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Javier Alejandro Cerrada was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1988, based in Berlin since 2014.
When he was five his grandmother was diagnosed Alzheimer Disease. Since then, he knew that there was always the genetic possibility to start forgetting everything. He got his first camera at 7, a spy-toy camera with 110 film and no flash. Starting from there, till today, he never stopped taking pictures.
He went to university and started working with fashion/lifestyle magazines and sport newspapers as a graphic designer and eventually art director, but never as photographer. He kept taking photographs, but as a diary, as an obsession to keep track on places, people and moments. At this point he was shooting with a Regula Picca C, 35mm film, which his great uncle left to him after he passed away. During that time, his interaction with photography was very private and emotional. Shooting from bucolic landscapes, portraits of friends in intimate moments or snapshots of emotions.
Javier started to be more selective with what appears in the viewfinder. Without noticing he became an observant and student of the tropical light. He began to research more actively, an artistic point of view of visual capacities and the power of the camera. He became obsessed with the work of painter, Armando Reveron and wanted to imitate his appreciation for the light. Painters are now his first approach to photography. After learning that great impressionist masters used photographic techniques to aid their paintings he grew an absolute sense in connecting both mediums.
After moving to Berlin, his photographs quickly became impregnated with the celebration of the barbaric, crazy fun city, in combination with his sensibility for light. He started shooting much quicker and developed a photographic incontinence. At this point for the first time he saw photography not only as a personal hobby to cope with anxiety but more as a life long labor for the ones that really want to see. From this moment on he decided to make film photography his life’s work, medium of expression and a tool for him to investigate the world as he sees it.
What Prompted the move to Berlin and how has the experience been so far?
In 2011 was working on the “Cannibal Nature” exhibition of Venezuelan artist Jorge Pizzani. Back then I had been involved in short documentaries for various artists and I needed to come to Berlin for an exhibition virtually overnight. I fell in love with the city instantly, and by the time the first week was over, I knew I had to come back for good, or at least make Berlin a constant. It was absolutely a sense of that feeling of “being in the right place in the right time”. So when I had to go back to Caracas to finish university, I found myself learning German and saving the money I made to relocate.
This then happened in 2014, when I was able to leave while Venezuela was starting to fall apart. The first year in exile was by far the most difficult – the cultural shock was still fresh. Now, after 5 years of habitualization, I would say I’ve gotten the hang of it. I believe that this journey equipped me with enough perspective to really reflect on a concept and my reaction toward it, far more than I could have imagined, should I have stayed in Caracas. I was forced to confront my self image in such facetted and radical ways, that it allowed me to also challenge the world around me and further my development as an artist. I really love to search for proof of theory, that when a door closes, or everything seems to be lost, another portal opens and something or someone shows up to change the plan. Berlin is an exciting melting pot, where human beings from every part of the world come to be together, eager to exchange and share life experiences. This also means it can be a very time warping experience; 6 months in Berlin can feel like 6 days somewhere else.
You shoot primarily analogue? And why?
I shoot almost exclusively on film, the only exception is when I am doing scannographs, where the output is digital. Other than that I just love to shoot on 35mm. I think this stems from the fact that I started taking photographs from a very young age, back when there were no digital cameras. Even before I saw a digital camera fo the first time, I already liked having film negatives in my hand. I fell in love with the alchemic characteristics of the analog process, creating an art object from instant reality. I think digital cameras are lacking this, in as far as that you capture an image that is generated as electronic data and it only becomes complete at the moment of printing. The way I understand this process, it is far less organic and more abstract, detached from the natural word.
There is a certain external pressure I’ve encountered to emphasise digital, but I see analogue photography as an artistic craft personal to me that I want to preserve. Photography is very often described as painting with light, and in that sense I feel comfortable using cameras with film where the result is expressed in grain rather than pixel. That being said, I understand that they are both a form of technique, just like water-colouring is technique to a painter. However, I do not think digital and analog photography see eye-to-eye in terms of integrity and pureness.
You moved to Berlin from Venezuela, how was growing up there? How did you experience the country changing in the time you were there?
I am the youngest in a family of 5. My parents are both scientist and also very spiritual. From a young age they granted me a lot of independence. When I was a baby, my parents believed it was important to pass on their love of the sea onto me. Living in Venezuela, this meant taking trips to nature at every opportunity, most often to the coast, of which I have very fond memories. So, even thought most of my academic life and career developed in metropolitan Caracas, my second home was right by the beach. Venezuela is just so unbelievably beautiful, the nature is unlike anywhere else in the world, which is why it is so heart breaking to see so many people being unfairly treated, suffering in such a paradise, as result of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Tropicalipsis: growing up I experienced a very economically prosperous time for my country. A prosperity that was built on a large socio-economic wealth gap. When the revolution began in 1999, many promises of change were made. However 21 years later, fact is that this was an untruthful scheme generated by a pseudo left-wing organisation, to implement their corrupted agendas. When Chavez died, he left the country in the worst state imaginable. His politics have destroyed the future of generations, now there are children growing up in starvation, impoverished living conditions, zero healthcare, fear for their life, and resulting criminality and violence. The worst thing is, those in control still prefer to keep perpetuating an entirely senseless totalitarian ideology by using the cult over Chavez’ dead body.
