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Alessandra Sanguinetti Makes Slaughter Look Beautiful

The Magnum photographer found the meaning of life on the sprawling plains of Argentina.

by Bruno Bayley
19 September 2013, 10:00am

From the book, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda.

Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven't heard of it, chances are you're familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa's coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr's very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum's members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty gruelling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we've been profiling some of their photographers.

Alessandra Sanguinetti was born in New York, but spent her childhood and the first part of her working life in Argentina. While growing up, she spent her holidays in the Pampas – the sprawling grassland plains that cover a vast chunk of Argentina – where she started work on her first photographic project, On the Sixth Day, a documentation of farming life and the way people interact with the animals they rear for slaughter.

Halfway through that project, she started to photograph two local cousins, Guille and Belinda. That series was turned into her best known work, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda, and has continued to expand as the girls have grown older, got married and started having babies. I spoke with Alessandra about the cousins, time and how taking photos adds a sense of order and permanence to our transient lives.

From the book, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda.

VICE: Hi, Alessandra. So, going back a decade, how did moving to America affect your work?
Alessandra Sanguinetti: Well, I lived in Argentina until I was 30, and that’s where I shot On the Sixth Day and The Adventures of Guille and Belinda. I was halfway through working on Guille and Belinda when I moved here and the first chapter of the work was done, so it affected me in a practical sense – I wasn't there for Belinda's wedding.

But it affected me more in an intangible way. I had underestimated how connected I was to Argentina, how much of what I was passionate about lay there. And I underestimated how circumstance and the passage of time changes you. I left with several ideas, leads I was excited to begin, and I just assumed I'd take up where I left off in the future. But it doesn't work that way. When I returned, those little sparks were gone and I didn't see things the same way. There's a moment for everything, and then the moment is gone and you have to move on.

Do you feel like, with the work you're now doing in San Francisco, you've come to terms with America and you're happy there? Or do you think it's a very different type of work?  
I've worked on various projects since then, which – among others – include "Palestine" and, just recently, a short book on family life here in San Francisco, called "Sorry, Welcome". It's published by TBW books and it's coming out very soon.

From the series, The Life that Came.

Okay. So, like in Guille and Belinda, there's still the theme of family and growing up in there. Because I read that you got into photography after the realisation that your friends and family members will all one day die, so you started trying to maintain a record of everyone?
We all, at some point, realise that everything is transitory. And when I was a kid, taking photos was my way to make life a little more permanent. Taking pictures was my way of corroborating and synchronising what I saw with what I felt, and of connecting the dots. Of finding links between arbitrary events, or a pattern within the chaos. Eventually, if you pay attention, you begin building stories and making some sense of things. And after finding a pattern we can recognise, it makes it easier to get through the day.

Do you think that realisation you had has directed your work, too? There seems to be a focus on young women, or children in general, and their transition into adulthood. Even your work in Palestine was strongly focused on children.
Children are fascinating. We were all children once, and most of who we are was defined in our childhood. As a society, we project so much of our hopes, frustrations, denials and aspirations on children, and they are so transparent in how they reflect everything that is thrust upon them. How could I not photograph them? Plus, there's all this conversation that needs to go on with adults, which I'm not great at. With kids, I just get to the heart of the matter.

The Palestine work is still incomplete to me. But when I went there – yes, I had it in mind to concentrate on children living under occupation. I have many interviews with parents that I haven’t used yet, which I'd like to add as text. I plan to return soon and photograph those children, who are now adults.

From the book, On the Sixth Day.

Your work that immediately preceded Guille and Belinda – On the Sixth Day – was about animals, slaughter and how people interact with the animals they rear. What led you to work on that?
That’s a project I had in my mind way before I started it. I spent a lot of time in the countryside as a kid and was aware even then that there were stories there that hadn't yet been told, at least in a visual way. In all the work I saw, except in music and literature, the countryside was portrayed as an empty, lifeless space. Maybe that's because of the nature of the landscape and a certain romanticisation of farming life that ignores any cruder realities, but I always saw much going on there that was taken for granted – a continuous and intense drama going on day after day between the animals, and between them and the people who raise them. Being cornered into a corral is a banal event for us, but it's an extraordinary one for the cow, and I sought to structure the work around this idea.

And the religious reference in the title, was it in any way negative? Do you think it was it judging the way humans kill animals, or more just a blank observation?  
In the beginning, I was a bit judgmental, sure. I was more sentimental and opinionated back then. And I also know that all that melted away as I paid more and more attention to what was in front of me and listened to the work. That's the wonderful part, how the work changes you. One always thinks that one is shaping the work, that you're in control. But if you're really immersed in it and are paying close attention, the work shapes you and you come out of it hopefully a bit wiser and humbler.

From the book, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda.

The Adventure of Guille and Belinda is probably your best known project. Does it feel strange that so much of your work is based around two individuals? And do you think it’s strange for the girls at all?
It was very organic, the way it started. I hadn't set out to look for two girls like that. They were there and it just happened in a very natural way; they already knew me. I was always round at their grandmother's house, photographing animals. I was the girl who was always with a camera. I think they find it stranger when I’m around them and I’m not taking pictures. In the beginning, when they were nine, I would bring back prints of their pictures to show them. Then, when they grew older and childhood was becoming a memory, they started to appreciate the work in a deeper way.

How aware are they of the fact that they're famous?
They're aware that their relationship has a life outside them. But you know, they are in their world, their life, and it doesn't intersect with the world the work circulates in, except for when it's being published or shown in Argentina.

From the series, The Life that Came.

Do you think that, especially in your work with Guille and Belinda, people focus too much on the question of whether a scene is staged or not?
I don’t think about that so much. You know, people question all kinds of works for different reasons, and sometimes it’s just plain curiosity – when they see 50 pictures of the same girls, they have these questions. There are people who read a poem and are transported, and that's enough. Others will want to know why they are touched and will analyse its metre, and so on. Others will only see disjointed words and strange connections, and at some point we all do one or the other. And with photography, because of its nature, this question on the truthfulness of an event come up very often.

Do you feel that there’s an overall message or commentary you are trying to convey in your work? Or do you just take photos for yourself that happen to fascinate people?
Work that is done to send a message or make a commentary would be more in the realm of illustration or propaganda. I don't think of an audience when I'm in the middle of work. It would be stunting. I'd just say I pay attention to certain people, places, relationships and events that move me, and I try to articulate the connections I see and the stories that arise out of them in the best way I know how. And yes, I do hope I can share them with other people. Sharing stories and leaving a record of lives lived is at the heart of it all.

Click through to see more photography by Alessandra Sanguinetti.

From the book, On the Sixth Day.

From the book, The Life that Came.

From the book, On the Sixth Day.

From the book, On the Sixth Day.

From the book, The Life that Came.

From the book, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda.

From the book, The Life that Came.

From the book, On the Sixth Day.

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Magnum Photos
Alessandra Sanguinetti
The Adventure of Guille and Belinda
On the Sixth Day