A well-traveled photographer, Viviana Peretti is now based in New York and still likes to shoot analogue. Read on to find out more about her philosophy towards photography, what her favorite film is and to see a gallery of her impressive Holga photography.
You grew up in Colombia, have lived in Rome and now live in New York, what aspects of each place influences your work the most?
Actually, I grew up in Italy and spent the first 28 years of my life in Europe. Then in 2000 I moved to Colombia and lived there almost ten years. A lot of people told me that looking at my pictures nobody could doubt that I’m Italian. They talk about a neo-realistic way to see and photograph life and its small, sometimes apparently insignificant details and aspects. Colombia helped me to understand what I really wanted to do with my life and in part allow me to free myself from what I should have done as an anthropologist. I also learned many things (technical ones and less technical ones) about how you can use photography to express yourself. New York gave me the strength and security to do what I really want to do with my work also if in some way it tried to impose a kind of photography on me that I’m sure I don’t want to pursue.
You studied anthropology, what made you transition into photography?
Photography and film always fascinated me but I wanted to have a humanistic background in order to have the ability to analyze and understand reality, instead to run behind stories without knowing why. I didn’t want to be just a shooter that jumps from an assignment to another assignment in order to get published. Twelve years ago I got a scholarship for a Ph.D. in Anthropology in Colombia and – thanks to reasons of public policy – the Ph.D. turned into two years spent in the darkroom at the University. Since then I never stopped taking pictures.
What aspects of anthropology and photography do you think go hand in hand?
In both disciplines there is the effort to understand the “other” in order to understand us. The effort to discover and understand what doesn’t belong to our culture and system of values in order to better understand our ones. I always saw my photography as a form of self-discovering and self-representation even if I don’t take self-portraits. But I’m in my images with my past, my struggles, my joys, my way to surf life. Most of my work is street photography and there is always the wrong assumption that street photography is about places where the photographer is just a kind of tourist with more sophisticated cameras. I think there is nothing more wrong than that. I discover and photograph a new or old place with all my baggage, not only my cultural and photographic one, but also my emotional baggage. The New York that I photographed during the last three years is not the city that many strangers and New Yorkers know.
Many of your photographs are analogue, what role does film play in your career? To what extent do you use it professionally?
I started photography in 2000 and I spent five years photographing with analogue cameras, processing film and printing in the darkroom. Then in 2005, for editorial and economic reasons I switched to digital. At that time I was still living in Colombia where it was hard getting to find film and paper to print. The only lab that was processing color slides in Bogota, stopped to do it and part of my work there was in color so I decided to start using digital cameras. When I arrived in New York in 2009 to study at ICP, I decided to go back to black and white and analogue. I love the poetry to be in the darkroom and print my photos by myself. Also, shooting film makes me slow down a lot, to think before taking a photo, to become either more selective during the shooting and not later in the post-production.
To use analogue photography professionally is really hard, especially outside the US where there are still some great photographers shooting film on assignment. In my case it depends, I generally shoot what I want and in the way I want (analogue) and then I pitch the series or story with some media and until now it seems to work. If a newspaper asks me to do an assignment for them, generally everything is so fast that there is no time to think about shooting it analogue.
In an age of digital photography, what makes you keep shooting film?
I like the materiality of analogue photography: to possess negatives instead of files. I also find black and white digital photography extremely fake and artificial, unable to reproduce the quality of black and white analogue images: their grain, tonality, and contrast.
What camera(s) do you use most often for your shoots?
I have a Canon EOS 3000, a Canon EOS 3000V, a Hasselblad XPan, a Diana F and a Holga. For street photography I use the two Canon together with the XPan. In the last months I used the Holga camera a lot.
If you had to shoot with one film for the rest of your career, which would it be and what makes it so special?
TX400 most of the times pushed to 1600 ISO, especially for indoor series and night scenes. I love it for its grain and for being really contrasted with deep blacks but also a great variety of grays. I found most of the other films really flat where the blacks are not really blacks and the overall scene is almost always washed out, also using the same developing process that I use with the TX400.