Right up until high school, I still remember how normal it was to expect every protest to turn into a deadly riot. Before I was 18, I knew that human lives and the rights of the people mean absolutely nothing to the oppressors. I still deeply relate to all the countless women, children, and men that have lost their lives in the violent outbreaks of a freedom-less dictatorship. To stay living in Venezuela eventually felt like waiting to be accidentally killed or put in jail. I’ve heard it all. For instance, I’ve seen heartbreaking video material of thirteen year old girls standing and waiting at gas stations being forced into prostitution and rape so that their families do not starve.
Another issue is that it is very difficult to help if you are far away. One of the biggest disappointments is that there is no international help, although this would go a long way in solving some of the problems. Those of us in exile can only watch our beautiful nature and proud cities being destroyed. You might have already discovered that a lot of Venezuelans are too overwhelmed to even talk about the political and economical situation: the trauma the revolution has left behind is so heavy that were not yet aware of its full extent. We just don’t seem to know what to do. Things have been this way for so long, it has become hard to remain hopeful for peace. The time and lives that were taken away by this oppression, not only from our generation but also from the ones to follow, I can’t imagine it.
Whats your process for thinking up concepts for shoots?
I think my body of work plays a lot with the idea of intentions. For instance, some pictures are done intuitively, simply as a reaction to the given situation. So I save these moments, and later catalogue them, until I sense there is enough to create a concept or series. On the other hand, I also love picking up photo shoots that require a process of thought and preparation too. In both of the ways I work, there is a creative energy that I tend to flow with.
It always starts with a mood. I begin by thinking about the reactions that I want to get from the viewer. Do I want to make them smile, to come closer? Do I want them to feel intimidated or simply intrigue them? Once I know this, I go to look for symbolic elements; what is the visual value of an action or an object? What colour evokes a certain emotion? What it is the most simple way of representing something? And so on. Hereby I am already scanning my visual memory, remembering what experiences I can draft from. This is where my references play an important role: such as the artists I like, what piece of art spoke to to me visually or emotionally, what books I am currently inspired by? Or even just the memories of places or people I associate with the given intention. Once there are enough elements to play with, I know there is a story.
As I love to mention, there is a strong component of storytelling in my work. The stories range from mundane acts like closing ones eyes while dancing, or humorous struggles like cutting yourself while peeling an avocado, all the way to uncomfortable political subjects like rape or abortion. I believe that my inspirations come through my own feelings and reactions, and from the process of trying to understand them. More often than not, there is a discrepancy between what I feel and what I say: It is more interesting to me when there is a conflict because this creates an opportunity to show more levels of the same story, at a point where contradictions meet.
To us, you have quite an emotional attachment to photography, since picking it up what makes you keep shooting?
I keep shooting because I have to. At times in life all I really did was work to afford more film, which I would buy before buying food. A serious case of photographic incontinence. When I was very young I was scare of the Alzheimer disease and I started taking pictures to make sure I would remember. It became a compulsion, I couldn’t stop, and so eventually it became a cathartic and healing form of self therapy. Whenever emotions or situations became too difficult to handle, I found comfort in taking pictures. I was too anxious to be bored. When I took pictures it felt like a chain of explosions. This had become my life so, I think that whatever I might do in the future, you will almost certainly find me with a camera close to my hand.
Beside of using photography as a tool for self-help, the photographic act for me is strongly linked to my visceral feelings regarding self expression: It is not about showing something that everyone deems beautiful but rather to show something that is truthful and evocative.
Is there something specific you try to get across in your work? Is there a feeling you are trying to portray visually?
It evolves over time. Ten years ago I was drawn to the refection of natural light and I began by trying to photograph the spectrum of sunlight. For instance, how the light would bounce off the concrete floor of a skate park at 2 pm, or how darkness of a mountain’s shadow against a purple sky appears at 6:30 pm. Those moments would look like paintings to me.
About seven years ago my style changed. I started to take pictures at events, parties, or outings with friends, experimenting with smaller flashes and their effect on colour. I began making more experimental photography, doubling exposure time or making animations with 3D analog cameras.
Moving to Berlin has allowed me to create more of my own stories, it brought about the first memories of my persona and style becoming apparent to me. Through this, I am now able to prepare shootings and make great collaborations with other artists, knowing where I stand, and on my terms – something I could not have done ten years ago. I still constantly carry a camera with me: keeping my journal on hand allows me to save even short little elements, to tell stories of adventures that can then be understood and transformed into series.
