Flamenco dancer María Moreno photographed by Susana Girón as part of the project “Yo bailo”
It is the photograph that people are moved to more than words. But it has to be a good photograph. And good storytelling needs time, Susana Girón tells me. And I can tell just by looking at her photographs. It is not about taking photos, it is about stories lived.
There is the intimate and poetic portrait of one of the last nomadic shepherds in Spain and Europe, the result of not just observing, but sharing an existence with them for a few weeks a year, throughout the entire duration of the transhumance, every year, for five years now. There are the surprisingly touching portraits of complete strangers, “People I never saw”, shot through the window of a train, but which somehow reflect a piercing emotion. There is the powerful portrait of an artist stripped to bare emotions during the transformative artistic act. But whether from deep close or further away, there is this inner life movement that Susana Girón’s photography always communicates… the feeling that she shares something big with her subject and the space around… the feeling of existence.
The ability to see that is not in the eye, but in the heart. The skill of being able to both see her subject as individual and allow the viewer to connect with someone of a different culture and background on a much deeper level. The care and consideration and patience that lead to each image to feel honest. Conveying truth without melodrama, empathy without pity, hope without spectacular. Reflecting not contriving reality. Taking time, not made in a state of flight. Making the world familiar and seducing the viewer in, slowly, subtly, yet assuredly and optimistically. That’s the photography of Susana Girón. Because she has faith in the humanizing power of photography. It is an invitation to reconnect with the world and with each other.
”People I never saw”, photograph by Susana Girón
What does it take to go there, to want to tell a story through your photographs?
To take photographs is a way of life, a way to relate with people. To look for stories and tell these stories in photographs, it is an inner necessity, a chance to be a better person, because in every new story I am learning, I have a meeting with new people in very different circumstances to me and this is a continuous discovery for me. The camera is a tool to enter the stories or people that interest me, a kind of license. The most powerful fact in photography for me is this meeting, the process of developing a story and the challenge of translating the emotions you have into photographs that evoke these emotions and feelings. So, when I see or discover a story that has all the elements that I am interested in, a mixture of passion, excitation and determination comes to me and moves me to work and photograph. I feel totally “alive” when I am immersed in a creative process of making a photographic story.
On the other hand, since I was a child I have loved storytelling, telling stories… and, for me, photography is the best medium to do so. For me, it is a daily challenge to invite all the people that look at my photographs or stories to recognise themselves in the same stories despite the fact that they don´t belong to these stories or environments. From the distance of different cultures, ages or backgrounds, there is a kind of universal feeling that connects all people, and I am really interested in looking for these feelings.
I believe that your photography, which chronicles such different places and people, has this ability to make the viewer, too, want to be a better human; it opens him up to the world, to being more understanding, more alert, more receptive to the world around, near and far.
”90 varas”, photograph by Susana Girón
”A good photo has to move our emotions as well as ask
us questions, it invites to a second reading.”
When do you know you have taken a good photograph? And what makes a good photo?
Normally, I realise it because I feel something, a kind of magical connection with the person portrayed or with the scenery, or both. The energy flow, it is difficult to explain, because when I feel this kind of energy I photograph from instinct and I am in a kind of trance and I forget what is happening around me, I am isolated from the world in these moments. I try to work and photograph from instinct or from the unconscious. I see something a little before it happens, a kind of premonition. And then, sometimes it happens, and all the elements that you were looking for are suddenly in order in front of you, sometimes it is even better because something unexpected appears and makes the photograph grow. And then you press the obturator and you got it! The good photograph is the one that shows in the best way the idea that was previously in your head. The light, the composition and the emotions are there, together and well-ordered, in a sort of miracle.
For me, the most important thing that a good photo has is EMOTION. A good photo has to move our emotions as well as ask us questions, it doesn’t allow us to discover the entire scene in one second, it invites to a second reading, to look at the photo again and again searching for that answer. Emotion is the basics, to feel something when you see that photo.
Emotion is one of the things that define your photography. Do you also think that people are moved to act on issues when they see your photography?
I would like to think so, but, to be honest, I think this is really difficult. For me, if my work gets an emotion, a reflexion, an inspiration, a thought…. anything that makes them react… then my goal is completed. I would like to think that my work could be inspiring to people, because most of my work, the stories, are imbued with a positive point of view and they invite us to be part of the story, in some way they could be the main characters of the story as well. Then empathy makes the rest.
”Good things need time. Good storytelling needs time.
I don’t know any other way to tell a story well.”
“90 varas” is one of your stories that I react in a very emotional way to. It’s not just photojournalism, you coming in and capturing what’s happening, it’s about telling a story in a very transformative and elegiac way, about evoking a certain way of living and transporting the viewer there. Can you tell me a little more about this project?
I am really happy in the way you describe your feelings about “90 varas”, because this is exactly what I was looking for when I was developing this project. I was very interested in the story of the transhumant, the last nomad shepherds in Spain, but I didn´t want to tell this story is a descriptive way. I was looking for a more evocative photographic language, inviting the viewers to the self-discovering of emotions and sensations. For that reason, I tried to avoid the descriptive images, I was not looking for an anthropological study of the shepherds. For me, the story was an invitation to travel with the Alarcon family and try to capture their life through the photographs while living similar experiences to the family during their migrations: Feel the cool, the fatigue, the insecurity of an uncertain future… all these feelings that I was feeling as well.