Your subject matters range from catacomb dwellers to civil unrest, how do you decide which projects to pursue?
As I said, I love street photography. I respond to places by taking pictures; I love to discover a new city walking around without a plan or photographic target. How the city feels to me and how I feel in the city; what surprise me; what gives me different emotions; what language a new place and its human soul speaks, these are the only things that matter when I’m out taking pictures. Sometimes from this first exploration and response to a new place, other photographic plans come that generally end in a series about some specific aspect of a place, city or community.
When I arrived in NY, I didn’t plan to shoot in black and white or go back to analog photography after years shooting digital and mostly in color, but once again it was something that came to me as an obvious response to this city and my life in it. Octavio Paz used to say that “reality is more real in black and white” and for me NY is more true in black and white, with its concrete, pavements and skyscrapers and without the distraction of the color that makes it looks so glamorous and fake, the set of a movie devoid of reality. From my first explorations of the city came out the idea to do a long-term project on religious communities in NY.
Since I arrived in Colombia, I saw the cemeteries as a metaphor of the country, its violence, contrasts, injustice but also its magic realism. The mystic aura surrounding cemeteries, in Colombia melts away, making space for a cumbersome reality. It seems as if chaos, lack of sanitation, fake flowers or bars that protect the tombstones from thefts, demystifies death and makes it more humane. As if between the land of the living ones and the one of the dead there were no separation, the separation perceived in Europe and the U.S. In Colombia, each of the two lands is ruled by an absolute, maddening and surrealistic lack of rules.
Generally in all my projects there is always a humanistic interest/reflection that can be previous to the visual one.
Whether you are following shooting and editorial on a cigar store or documenting religion (as in “Babel, the Urge to Pray”), your work tells a very cohesive story. How do you create a narrative with images? Do you have a specific process or do you simply shoot until you feel you have enough material?
I just shoot until I realize I’m taking pictures that I already took during the previous shooting of the project. In that moment I realize that the work is over. I always try to avoid applying formulas to tell stories. It seems to me that most editorial, but also documentary work in many countries looks the same: same kind of shoot, same grammar, and the same way to frame the subject.
You have worked with prestigious media such as The New York Times, CNN, BBC and New York Magazine. How did you start your professional career?
I am taking photographs since 2000 and things just worked out. I generally produce work and then pitch with media and sometimes they publish it. I don’t think there is a path or a formula; the best way is keep working in order to get better every day. I consider being a photographer like being an athlete. You have to train every day in order to improve and hopefully reach a higher level.
Can you tell us about the process for an editorial assignment? How does it work and how long does a project typically take?
I just got one a couple of weeks ago by The New York Times. It was a small business in Queens, NY, where a family owns an Indian Bridal Boutique. The photo editor called me on Friday night asking if I wanted to shoot it the next day and I did it spending the afternoon in the boutique. But generally this is not how I work; I prefer to find and shoot my stories and then propose them to media. In this way I shoot what I want and keep working on personal projects while I support myself.
What is your advice for someone starting out as a professional in your field?
Work, work and work! And be serious and demanding with yourself.
Please share a trick of yours that will always result in a great photo.
I don’t think I have tricks but my suggestion could be to be patient, preview what is going to happen and learn to see the light.
Lastly, do you have any new projects coming up? Anything we should watch out for?
I will be in Colombia for few months and I’m excited about going back to a country that gave me so much on a personal and professional level. I’m thinking about a project to represent an unpredictable country and a weird but fascinating city like Bogota where I spent almost a decade.
The series included in this article is called “Hanging out with Holga.” This is what Viviana has to say about these pictures: “I started taking pictures with a Diana F two years ago. A friend of mine gave me her camera challenging me to do something with it. I liked the unpredictability of the camera and later I started to take photos with a Holga that seems to allow a better control than the Diana F. I use to bring the camera everywhere, for being light and easy to carry around. The series Hanging out with Holga is the product of my excursions in New York, as well as an extension of my previous work Desperate Intentions. It represents the effort to show “how life feels in this city” with its joys but also its despair.”
You want to hear more from professional photographers? Check out the other interviews in our Meet the Pros series.