I make yearly calendars of my snapshot journals is – the intention behind the calendars, which I have been self-publishing since two years, is to exclusively use pictures from my journal – snapshots beyond imagination, which become visual reminders of a much bigger story. I.
In the past I have also seen and used photography as a medium of political statement, and my approach within that context has been provocation. I found it immensely interesting to look at the sentimental source of the provocation in different contexts: Does it come from anger, lust, desire, love, or the absence of such? This is my current inspiration when working on commission.
Was Berlin always the place to move to for you or was there other contenders before you committed?
When it was suddenly time to leave, there was no time to explore other options. All I knew with certainty was that I wanted to leave Latin America. I knew that moving to another country in the same continent would ultimately mean that the same problems return. Anyway, there is a Chinese proverb I love, it goes “A frog in a well cannot conceive of the ocean.”
But for some reason I alway fantasised of living in Berlin. When the situation in Venezuela became increasingly dangerous, I knew that I would have to start over somewhere unknown. When you’re faced with such a decision, and are lucky enough to choose where you want to go, what you really need to look out for is what a city can provide you with long term. This pressure is on all areas of your life.
I really liked the way things are done in Berlin. Its a bridge between eastern and western Europe. It is famous for being a very controversial and modern city. Or a place where new life out of death is celebrated. For a city that can account for being a capital headquarter that has executed amongst the most horrible war crimes in human history, it is now equally a testimony of transformation. Now that Venezuela is going through the most difficult period in recent generations, to me Berlin appears as an even stronger beacon and inspiration of what a city should represent for people like me.
To other photographers looking to make a big move what would your advise to them be?
I think big moves, whether you are a photographer or not, are very exciting. It is almost impossible not to go “epic adventure” with everything when you’re planning a trip. This is ideal because a huge part of photography means being continuously curious about the world and it can help you to create a narrative out of a naive perspective. Through photography I not only discovered that new layers exists within everything, I had also learned that there is a unique joy in first time experiences. Places become playgrounds and it feels adventurous to take in what you see, whether you are going from restaurants, to bars, or to different areas. How you perceive novel things shapes who you are; the first night out, or the first anniversary, or the first time you are doing a job. Somehow but definitely, a new moment brings an opportunity to merge reinvention with confirmation, it offers the opportunity to reset yourself, to be fully open to the experience of the space you are occupying.That being said, a big move can also be very much related to pain, such as in the case of refuge migration.
What trials and tribulations have you faced since moving from Venezuela and have they impacted your work?
Living and working in Europe gives me plenty of space to keep shooting in analog. If I was still living in Venezuela I think the cost of the films and process would have been limiting. My recent work is a product of the benefits of living in very artistic city. Also I feel ongoing support by my friends and family, which makes me want to continue what I do.
My parents still live in Venezuela and a few friends as well, its very sad and hard to explain how it feels to know that after I left, life in Caracas has not progressed and society is becoming more desperate and corrupt. Last year I learned to start using this subject in photography as a form of catharsis. I had being able to work on this creating a little series where I try to deal with the impotence of seeing you country falling apart from the distance.
Since I moved here, I think my work started to be less atmospheric and instead more social. Looking at people, or the trace of people, and photographing them in their every day life. I becoming more conscious about the politically sensitive weight that a photograph can carry. It’s life-giving, to be interested in universally human subjects like lust, love, body or freedom. So of course I deeply believe there is also beauty in low-life between the mischief and mystery. I’ve just had my recent work in mind., where I’m still trying to figure out how to approach this subject.
Whats are your favourite things about the city your living in now, and how can others experience them?
Last year I went to Roger Mellis exhibition “Die Ostdeutschen”, then it started to make sense. In Berlin you see how realities melt everywhere, how time races, how everything is constantly changing. Everyone here has heard people complain: how Berlin is changing…. not what it used to be… and so on. These accusations made by the older generations about the current future has been intensely discussed in ancient greek philosophy.
I guess what fascinates me are moments. For example, you see junkies everywhere, and at the same time that you see a young hipster family strolling their baby, everything always happens very casually. You get used to being casual seeing very different situations happening at the same time. To this day, I find these Berin-moment scenes endearing and funny. Its like a very particular magical realism of Berlin. Is not for everybody as well, and can be also exhausting but one of the best qualities of living here is the facility to also go some where else. Berlin is very much a “ubergang” city, where everybody is temporary. You can be live here and work somewhere else.
What can we expect to see from you in 2020?
In 2020 I want to keep developing my language, I would love to do more scanography. I find very interesting the proximity that the scan gives you, like creating little visual secrets where you can add a lot of detail and really go into the abstract. I want to learn more on how to create little stories using this tool.
Also, I would love to prepare more shows, and frankly to get my work seen more. I want to keep experimenting with different printing techniques and framings. I think it will be really good for the art piece, to bring an interesting display for the image. There are so many formats, materials and techniques that can elevate a photo. Since I started to show my art, it has become important to me to try and remain open to how others perceive my work.
Where can we find you online?