Photography for me has been a life experience. It has given me a great sense of history, which helps me to see and photograph the present; and I hope it helps to define how society will see the future, to help deepen a base, which can stand up to any adversity. From my perspective, photography is a means to have an impact on society and on community. Today more than ever, a photographer has to generate spaces of reflection and analysis of the themes that are emerging. It is imperative to understand documentary photography from different perspectives, where the main collaborators are the people who open up their hearts and the doors of their homes, so as to be able to create a memory about the social processes they are living through.
I understand photography and art as a vehicle of social transformation. Our days are not measured when our eyes are extinguished and the white smoke of our fire dances; they are measured by the number of roots we plant in the ground and by the voices that burned with our struggles, with our anguish and with our dreams.
Yael Martínez Velázquez was born in the Mexican state of Guerrero in 1984. His work addresses fractured communities in his native homeland. He often works symbolically to evoke the sense of emptiness, absence, and pain suffered by those affected by organized crime in the region. He is a nominee of the Magnum Photos Agency, and a member of The National System of Creators in Art Mexico. He is the recipient of the 2019 Eugene Smith Award, and a fellow of the Photography and Social Justice Program of The Magnum Foundation. In 2019, he received 2nd Prize in the long-term projects category, World Press Photo. His pictures have been featured in solo and group shows in America, Europe, Africa and Asia. His work has been published by National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Vogue Italy, and Aperture, among others. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.
The exhibition will take place from November 17, 2023 until January 22, 2024 in Leica Galerie Mexico City, Avenida Presidente Masaryk Nr. 422; Polanco, Mexico City 11550.
It is not permitted to use the exhibited images in any other context outside of this exhibition.