I started this project in 2015, and I am still photographing this story. I wanted to tell the story of the transhumance in Spain, visiting several places and families that still work in these ancient traditions. But when I discovered the Alarcon family, I felt that their story was the story to tell. Moreover, they come from a place (Fatima, Castril, Granada) very close to the village where all my family comes from. My village, Huéscar (Granada), is only 12 kilometres from the place where they live, and for me that was an extra value in telling this story, of people who are so close to me.
I have been sharing the migrations with this family since 2015, twice a year. During this time, which takes 200 km by foot and almost 10 days living in the forest and mountains, I share with the family all the duties. I live exactly in the same way they do. I am one more person in the family. This is very important, because they appreciate my effort and give me the chance to be seen as an ordinary person rather than a photojournalist, so life simply happens in front of me and somehow I am part of that reality with a photographic camera in my hands. Moreover, the most important thing is that I have a real appreciation for these people and we have a real friendship.
I think there is a lot to learn for all of us from this story and this way of living. I often feel, and in these times of crisis more than ever before, that people like the Alarcon family are the ones who have real power, the way they live without distractions, how they know how to slow life down, to focus on just one important thing, and allow you to be part of their family because they know that only the truly worthy can tell their story. How big a place does storytelling still have in this fast world we are living?
The world goes too fast. Thousands of images around us every moment. I don´t know how big that place is for storytelling, but what I know is that I need time to tell my stories. Perhaps for many people it is too slow and they don´t enjoy the discovery of every picture when you look at it with attention. It takes time and effort, but the feedback, the kind of feeling that comes back to you is more powerful as well. I need to belong to the places and the people who live in my stories, understand them, share the life with them… I don´t know any other way to tell a story well. Good things need time. Good storytelling needs time.
”Approach photography in an honest way,
with coherency and especially TRUTH.”
Your photography ranges from documentary to editorial. Where do you see the power of photography? As document or art?
I really don´t like labels. Why do we need to put labels on our work all the time? What I love to do is to tell stories that are important to me, that move me and that perhaps move others. That’s it. I feel comfortable and I like to mix the languages, even more so, I like to approach each new project in a different way. What I do is photography. Yes, this is a document, but, depending on the story, or on the project, I am most interested in looking for a less descriptive photographic language and for a more sensitive language. It is like an open image, where different interpretations are right, but you have to interact with the image, and take your time to feel the story. I normally don´t look for very evident images, where you can see all the answers about what is happening at first look. Both of them are documentary styles, and document and perhaps art. The power is to approach photography in an honest way, with coherency and especially TRUTH: in the way that you see and you feel and to be able to translate that in the way that you want to tell this story…. And if you find the way and it has honesty… then the power comes. It’s difficult to explain.
Can you tell me a little more about your recent book, Yo bailo?
This is a very special project, an experimental photobook that I have co-authorshipped with María Moreno, one of the best flamenco dancers in the world. The project started by chance, without any idea about what was coming. At the beginning of 2018, María was looking for a photographer to document her creative work while she was working on her new show for an important flamenco festival. There are a lot of photographers specialised in flamenco, but she was looking for someone with a fresh view, an outsider, who was not impregnated with these stereotypes the way flamenco photographers normally are. Her manager knows my work and that I had never taken a single photograph linked to flamenco music or dance, and they made a proposal to me. I was excited about this because I have always wanted to document the creative process of an artist. At first, the pictures were to be used on social nets or as a making-of, but after a year of work, of taking pictures in the intimacy of María (while she was training and dancing alone, during big shows, resting at home or travelling during her shows), we discovered that there was a powerful story behind.
Then we thought about telling the story of the hidden side of a creative process, what the public doesn’t normally see. Behind the big curtain of a big theatre, there are big efforts and, moreover… emotions: fear, passion, determination, doubt. The images were there, but the essence of this project was to tell this story based on the images and adding María’s own voice. Through brief and intense texts, she put the emotional words to what is really inside the person in every photographic moment. The power is binomial: the dialogue between text and image, flamenco and photography. The result is a book, where an artist, in first person, tells and shows the intimacy of her creative process, humanizing the view of an artist by using the power of photography and text.
”Writing is a very important part of my creative process.”
It is a singular and intimate collaboration, a communion might be the better word, between artist and photographer, especially that we have the images narrated by the artist herself. When you are working on other projects, do you ever feel the need to add words to your photographs?
Writing is always an important part of my personal projects. When I start a project, I get a new notebook where I am writing all the ideas and emotions that the story inspires me. Normally, these notes and texts are private, just for me, but at the same time, they are a very important part of my creative process, because when I try to write, more feelings come to me and writing inspires me with more ideas. Normally, I write a list of emotions that are related to the story and then take the challenge to translate that list of written emotions into images. Every project has its own notebook full of reflections and things that come to me while I am immersed in that project. It is very inspiring, but even later, when the time passes, it is amazing to discover and be able to come back to what was there when I was absorbed in the story. It is important to write because everything you don´t write is forgotten. In the book YO BAILO (I DANCE), the text belongs to another artist, but the very impressive thing is that every creator or artist can be recognised in these texts.